The Soul of Modern America's First Micro

This New Year's Eve, I'm going to lift a glass to Jack McAuliffe, the man who started what many call America's first microbrewery since Prohibition. Jack and his friends deserve a toast...and a lot of credit for launching America's brewing renaissance.

While serving in the Navy, McAuliffe developed a taste for English-style ales. Back in the States, he started brewing his own versions at home. McAuliffe's friends were so impressed with his beers that he decided to sell them commercially. In 1976, he and several associates started the
New Albion Brewing Company in Sonoma, California.

Running a small brewery is no mean feat, and that was even more true in those days. New Albion operated on a shoestring for six years. During that time, Don Barkley and Michael Lovett--who also started out as homebrewers--joined the team. Legend has it that much of their pay came in the form of free beer.

In 1982, a lack of cash forced New Albion to shut down. But in the meantime, several other micros--as well as the nation's first brewpub,
Bert Grant's in Yakima, Washington--had opened. Americans were starting to rediscover good beer.

Even though New Albion is gone, its soul lives on in the small town of Hopland, where California's wine country starts giving way to redwoods. It was there that the
Mendocino Brewing Company was started, "with a lot of energy and a small amount of cash." Early on, the new brewery hired Barkley and Lovett, who brought New Albion's brewing equipment and yeast up to Hopland. According to Barkley, now Mendocino's master brewer, the original strain of New Albion yeast is still hard at work.

Mendocino opened in August 1983 as a brewpub, the state's first. A few months later, it began selling beer to go. Its "42-pound six packs," cases of six 1.5-liter magnum bottles, have become part of brewing lore. More lasting fame followed, in the form of medals awarded at the
Great American Beer Festival and the World Beer Championships, and recognition from the prestigious Beverage Tasting Institute.

>Mendocino's brewpub is on U.S. 101, Hopland's main street. It is located inside one of the town's oldest buildings, which once housed the Hop Vine Saloon. Much of the old saloon's atmosphere remains: blue-and white embossed tin walls, wooden ceilings and floors, exposed brickwork. The solid oak bar, crafted by local woodworkers, is modeled after those found in San Francisco's oldest drinking holes.

Attached to the barroom is a dining area, with booths and tables with Fifties-style place mats. There are also dartboards and a stage for performing musicians. The menu consists of homestyle pub fare, with a California influence. Next to the dining area is a gift shop where you can buy T-shirts and pint glasses, mustard made with Red Tail Ale, and, of course, beer to go.

In back is a beer garden where, on pleasant days, customers can enjoy their beer at picnic tables. Many of the tables are underneath a trellis, where hops are grown for beauty and shade. These hops, which menaced a neighbor's pear tree before they were transplanted, are the only ones grown in Hopland today. The town was named for its hop farms, but after World War II, an outbreak of mildew disease and a trend toward less-hopped beer forced the growers into other cash crops.

While its historic brewpub continues to draw a steady stream of visitors (don't forget to sign the guest book on the bar), Mendocino is a full-fledged member of craft brewing's big leagues. Operating out of new facilities in nearby Ukiah, it turns out 36,000 barrels per year and distributes into 26 states.

The year-round beers--all of which are ales--are named after local birds. Beautiful pictures of these birds appear on the packaging, which has also won awards. The lineup includes Red Tail Ale, a malty amber ale; Peregrine Pale Ale, a golden ale brewed entirely with one variety of hops, Cascade; Blue Heron Pale Ale, a hoppy beer some might consider an India pale ale; Black Hawk Stout, brewed with all the malts that go into Mendocino's other beers; and Eye of the Hawk Special Ale, a copper-colored strong ale the brewery calls "the Harley-Davidson of American beers." All are bottle-conditioned.

Mendocino Brewing also turns out several seasonal beers. This time of year, it's Yuletide Porter, a deep brown Christmas ale said to be based on the recipe for New Albion's porter. The perfect beverage for toasting Jack McAuliffe and his friends. Cheers, fellows.