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Craft Beer Review: New Albion Ale

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New Albion Ale

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I've been reading some books sent me for review, which I mean to one day incorporate into a Gift Guide. One of them is The Audacity of Hops: the History of America's Craft Beer Revolution by Tom Acitelli. A full description will come someday, but for our purposes, Acitelli goes into detail about the first commercial small craft brewer, New Albion.

Started in Sonoma, CA, 1976 by Jack McAuliffe, although actual production began the next year, New Albion Ale was, by today's standards, a simple recipe of standard brewer's Two-Row Malt, the only brewing barley available. But it also had a big dose of Cascade hops, the recently introduced varietal with the piney, citrusy flavor that was first used in Anchor's Liberty Ale.

New Albion Ale was soon discovered and proclaimed one of America's best beers by critics and serious beer drinkers alike. Despite McAuliff being known as a pioneer of craft brewing, New Albion was never able to round up the financing it needed to expand and stay competitive, closing instead in 1982.

McAuliff resisted getting back into brewing since, except for a collaboration with Sierra Nevada's Ken Grossman for that brewer's 30th anniversary. Meantime, Jim Koch, founder of the Boston Beer Company, had purchased the New Albion trademark in 1993, and after the Sierra Nevada collab, he finally convinced McAuliff to brew a revised version of the pale ale at one of the Sam Adams breweries. The returned New Albion debuted at the 2012 Great American Beer Festival and hit store shelves in a limited release. Afterward, Koch released the new Albion trademarks to McAuliff, and his daughter Renee is now trying to raise funds to revive the label in 2014. You can follow its progress at NewAlbionBrewing.com.

Of course I had to buy a bottle when I saw it, and shot a video review around it. Considering all the bigger, hoppier beers that have come in its wake, I was surprised to find that this beer still had a nice punch. Very pale color, like any standard pale lager, bubbles up to support a thick head. Mild hop smell. But on the tongue it’s a different story, leading off with a burst of hop bitterness. Cascade hops un-mellowed by any other flavoring hops, offering its familiar taste of pine or flowers or citrus. This does clock in at 6% alcohol by volume, similar to standard India Pale Ales, but I think the basic two-row malts are lighter than modern pale ales, so it feels more bitter.

Holds up well in these modern times, and I have to wonder what someone who discovered this back in 1976 after a lifetime of Bud would have thought. A strong hop like Cascades is usually blended with other varieties for balance, so in modern terms, this would be a "single hop" beer, meant to showcase the character of that hop. The most widely distributed example was Sam Adams "Latitude 48 Deconstructed" pack, but Cascades wasn't part of that mix.

Will this pioneering beer make a return as a standalone brand next year. All I can say is, keep watching the skies shelves.

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