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The Watering Hole in Murphys
Brewing History

Defunct Murphys brewery taps into 24-year-old keg, forgotten tales

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From left, former Murphys Creek Brewing Co. caretaker Art Kaua, Calaveras County Sheriff’s Office Lieutenant Chris Villegas, former brewery owner Dan Ayala, and Amador County District Attorney’s Office investigator Gary Stevens meet in the beer aging room at The Watering Hole in Murphys on Oct. 1 to share stories about the “Beer Heist” of 1994 over a glass of 24-year-old barleywine. 

On Oct. 1 at The Watering Hole in Murphys, beer enthusiasts had a rare chance to taste hometown history.

Behind the bar, owner/chef Jason Wright tapped into a product that was truly one-of-a-kind: the last remaining keg of Deliverance Barleywine Style Ale, brewed by the now-defunct Murphys Creek Brewing Co. and aged for 24 years under owner Dan Ayala’s home stairwell.

Ayala showed up at The Watering Hole in January of 2020, just before the 5,000 square-foot beer hall was about to open for the first time. Wright, the former owner/chef at nearby wine bar and restaurant, Alchemy, had followed his passion for beer to a brand-new kind of project: a place where brews, both traditional and experimental, take center stage, and people can sample something new each night from an equally eclectic food menu.

A locally brewed 24-year-aged barleywine fit right in with Wright’s vision, and it was the first beer to ever run through The Watering Hole’s tap system as Wright and Ayala took their first taste.

“It was great,” Wright said, describing the high-alcohol ale’s vinous character, typical of a barleywine or an English porter. To find a keg-conditioned beer aged to perfection is rare, he added, as the product must be kept under ideal temperature conditions. “There’s no cheating to get that product. You have to give it all the time.”

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Murphys Creek Brewing Co. memorabilia is on display in The Watering Hole’s beer aging room. 

This 5-gallon keg of Deliverance had plenty of time, as it was one of the last ever produced by Murphys Creek Brewing Co. Ayala, an accountant who adamantly describes himself as “not a brewer” was inspired by the late and esteemed Murphys winemaker Chuck Hovey to start a brewery in 1992, as there were “too many wineries” in the foothills.

Ayala, then in his late 30s, dove headfirst into the “new” craft beer trend, offering a lauded alternative to the mainstream American style lagers. At the time, there were 60 microbreweries in California, with most located along the coast, according to an Enterprise article documenting Ayala’s brewing debut.

A facility was purchased at the intersection of French Gulch and Murphys Grade roads—a 12-barrel brewhouse managed by brewers Micah Millspaw and Ken Parsons. By early 1994, Murphys Brewing Co. had begun bottling several different kinds of ale, and Ayala traveled throughout California selling his product. At its peak, the company had 15 distributors in Fresno, Sacramento, the Tahoe Area, the Bay Area and the Central Valley.

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Former Murphys Creek Brewing Co. owner Dan Ayala stands in The Watering Hole refrigeration room beside a 24-year-old keg of barleywine that was on tap Oct. 1.

But the competition proved itself fierce. Ayala describes the “explosion” of microbreweries and, in response to the threat, the interference of big-name brands. By 1997, Murphys Creek had brewed its last, and one keg of Deliverance barleywine was stowed away under Ayala’s stairwell as a keepsake.

“If anything, we were kind of collateral damage to what’s happened now,” Ayala said. “Craft brewing is on the rise, major brewers are losing market share, and I think the demographics of the population—the younger people—want good beer. They don’t want overly carbonated American lagers, and that’s good. So, I’m glad we helped in that.”

Deliverance

Murphys resident Michael Hall is one of the few people who have tasted Deliverance Barleywine Style Ale “before and after.”

He says the results are stunning, and as a seasoned brewer, his opinion is not to be taken lightly.

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Michael Hall and his son Glen enjoy some family time at The Watering Hole as Hall sips the 24-year-old Deliverance Barleywine Style Ale. 

“‘Age’ is the magic word here,” Hall said while holding the inky-colored 10.4% alcohol ale in a tulip glass. Specifically, “accidental age.”

Hall first tasted the barleywine about a quarter-of-a-century ago when he had just graduated from the University of California, Davis, and was working his first brewing job in Sunnyvale, Calif. A friend had traveled all the way to Murphys to try the new product because of its unique name and brought some Deliverance back with him.

“Back then it was really thick and syrupy and needed some time to age,” Hall recounted.

Barleywine is considered a “high gravity” beer, which is traditionally made in Europe but not often attempted by American breweries. It requires a large amount of grain or malt and is difficult to perfect, but the payoff is big malt flavor with a high alcohol content.

According to Hall, Deliverance barleywine holds up just as well to the other ales offered at The Watering Hole, which is one of his favorite places to visit due to the “fantastic selection” of product.

The Beer Heist

Another draw of the Oct. 1 tasting event at The Watering Hole was the promise of good, old-fashioned storytelling—particularly the part of the story where Calaveras County Sheriff’s deputies bested some perilous teenaged beer thieves.

Patrons and media gathered in The Watering Hole’s beer aging room, which displayed Murphys Creek Brewing Co. memorabilia and article clippings, to hear those who were there tell the tale.

Murphys Creek Brewery Co. caretaker Art Kaua was fast asleep at his nearby home at 2:30 a.m. that fateful Oct. 9 morning in 1994, when his wife alerted him that the lights were on at the brewery. Kaua then saw a truck by the building and knew that someone was breaking in.

“I ran out with my jammies on, got in my car, went down there, and they tried to get out,” Kaua said.

He tried blocking the miscreants with his own truck, taking on $3,000 in damage, though he doesn’t regret his decision.

“I had to stop them. It’s my beer,” Kaua said simply.

The enemy truck broke through, and Kaua chased them until he realized he was low on gas. As he turned around, he was passed by a sheriff’s patrol vehicle and felt reassured.

“I said, ‘All right, they’re going to get caught,’” he remembered. “I couldn’t sleep that night thinking about all that beer.”

Sheriff’s Office explorer Chris Villegas was on a ride-along with Deputy Gary Stevens when they got the call that the Murphys brewery had been robbed. Stevens maneuvered the patrol car to upper French Gulch Road and turned off his lights while another deputy drove down Murphys Grade Road to intercept the getaway truck.

Sure enough, the truck drove by, and Stevens signaled the mystery driver to pull over at the old Murphys firehouse. The truck pulled over, but as Stevens exited his car, the thieves sped off, and the chase was on.

“As soon as they hit Highway 4, they accelerated,” Stevens said. “We ended up doing 100 mph.”

But as Stevens watched one of the truck’s young occupants climb out of the cabin into the bed where the kegs were stowed, he knew they were about to up the ante. Suddenly, bottles were being hurled at the patrol cars, smashing into metal and spraying beer across Stevens’ windshield so that he needed to deploy his wipers. Then came the kegs.

“It sounds funny, but at 100 mph, especially with these kegs--he was chucking these kegs--any one of those kegs would have taken out the car, and it would have been a catastrophic event,” Stevens said. “I remember specifically … driving under one of the kegs, one of the smaller ones that had the rubber coating. … They hit the ground and were like a Super Ball all over the highway. The other ones hitting the ground, the large ones, they were sparking.”

For Villegas, who was around the same age as the underaged thieves at the time, the experience was terrifying.

“It seemed like they were never-ending,” Villegas said of the flying projectiles, some of which weighed 160 pounds. “I was just there to do a ride-along.”

In the notes Steven had the explorer write after the incident, Villegas observed that their patrol car was drenched with beer and glass shards were lodged in the tires.

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Villegas, Ayala and Stevens surround a stainless steel keg that was kept after the “Beer Heist” of 1994.

When the pursuit reached Angels Camp, the troublemakers ran out of kegs and threw out the hand truck in a last-ditch effort. Others joined the chase, and the thieves were eventually apprehended in Wallace without further incident.

The criminals were revealed to be three Sonora teens who had reportedly abandoned a party that night in search of booze. Among other felonies, the 16-year-old passenger who heaved the kegs at officers was charged with assault with a deadly weapon.

Young Villegas testified during the boys’ court proceedings, and they were ordered to pay Ayala restitution for the estimated $2,000 in losses for three 15 ½ gallon kegs, seven 5-gallon kegs, and 20 cases of bottles, a few of which were recovered.

Ayala says he actually received about $50 in small checks from the boys over the years, while Kaua was “rewarded for his heroism with a case of beer.”

Stevens, who is now an investigator for the Amador County Sheriff’s Office, and Villegas, who grew up to become a lieutenant at the Calaveras County Sheriff’s Office, were excited to learn that a keg of Murphys Creek beer had survived all this time. Another keg, empty and dented, was preserved after the 1994 heist and was proudly displayed at The Watering Hole counter.

“That keg brings back memories,” Villegas said.

All proceeds from the sale of Murphys Creek Brewing Co. Deliverance Barleywine Style Ale during the event were donated to The Resource Connection Food Bank.

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Dakota graduated from Bret Harte in 2013 and went to Davidson College, NC where she earned a bachelor's degree in Arab studies. After spending time studying in the Middle East and Europe, she is happy to be home, writing about the community she loves.

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