Brewing a Revolution
Beginning in the 1980s, “micro”—eventually called “craft”—breweries spread throughout the country. Early brewers struggled to secure financing, source ingredients at a small scale, and persuade lawmakers, distributors, retailers, and consumers to give their beer a chance. By the early 2000s, small breweries had grown to challenge the total dominance of large breweries. In the space of a generation, craft brewing changed the way many Americans brewed and consumed beer, positioning American beer at the global vanguard of stylistic and entrepreneurial innovation.
Jack McAuliffe learned how to homebrew during U.S. Navy service in Scotland. Following his return to the United States in 1968, McAuliffe envisioned something unique: a small brewery, built from the ground up. With advice from UC Davis Professor Michael Lewis, McAuliffe and collaborators Suzy Stern and Jane Zimmerman opened New Albion Brewing Company in a warehouse in Sonoma, California, in 1976. Despite its “micro” size and short lifespan—the brewery closed in 1982—New Albion had an outsized impact on American beer, showing others what a new American brewing industry might look like.
Entering a beer market dominated by longtime producers like Anheuser-Busch, Jack McAuliffe wanted to give his upstart brewery a historical air. He chose the name “New Albion,” using a Latin descriptor for England. The accompanying logo recalled Sir Francis Drake’s 1579 landing on the California coast near the future site of McAuliffe’s brewery.
New Albion beer bottle, around 1981
New Albion beer plaque, 2017
A Place at the Table for American Beer
In the 1970s and 1980s, Northern California became a hotbed of growth for brewing. The region’s dairies and wineries supplied equipment that brewers repurposed. Anchor and New Albion brewing companies and UC Davis provided practical and intellectual inspiration. And the culinary ferment of California Cuisine cultivated consumers eager for innovation in the glass as well as on the plate. Brewers of the era showed that American beer deserved a place at the table, too.
[I]n order to survive at our scale we had to brew something that had . . . unique character.
Homebrewers learning to scale up to professional standards improved by keeping careful records, as in this early Sierra Nevada Brewing Company log. When the brewery’s Pale Ale debuted in 1981, many consumers rejected it as too bitter. Nevertheless, the beer initiated a craving for American hops and would become an icon of the early “craft” era.
Sierra Nevada beer label, 1981
Sierra Nevada label featuring the Sierra Nevada mountain range that inspired the company’s name, 1981
DIY American Beer
It was no coincidence that new breweries flourished in pockets of the West, Northwest, and New England, where the 1960s counterculture and 1970s do-it-yourself culture had thrived. Small brewers imbued their businesses with a strong sense of individuality, in defiance of corporate culture of the day. Their breweries—and beers—reflected their varied experiences and personal interests, be those international travel, an affinity for science, or a dedication to environmentalism.
Boulder Brewing guest book, 1980–1984
Boulder Brewing Company, now Boulder Beer Company, had humble roots. Its founders brewed in a shed and built these wood crates to store their beer. The arrival of microbrewed beer to Colorado excited the beer world, whose luminaries flocked to sample Boulder’s work.
Boulder Brewing crate, 1979–1980
A 1988 bicycle trip to Belgian breweries and bars, chronicled in this journal, inspired Jeff Lebesch to bring Belgian brewing techniques to Colorado. Lebesch and Kim Jordan started New Belgium Brewing Company in their home basement in 1991. For a time, this milk can stored brewer’s yeast.
Milk can, 1993–1995
Custom bicycle tire, 2005
Being able to create a business model that is sustainable and enduring. . . . . [W]e are fortunate that beer is the vehicle that allowed us to get here.
A New "Third Place"
Small brewers changed where and how many Americans drank beer. Brewpubs—an early 1980s innovation—functioned as informal gathering places that united producers with consumers and invited the community into the brewery. In this way, craft beer’s taprooms became a new kind of “third place,” in the words of a 1980s sociologist: a place for people to meet and relax that was neither the home nor the office.
Buffalo Bill’s sidewalk sign, 1983
Buffalo Bill’s menu board, 1987
This sidewalk sign announced to passersby in 1983 that Buffalo Bill’s Brewery—a new “brewpub”—was open for business. Inside, beer flowed from a lineup of taps at the bar. The menu board reflected a shift in American beer culture, displaying beers that were imported, locally made, and brewed on-site. When it came to beer, consumers now had a choice among styles, flavors, and breweries.
Tap handles from Buffalo Bill’s bar, 1983–1994