On a Wednesday night at Magnolia Brewing’s Haight Street pub, I relaxed on a bar stool and took a big sip of a Strata Fortress Hazy Double IPA. Tropical flavors like melon and bright citrus burst from the glass in both aroma and flavor. I smacked my lips and thought that this was about as far away from the flavor I’ve come to know from the brewery historically known for its mastery of English-style ales. But I looked around at the wood-paneled walls in the musty, dimly lit bar that still felt very much like a British pub, and I liked it.
You see, I was once a devout follower of English ales, but my palate changed, and yours probably did, too. Hell, do you even remember your first IPA? The beer industry moves fast, so sitting back and letting flagships determine the future is no way to survive in this dynamic landscape.
Enter New Belgium Brewing Company (NBB), which bought Magnolia and owner Dave McLean out of bankruptcy for $2.7 million in mid-2017. The new ownership group is led by NBB co-founder and executive chair Kim Jordan, Magnolia CEO Brian Reccow (who came on board to oversee Magnolia’s bankruptcy and then stayed), and Magnolia’s new director of brewing operations, Dick Cantwell, a co-founder and former head brewer of Seattle’s famed Elysian Brewing Company and the author of numerous books on beer.
For all intents and purposes, Cantwell is at the helm of every beer Magnolia makes. Along with his team, he’s introduced new beers and even modernized the recipes for Magnolia classics, such as — gasp! — Proving Ground IPA, Magnolia’s iconic English-style IPA. When it first appeared nearly 20 years ago, the robust and punch-packing Proving Ground set itself apart through an almost insistently heavy dose of Maris Otter malt. Maintaining that recipe for so long said something about Magnolia’s dedication to the English style, but Cantwell’s iteration of the classic has a far more balanced malt bill.
“That kind of statement is these days, really a statement,” Cantwell says of Proving Ground’s long-time recipe. “Back then, things were more iconoclastic. Now they’re more drinkable. I didn’t want that malty chewiness.”
From where I’m standing, Proving Ground IPA was historically a one-and-done beer, a hoppy malt bomb. “Tread lightly,” that beer would say to me; down a single pint late in the evening, and you’ll have a mild hangover in the morning to remind you of it. But I can’t stop thinking about the lighter complexion, approachable body, and corresponding flavor in the “new” Proving Ground IPA can that I had recently. New Belgium produces those cans — as well as cans of Kalifornia Kolsch — at its brewery in Fort Collins, Colo., a fine use of the logistical resources that NBB ownership now affords. (Magnolia formerly had to rely on the much-smaller capacity of mobile company The Can Van.)
“We want to be able to do things through New Belgium, with their resources,” Cantwell says. “But in a fast, agile local market, we have to do other things.”
This brings us to the crown jewel of the new NBB-owned operation: Magnolia Dogpatch. The Third Street building, which once housed Magnolia’s Smokestack BBQ and brewery, is now home to a 30-barrel facility, a revamped dining room with booths and an indoor beer garden on the loading dock, and a new menu. (Sorry, no more incredible yet incredibly expensive barbecue). The garden has a series of picnic tables down the center and three-tiered wooden bleachers along the wall. This is just beginning, as just last week, Magnolia secured building permits for the 6,500-square-foot space next door.
Magnolia Hall, as it will soon be called, will become an events space that Cantwell expects to open sometime in April. A large bar is set to rest against the south-facing wall with TVs above it, something that screams “pre-game” — for the Giants and for a certain new neighbor.
“We want to be able to facilitate all the Warriors fans that’ll be in here pre-gaming,” director of sales Zeke Durantini says. The Chase Center, the new home for the Warriors, is set to open six blocks away in October, and the Dogpatch will be a basketball hotbed.
Once inside Magnolia Hall, customers will be able to see a fermentation coolship — a massive open tank to cool wort, that malt-and-grain precursor to beer — plus a dozen wooden barrels for making sour beer (called foeders) toward the rear. Cantwell says he’s enlisting help from New Belgium HQ — NBB is the largest American producer of sour beers — as well as from Central California’s Firestone-Walker Brewing, which provides inoculated barrels for Magnolia’s sour beer to come alive. But Cantwell sees this more as an experimentation lab for blends rather than something destined to become a storied producer of sour beer out of the gate.
“Part of my approach with the whole wood-and-sour-beer program is that I want my attitude to be to use it as a tool,” he says. “What can we do with other ingredients? It’ll help me produce some of these blends very early. We’ll even get some NBB sour beers ready to blend — as long as I make a credible version of their beers. And I don’t think they’ll let anyone else do that.”
While Magnolia likely won’t have sour beers ready for the public this year, there are already some funky experiments going down at Dogpatch. Take the Hatori Yuzu Gose, made with yuzu, pasilla, both Anaheim and Thai chiles, and sea salt. Head Brewer Seth Wile laughed about how he used a Rotato — of As Seen on TV fame — to peel four cases of yuzu for the batch.
“That thing is worth its weight in gold,” Wile says.
The tart beer finishes masterfully, with a lingering saltiness the way a proper Gose should, and the Anaheim chili flavor is noticeable, with a mild kick. More than anything, it foreshadows the beers on the horizon for Magnolia. Beers that are very far removed from the English style.
“I was pretty firmly resolved to change the ‘all-English, all-the-time’ approach. The world has moved on from that,” Cantwell says. “And I’ve been gratified by how supportive people have been. Especially regulars. ‘Now I don’t know what to expect!’ they tell me.
“I’ve never done this myself, so I don’t know what to expect, either,” he adds. “That’s part of the reason why I’m taking part in this new project, because it’s something I’ve never done.”
Magnolia Dogpatch, 2505 Third St., magnoliabrewing.com
Visit magnoliabrewing.com or sfbeerweek.org for Magnolia’s full SF Beer Week Schedule of Events.
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