While the craft beer movement continues to rake in more fans willing to spend their hard-earned green on the finer beers in life, San Francisco-based Brewmaster Dave McLean remains a key figure to watch. Ever since he opened Magnolia Gastropub and Brewery in the Haight in 1997, the spot has increasingly been a draw for those seeking Kalifornia Kolsch and Big Cypress Brown and cask-conditioned beer (Blue Bell Bitter, Spud's Boy IPA). There's also food with a local bent that covers favorites like Scotch eggs and a decadent Prather Ranch burger. McLean, who is on the Board of Directors for the San Francisco Brewers Guild, told us that even today, people are still shocked that the restaurant also houses a working brewery in the basement. He is close to opening a bigger, better, new brewery with BBQ offerings from the folks from Namu... across town, in the morphing Dogpatch neighborhood. McClean also owns The Alembic, which dishes up craft cocktails and bites right down the lane from Magnolia. We caught up in person recently to find out more about the new Dogpatch space and McLean's career. His comments have been edited for length and clarity.
Bay Area Bites: Tell us about the new Magnolia Dogpatch brewery.
McLean: The whole move to go over there was basically driven by us not having enough beer production capacity here. We were already maxed out with continually growing the business and have a nice wholesale draft business. We were looking at the whole place craft beer has gotten to and it makes sense to grow in a more robust way.
We built Magnolia Brewery 15 years ago and it’s really a finite space—we can’t add another tank or vessel downstairs. We created a way to grow our business as well as grow our packaging and bottling. To give the amount of energy and attention needed to do this, I have broken things up into phase one and phase two.
We will open in the Dogpatch in very late June or early July. There are a lot of moving parts because we are also building a full service restaurant over there. With expanding, there’s always the fear of losing the thing you do well that makes you special. We want to focus on a few initial steps that are logical and get the brewery up and running and get the beer to taste the way we want it, which is no small task. For us, bigger and better things means doing packaged beer outside of the Bay Area and bigger distribution.
Bay Area Bites: How did you decide to work with the Namu Gaji folks, who will do the restaurant portion of the brewery?
McLean: I think that honestly evolved organically out of mutual admiration. I’ve long been a huge fan of what they do since the Namu in Balboa opened. I love going there. They have amazing sake and I drink the beer we make there. They’ve been semi-regulars to Magnolia and Alembic, too.
Bay Area Bites: How will the Dogpatch brewery be similar and different to your other places?
McLean: Nobody sees the brewery here because it’s tucked in the basement. Fifteen years later people still express shock that there is a brewery down there. With the new spot, people may think, “Hey, there’s a relatively large brewery here.” We’re not putting the brewery behind glass because that style doesn’t really appeal to me. Customers will certainly be exposed to this idea that you’re in a beer production facility.
In terms of the restaurant itself, the extended Magnolia family has grown and evolved. The everyday customer is most familiar with the relationships we have: Prather Ranch and Arnold Sutton. That’s what you taste when you eat and drink here. I think people understand who our extended family is.
There’s also the family of craftsman and artisans who have been creating with us. At the new place that will make for a similar look and feel. If it’s similar, it’s because we have some of the same people and we can almost finish each others sentences. The flip side of that is it’s an industrial space in a very different neighborhood across town. We’re very sensitive to not produce the “Haight Alembic Magnolia experience.” The only truly identical thread is the beer.
Bay Area Bites: What’s it like working with the City on the Dogpatch build out?
McLean: Everyone likes to complain about the city and I feel like I could. The most enthusiastic people we’ve seen are the Dogpatch residents and businesses. The neighborhood association was very welcoming and there’s already a sense of community there. It’s great to feel welcome and it really wasn’t an easy process to go through. Small artisan manufacturing is the kind of business the city wants to cultivate on the 3rd Street corridor. Some people in planning and the Mayor’s office of economic development are focused on the health of the neighborhood and that was kind of great. The planning and building department process can be convoluted and it definitely added a lot of time and cost to the project. No one can just make that go away.
Bay Area Bites: What beer are you brewing now that is more experimental? Where do your ideas come from?
McLean: I’m currently working on a potential family of beers from the same starting point using wooden barrels. The beer is blended with an unaged version of itself. Since I’ve got elements of time and space, I can stack in the new space and let the beers sit and do their thing.
We work with a farmer in England. Each year we started out trying one ton of malt which sounds like a lot but it got us through four or five batches of beer. This year since we had the space we can get malt and have it at Dogpatch and then bring it over here and use as needed. We have room to play around with it.
Inspiration comes from everywhere. There’s a general receptivity about ideas that strike you at time--in conversations with colleagues. Collaboration is the nature of our industry. We talk a lot online and in person. That fosters an environment. An idea can come from any time if you’re being open to it. Research is not the norm anymore, but it was at the beginning of my career.
Bay Area Bites: Where do you think we are with craft beer production and appreciation in the Bay Area and nationally?
McLean: In both cases it’s at an all time high. I don’t know if my peers 15-20 years ago were setting out to change the American beer industry. The American beer culture has changed. The share of the market that is craft beer is higher than people ever thought possible.
Just like the food movement, people are showing that they prefer to identify with things made in their back yard by people they know. Those same hallmarks are showing up in the craft beer world. Not that long ago that you had to go to a craft beer pub but now you can’t open a restaurant without a decent craft beer component. I would expect it for the Bay Area because this is the cradle of the craft beer movement. One could argue that only recently the Bay Area is realizing its potential for the craft beer community.
The rest of the country is definitely catching up. There are more interesting statistics --a vast majority of Americans live within ten miles of a craft brewery. That was a surprise.
Bay Area Bites: Tell us about your career and goals.
McLean: The nature of this craft beer movement at magnolia is that what’s possible continues to expand and that bucket gets bigger. It allows for this constant assessment and reformulation of vision.
In the beginning I was a 26 year-old home brewer. At that point the goal was surviving and not going out of business. The industry grew and we started making more beer. I got involved in events and had a history with people, which is important to add that to my vision.
This next growth spurt is a new level of visioning of what to do with the beer. I don't want to characterize things as doing it by the seat of our pants because there is strategic thinking involved. Yet some of the charm of what makes it fun to come to work is figuring out, “Where are we going with this?”
It’s not all been a super easy or rosy path to get here and I have made dumb mistakes. Thinking as a brewer that it is easy to run a restaurant was almost catastrophic mistake Number One. I hired friends, and we spent a lot of time nearly failing. Now I’d like to pivot off the trial and error period that’s lasted ten to fifteen years and make something that’s built to last.
Now that I’m in my forties, I think about the fact that there are breweries that outlive their founders. So it’s coming up with a succession plan. We’re going to grow the business and grow the brand. I’d like it to be such a great place to work that we keep folks for a long time. There’s a natural maturation when you manage and operate something that leaves a good mark. Being a bit bigger gives you more freedom and flexibility to create a better work place that’s more sustainable in all ways, not just in ingredient sourcing. I try to live up to that.
Bay Area Bites: What are your favorite local joints for beer and food?
McLean: We have such a community of people approaching their craft in the same way. When you go out, it’s “who do you want to check in on and see what they’re up to?” I subconsciously landed myself at the nexus of cocktails, craft beer and food.
I love the Ferry Building. My wife and I love Nopa and our whole family loves the quesadilla roja con chicharon at Nopalito. I admire and look to Nopa and Nopalito to see how they do it – the folks there are kindred spirits.
Similarly, running into Bi-Rite Market’s Sam Mogannam at events always feels like I’m with a long lost cousin or brother.
Zuni is a familiar comfort spot. At the off peak times, it’s better and feels like an awesome San Francisco thing. That inspires me. I love that you can be hungry at three in the afternoon and find a place that’s doing killer drinks and food.
Ryan Farr's burger at his 4505 Meats stand is always amazing. It’s an addiction.