Jack McAuliffe lends inspiration during special brew day at Fossil Cove

Jack McAuliffe with FLOPS members and the Fossil Cove crew / Photo: Brian Sorensen

Fossil Cove Brewing Co. recently partnered with a local homebrew club to brew a special batch of beer with a very special guest.

The collaborative beer brewed by the Fayetteville Lovers of Pure Suds (more commonly referred to as “FLOPS”) and Fossil Cove was modeled on a barleywine originally brewed by craft beer pioneer Jack McAuliffe at New Albion Brewing Co. in the late 1970s. His was called “Old Toe Sucker” and was made to celebrate the Summer Solstice.

It was McAuliffe who jumpstarted the modern craft beer movement when he founded New Albion in Sonoma, California in 1976. He inspired countless brewers with his pale ale, porter, and stout — all oddities in that particular era of American beer. Unfortunately, he was ahead of his time and unable to turn a profit. McAuliffe brewed his final batch of New Albion beer in 1982.

Fast forward to today and McAuliffe is living right here in Northwest Arkansas. He has been in the Siloam Springs area for several years, having followed his sister to the region to build an off-the-grid house on her land. He used to make appearances at Tanglewood Branch Beer Co. in south Fayetteville, and he is still known to favor Creekside Taproom in Siloam. But at 76 years old and in declining health, he doesn’t get out as much as he once did.

Sean Slape of Crisis Brewing Co. and Keith Linn of FLOPS talk with Jack McAuliffe / Photo: Brian Sorensen

FLOPS member Keith Linn of Rogers thought it would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for club members to have McAuliffe in attendance on brew day. So, he reached out through mutual connections and secured the brewing pioneer’s commitment to join them.

The original idea was for the club to brew McAuliffe’s barleywine and age it in a bourbon barrel. However, typical batches of homebrew are 5-10 gallons. Since a barrel holds 53 gallons, it was a bit of a logistical challenge for the club.

“We were going to have someone brew the wort for us,” said Linn. “Or maybe the club might brew small individual batches and fill the barrel together. But then Ben [Mills of Fossil Cove] was gracious enough to work with us on the project.”

Fossil Cove currently brews down the road from its main taproom in midtown Fayetteville, in the former home of Lyn D’s Cajun Gypsy. Its 20-barrel brewhouse makes a lot of beer per batch, so what started out as a small-scale homebrew project suddenly turned into a bigger and more interesting endeavor.

“It’s really cool for guys in the club who’ve never brewed on a scale like this,” Linn said. “You throw in the history behind the recipe and Jack being here. It’s just an awesome opportunity.”

A dozen or more members of FLOPS were in attendance, along with a few brewery personnel and assorted others on brew day. McAuliffe arrived around 10 a.m., shortly after the wort was drained from the mash. He stationed himself in front of the brewhouse, and people gathered around to have an exchange.

Ben Mills being interviewed by Basic Brewing Radio’s James Spencer / Photo: Brian Sorensen

His remarks were fairly limited due to his health, but he said a few short words about his inspiration for making beer (“God” and “Scotland”), and he shared a laugh with the crowd regarding the origins of the Old Toe Sucker name (you can Google it if you care to know more).

I spoke to McAuliffe’s daughter, Renée DeLuca, via phone a few days after brew day. She said her father’s health may be declining, but he’s still a sharp man, and one she has enjoyed getting to know over the past 20 years.

DeLuca was adopted as an infant by another couple and didn’t know the identity of her biological parents until much later in life. After tracking them down, she learned of McAuliffe’s history with beer, and she was instantly smitten with his story.

In 2011 she traveled with him to the Great American Beer Festival in Denver, Colorado and through a mutual acquaintance was able to introduce him to Boston Beer Co. founder Jim Koch. Boston Beer went on to produce a short run of New Albion-branded beer and gave the proceeds to McAuliffe, which is what he used to build his home in Siloam Springs.

“He really likes the area,” DeLuca said of Northwest Arkansas. “They’re really good to him at Creekside [Taproom in Siloam]. He’s happy in Siloam Springs and that’s probably where he’ll live out the rest of his life.”

McAuliffe passed the rights to the New Albion brand to DeLuca, and she recently partnered with Brew Dog in her hometown of Cleveland to relaunch New Albion Ale in cans. Other styles brewed under the New Albion banner are in the works, though distribution will be limited and likely won’t include Arkansas.

Jack McAuliffe holding a can of New Albion Ale, now being produced by Brew Dog in Cleveland / Photo: Brian Sorensen

As for the FLOPS-Fossil Cove version of McAuliffe’s barleywine, Fossil Cove owner Ben Mills said there will be plenty to be had in his taproom.

“We’re doing a 14-barrel batch,” he said. “We were originally going to do a full 20 barrels, but there’s so much grain involved I was concerned about hitting our target gravity. There’s still going to be a lot of barleywine, don’t worry.”

Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. brewed a version of Old Toe Sucker in 2010 as a part of its 30th anniversary lineup of specialty beers. Sierra Nevada brewers took meticulous notes on what they called Jack & Ken’s Ale (Ken Grossman is Sierra Nevada’s founder and a longtime friend of McAuliffe’s).

FLOPS was able to obtain those notes, which were shared with the team at Fossil Cove. Mills said they stayed faithful to the recipe, and they hit all their targets on brew day.

“It will be very similar from a technical standpoint,” he said. “But there might be some subtle flavor differences due to hop differences year-to-year and changes in terroir, and things like that.”

What people can expect is a big beer. Something north of 10% ABV, very dark in color, with big hop character (80 IBUs), and a clean fermentation from the American ale yeast.

Barleywine is a robust style of beer, and certainly not one for the faint of heart. They are considered slow sippers and are very satisfying for those who favor complex flavors.

The plan is to finish this batch in barrels. The beer should be ready to pour in the Fossil Cove taproom in about six months. Mills said he will give McAuliffe all proceeds over cost.

“We’ve never really done a beer collaboration before,” he said. “So, to do our first with FLOPS and Jack is really fun. And with Jack living in the area, it’s nice to get him here so we can learn from him.”

Fossil Cove assistant brewer Scott Manamon summed up the day nicely: “It’s wild getting to meet a craft brewing icon. And to be making one of his recipes is humbling, for sure.”

This article is sponsored by First Security Bank. For more great stories of Arkansas food, travel, sports, music and more, visit onlyinark.com.