Beer Here: Q&A with Magnolia's Dave Mclean


By Molly Freedenberg

In this week's issue of the Guardian, we talk about reasons to drink craft beer made locally and discuss someof the masters making noteworthy brews. But the Bay Area craft brew scene is so vibrant and varied, we could only touch on some of what makes it great. In coming weeks, we'll post longer interviews with experts at brewpubs, better beer bars, and breweries on this blog. Also keep an eye out for a story about seasonal brews in our Holiday Guide and a follow-up to this week's "Beer Here!" article, both coming out in November.


For our first installment of our online beer series, we'd like to give a nod to Magnolia Gastropub and Brewery and David Mclean, the award-winning brewmaster/owner of the Haight-Ashbury destination spot. Here's the transcript of our Q&A with him:

SFBG: How long have you been around?

DM: 12 years next month

SFBG: Why is Northern California so good for brewing beer?

DM: It's one of the birthplaces of the modern, American craft beer movement, giving it a 30-40-year head start over many other regions in the country. Not only does that mean that there are many talented brewers here but also that we have a well-educated customer base who appreciate the diversity of flavors and styles brewed in the area. The many facets of the Bay Area's artisan food and beverage culture dovetail together, impacting both the way brewers think about their craft and the way local beer drinkers embrace local beer.

SFBG: Why is it important to drink beer made locally?

DM: On one level, it's just a good idea to support local businesses in general. More specifically, when talking about craft beer, there is a sense of local identity and local pride that comes from drinking beer made in one's community. And, from both an environmental and flavor
standpoint, it's nice to not expend resources shipping beer great distances. Most beer tastes best when fresh and though that doesn't mean you can't get fresh beer from farther afield (or stale local beer), you greatly improve your odds drinking local. That's especially true if you drink beer at your local brewpub, where the beer only travels from the physically attached brewery to your glass.

SFBG: What are your most popular products? Have you noticed trends change?

DM: Our best selling beer is Proving Ground IPA, an assertive, West Coast IPA with a powerful hop character. Twelve years ago, when we opened, there was an interest in hop-driven beers, but it was far less pronounced. The IPA craze has been a runaway success story over the past decade and now people come in and ask for our "hoppiest beer". That is one of the larger trends of the past decade, though now there are new trends developing among brewers. Three of them are:

1) the brewing of Belgian-style and Belgian-influenced beers, especially bigger beers with assertive flavors and higher ABV's,

2) an experimentation with wood-aging of beers, especially in used whiskey and wine barrels, and

3) a new look at "session beers", which are lower in alcohol and more balanced in flavor profile. Another trend is collaborative brewing, in which brewers from two or more companies work together to produce a special beer that is sold as a collaboration. To me, that is a great sign of the maturity and confidence within our industry. We really do see ourselves as a community.

SFBG: Anything new with you? New brews, new events, new distributors?

DM: As a small brewpub, we embrace our nimble ability to brew small batches, experiment, change things as we see fit, etc. We're busier than ever, which means that single batches of beer sell ever more quickly. That means our list is always changing, which keeps things interesting for both our guests and us. We now make over 25 different beers in the course of a year and seem to find a way to squeeze in 5-6 brand new beers each year. Right now, we are in the lead-up what we're calling the BRU/SFO Project with our friends at the 21st Amendment Brewery, beginning Nov.2. It's a spinoff to our successful Strong Beer Month that we put on with them every February. This one features 6 Belgian-style or Belgian-influenced beers from each brewery being released throughout November. Guests are encouraged to try all 12 beers during the month and get a commemorative glass upon completion. It's a great way to get our customers to try the beer of another brewery whose work we admire, and vice versa. We also tapped our annual Barking Pumpkin ale yesterday and we'll release our annual holiday beer, Winter Warmer, on Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving, as has become tradition for us.

We're going to be doing the beer at a great event in Napa next month, Primal, which is a celebration of chefs cooking over outdoor fire. Several local chefs will be there, a few great local wineries, Daniel Hyatt from my other place, Alembic, will be mixing some special cocktails, and we'll be there with three of our beers. And, we were at a very unusual event last weekend at the MOMA, a Futurist dinner commemoration 100 years of Futurism. We served a very experimental beer that we had been aging in a wine barrel in our boiler room, which undergoes extreme temperature fluctuations. The experimental nature of that particular beer lent itself to the story line the organizers were developing. I also helped organize the Eat Real festival over in Oakland back in August. To me, some of these kinds of events are most exciting because they truly bring together the food and beer communities and let everyone see that we are all in search of the same things when it comes to eating and drinking.

And, we are working hard right now to help put on San Francisco Beer Week this coming February. It's the 2nd annual after a wildly successful first try last year, which featured over 150 craft beer events around the entire Bay Area in a 10-day period. This coming year it looks to be bigger and better, really showcasing how strong and diverse our local beer scene is.

SFBG: Other than your brewery, where can drinkers find your beers? In particular, what bars, restaurants, and stores in San Francisco?

DM: 95 percent of our beer never leaves the Magnolia building. We're really brewing at maximum capacity for the time being. But our sister establishment, Alembic, just down the street, always carries 3-4 Magnolia beers and we self-distribute to a few other accounts around town. You can almost always find our beer at Nopa and Nopalito and often at the legendary beer bar, Toronado. We are periodically on tap at Minibar, The Page, Blue Plate, Bar Tartine, Anchor & Hope (serving our cask-conditioned beers sometimes), and, sometimes over at Chez Panisse. Bar or restaurant, the places that we tend to work with are those who have a like-minded sensibility about local ingredients and working with fellow members of our extended food and beverage community.

SFBG: What other beers/breweries are you excited about?

DM: Here in town, I am always excited by the beer at 21st Amendment and am very happy to see them expand into more draft accounts and also canned beer. Speakeasy began just a few months before us in 1997 and, while I've always really appreciated the beer they brew, they seem to be working on some really interesting beers lately. The beer (and wine, and spirits) from Anchor is always top notch and, as a brewer, Anchor presents an important touchstone to the very beginning of craft brewing in this country. Thirsty Bear is making great beer that is certified organic, which is very nice to see, and they tend to dabble in things that excite me, too, like cask conditioned beer and barrel-aged beer.

But there is also great beer from all over the Bay Area that is still local. Russian River is such a great success story, producing some of the most amazing and unique beers out there. Arne Johnson at Marin Brewing consistently brews internationally-recognized, award-winning beers. We're lucky to have breweries like Bear Republic, Anderson Valley, Drakes, and Lagunitas doing what they do, and there are still new breweries like Uncommon Brewers over in Oakland popping up with original and high quality offerings. And, Sierra Nevada, which has grown tremendously, still gets tons and tons of respect in craft brewing circles for maintaining the highest possible quality levels and for pushing the envelope with unique and experimental beers. They now have a 100% estate grown beer, in which they produced all of the ingredients for that beer on-site. They also did a collaboration beer with Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head (from Delaware) that I am eager to try.

SFBG: How are your beers different from those made by other companies (both big and small)? And how do they differ from each other?

DM: They are different because they are a reflection of my own very personal tastes and ideas about beer, and that's true of all of the small and large craft brewers. They differ from large, mass-production breweries in that they are brewed using small-batch ingredients made or grown by like-minded artisans both near and far. There is nothing at all commodity-like about my beer or the beer of my peers. Many Magnolia beers reflect a certain British influence, especially in the use of Maris Otter, an heirloom breed of barley from the UK, but they also draw from many, many other influences in that special, American melting pot way. I feel really lucky when I say that we only make beers that we like to drink.

Magnolia Gastropub and Brewery
1398 Haight, SF
(415) 864-7468

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