First Draft Follies: Mendocino Brewing, 1982-1983

Newsflash: pot farmers are a mainstay of Mendocino County, California.

Except it's not news to me. In the 1960s, the region attracted back-to-the-landers, many of whom are still devoted to transforming counterculture into mainstream culture.

But the news report inspires this edition of First Draft Follies, an ongoing series here at the blog. This edition recounts of the founding of Mendocino Brewing.

As always, the material is presented "as is" from the first draft of the manuscript that became the book Ambitious Brew. In a few places I added one or two words in brackets -- [like this] -- for clarification. This excerpt from the first draft picks up just as Jack McAuliffe has closed New Albion, the nation's first brewpub.

(Tip o' the mug to David Fahey at the Alcohol & Drugs History Society's Daily Register for the link to the pot farming article.)


The [Jack] McAuliffe/[Ken] Grossman model [of using scrap material to build microbreweries] inspired most of the first craft brewers, but in the early eighties, two other entrepreneurial structures emerged as well. (*1)

Michael Laybourn and Norman Franks pioneered the combination of craft brewing and American-style pub. Like other craft brewers, the pair practiced homebrewing, and like so many others, dreamed of earning a living making beer. They visited New Albion, talked to McAuliffe, tasted his beer, and left inspired by McAuliffe’s advice and encouragement. They also listened when McAuliffe warned them of the Catch-22, and Laybourn and Franks understood that the retail side of brewing posed more dangers than anything that might infect the brewvat’s contents.

They shaped their own plans accordingly, using the new California law that permitted brewers to retail their beer on site. The trio envisioned a brewery with an attached tavern and garden where people could drink quality beer and enjoy life in general and the California lifestyle in particular.

The location, Hopland, California, about sixty miles north of Sonoma in Mendocino County, proved an inspired choice to build the brewery. Mendocino County was populated by a mix of ranching families who raised cattle and horses, winemakers, and “lots of hippies,” courtesy of a “tremendous migration of back-to-the-landers.” (*2)

The once thriving hops industry had all but vanished in the two decades after World War II, but in recent years, Fetzer Winery had established operations in the county, including a wine tasting room in the old high school in Hopland. T

he town itself was tiny--just a few hundred people--but it sat on Highway 101, the ribbon of road that runs from Los Angeles north to the Oregon border. Every day, twelve to thirteen thousand cars zoomed past.

The perfect location for a place where wine afficianados and tourists, hippies and ranchers, farmers and winemakers could gather to eat and drink, listen to music and dance. A new generation’s version of the pleasure gardens owned by the German émigrés of yesteryear.

Laybourn and Franks wrote a prospectus and shopped the idea in and around the area. Laybourn knew a few people and they introduced him to more: A veterinarian, some doctors, farmers with century-old roots in the area and “money buried in [their] backyards.” Don Barkley’s parents invested. (*3)

The partners, a trio once John Scahill joined the venture, leased a hundred-year-old structure that fronted the highway. A century earlier, the building housed the Hop Vine Saloon, then a butcher shop, and, at the time Fetzer leased it to the partners, an antiques store. They built the brewery out back, choosing a design modeled after a hop kiln.

By that time, New Albion had failed. The Mendocino partners, who had no illusions about their brewing skills, bought McAuliffe’s equipment and hired Jack and Don to operate the brewery.

Mendocino Brewing’s beer traced its ancestry to McAuliffe’s hearty ale and to the “Thunder Beer” that Laybourn and Franks used to brew for their friends. As for the name, the owners wanted something that paid homage to the time and place. They settled on Red Tail Ale, in part because ofhe beer was “sort of reddish” in color. (*4) But the main inspiration came from a song much loved by northern Californians, “The Redtail Hawk,” a simple hymn to the “golden rolling hills” of California, where the redtail hawk “writes songs across the sky.” (*5)

The peregrine falcon, a more “delicate bird,” served as namesake for their second beer, a “golden, delicate ale.” (*6) An image of a black hawk adorned bottles of the brewery’s stout, and Blue Heron, a hoppy spring beer, honored a nearby preserve for that bird.

The labels, vivid ovals of color and life, depicted their respective creatures with wings spread in triumphant salute. The “joint was packed” when Laybourn and the others opened to the public on August 14, 1983. (*7) California’s first brewpub was in business. A new heart for an old community. A beer garden and brewhouse such as to warm the heart of Phillip and Jacob Best. (*8)


Sources: *1: Jack McAulliffe is credited with founding the nation's first microbrewery. The most substantive account of that event is in Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer.

*2: Don Barkley interview with Maureen Ogle, May 8, 2005.

*3: Barkley interview

*4: Daniel Bradford, “Mendocino’s Hopland Brewery,” New Brewer 4, no. 1 (January-February 1987): 21.

*5: “The Redtail Hawk,” music and lyrics by George Schroder, XXXX.

*6: Daniel Bradford, “Mendocino’s Hopland Brewery,” New Brewer 4, no. 1 (January-February 1987): 21.

*7: Ibid., 22.

*8: The Best brothers founded a Milwaukee brewery in 1844; it eventually became Pabst Brewing Co.