A couple of weeks ago while strolling past the beer coolers at a larger Kroger, I noticed the pale blue packaging of a six-pack with a name I had only just read about, New Albion.
The New Albion Brewing Company was the country’s first microbrewery when it opened in 1976 in Sonoma, California. Anchor Brewing Company in nearby San Francisco had been in business since the 19th century; it was saved in the 1960s and eventually upgraded by Fritz Maytag. New Albion only lasted until 1982, but its manifestation proved inspirational to other potential brewers.
Sam Adams sought to pay homage to this pioneer by releasing a recreation of their flagship beer, the New Albion Ale, the very first example of what would late be called “craft beer.” To do so they used the original recipe, down to the yeast strain that was preserved in a lab at the University of California-Davis, and had New Albion founder Jack McAuliffe oversee the production of the initial batch. The first of these beers was released in late January.
I was quite curious about this piece of history and recently tasted it. An entire beer was necessary, of course. The New Albion Ale has a mild nose without much in the way of floral character, a mild flavor with a medium-length finish and pronounced home-brew taste – maybe due to the yeast – which was its defining characteristic for me. The beer is not clean-tasting, does not off much complexity, nor does it exhibit much of the citrus-laced hop bitterness associated with its successors. It is a thoroughly mediocre beer, at best. One was enough. I asked my father about it. His steady consumption is mostly Sam Adams Boston Lager and Spaten Lager and who had tested a couple before I did. “It tasted like beer, better than Budweiser,” was the assessment, more charitable than mine.
A link on Sam Adams’s website confirms our opinions (in a run-on sentence): “New Albion Ale shouldn’t be compared to what has followed, it should be celebrated for what it started over 35 years ago.” I can see why the brewery did not last.
Though the beer was not good, I applaud Sam Adams for their try at this. It proved interesting as a taste of history. Sam Adams is certainly adventurous when it comes to creating new beers. Not everything works, of course, but they keep introducing new items, most of which are very well-made, even if the recipe or the concept might not actually work.
Brewing quality beer on consistent basis is not easy thing, especially for new brewery. It is interesting to note that Sam Adams along with Brooklyn Lager, two of the more successful of the companies to open in New Albion’s wake, took a different tack. They chose to utilize the excess capacity – and professional capabilities and experience – of a long-standing brewery, F.X. Matt in Utica, New York. I remember tasting Sam Adams Boston Lager and Brooklyn Lager within the first year or so of their releases, and the beers were very good. These were a different world from this New Albion example.
Of course, their respective recipes were likely better, but it also helped to have a long-standing brewer help work out the kinks very early in the life of their flagship beers, which proved very helpful to the success of their companies.