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A taste of history: Old-school beer New Albion gets a new life

Jim Galligan

New Albion didn't live to see the craft beer revolution in America, but it's now been resurrected by The Boston Beer Company.

To look at its unassuming bottle, you wouldn’t know New Albion Ale is a time machine of sorts, but it very much is – a way to smell, touch and taste a seminal moment in craft beer history. 

The year was 1977, and Jack McAuliffe and his partners had just opened the doors of the New Albion Brewing Company in Sonoma, Calif.  The brewery was cobbled together from old dairy equipment, used 55-gallon Coca-Cola barrels and a rebuilt labeling apparatus from 1910.

While it wasn’t much to look at, the New Albion Brewing Company was an idea before its time – an independent facility producing interesting, flavorful beers in small amounts and distributing them to local stores and bars. Today we call such a place a microbrewery, but 35 years ago it was a groundbreaking concept.

New Albion’s beers were well received in Northern California, and soon McAuliffe had all sorts of people showing up at the brewery to see the operation first hand. 

One of these folks was a homebrew supply shop owner from Chico, Calif., named Ken Grossman.  Inspired by what he saw at New Albion – which he realized was simply a large homebrewing setup – Grossman would go on to start the Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, which today is America’s second-largest craft brewery.

Another frequent visitor to New Albion was Michael Lewis, professor of brewing at UC Davis, who used the brewery to show his students that being a professional brewer didn’t mean you had to go to work for Anheuser-Busch or the Miller Brewing Company – you could do something … craftier.

In essence, the folks at the New Albion Brewing Company were creating more than beer; they were creating a new kind of beer culture that would eventually take America by storm. In fact, a recent study found that craft beer sales have doubled between 2007 and 2012.

Unfortunately, like many revolutionaries who don’t live long enough to see the fruits of their struggle, the New Albion Brewing Company shuttered its doors in 1982 when McAuliffe couldn’t find investors who shared his vision for the future of beer in America.

Now The Boston Beer Company, makers of Samuel Adams, has decided it’s time to pay homage to Jack McAuliffe and New Albion’s legacy by recreating its flagship beer, New Albion Ale. 

McAuliffe traveled to Boston to oversee the production of the first batch, which calls for a special blend of two-row malt, closely matched to the earthy Bauer & Schweitzer malts used in the original and Cascade hops, the kind McAuliffe settled on after experimenting with several varieties as he perfected the original New Albion Ale recipe. 

Just like the preserved dinosaur DNA that was used to resurrect those pesky Velociraptors in “Jurassic Park,” the particular strain of yeast used to make New Albion Ale was preserved in a lab at the University of California and was used to revive this beer.

The result is a lovely little brew with a delicate and grassy hop nose that’s rounded out by a slight hint of clove. A sip brings a smidgeon of sweet malt, followed by a mild salvo of dry and peppery hops. The finish is clean and quite dry, and as the hops linger they are joined back by a touch of malt sweetness, leaving a pleasant aftertaste and the desire for another sip.

While it’s quite a delightful beer, New Albion Ale is downright ordinary in these days of hop bombs and barrel aged stouts.  It’s sort of like going back in time to discover that Don Juan was only 5 feet tall, or that Cleopatra had acne: your enthusiasm is momentarily tempered by the sordid details of reality, but returns quickly once you remember that you’re in the presence of a legend.

New Albion Ale shouldn’t be compared to what has followed, it should be celebrated for what it started over 35 years ago.  Each sip is a chance to taste an important part of craft beer history, and as a beer geek I feel grateful for the opportunity.

This charming Pale Ale will be distributed nationally for a limited time and retails for $7.99 a six-pack, which is quite a bit cheaper than a Delorean outfitted with a flux capacitor (and won’t result in you almost erasing your future self).

Jim Galligan is co-founder of the Beer and Whiskey Brothers blog, where he and his brother Don cover the ever-evolving world of craft beer and distilled spirits. Follow him on Twitter. 

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