Ask a Brewer: Dave McLean of Magnolia Pub and Brewery

Since 1997, Upper Haight's Magnolia Pub and Brewery has been elevating beer culture with authentic Belgian, German, and especially British styles, including several cask-conditioned real ales. (Actually, “authentic” depends on the context, as founder and brewmaster Dave McLean explains.) And while McLean, a Pittsburgh native, went to school in Boston, his extracurricular activities led to a NorCal beer and food education that also led to creation of The Alembic.

SFoodie: How did Mendocino Red Tail Ale lead to the creation of Magnolia?

McLean: Beers from pioneering California craft breweries (Sierra Nevada, Anchor Steam, and Red Tail) started showing up on the East Coast in Grateful Dead show parking lots, carted across the country in VW buses…. I was happily delving into craft beer by checking out local brewpubs … but, honestly, I think the Northern California beer I was drinking thanks to the underground economy in Dead lots was what really got me excited.

I went to a lot of shows in '90 and '91 before moving to S.F. in the fall of '91. By the time I got out here, I was already a huge fan of the local beer scene. I walked into the homebrew shop out on Taraval (since closed) and told them I wanted to make something like Red Tail. They set me up with everything I needed, but, not only did the result not taste like Red Tail but it wasn't very good at all, either. Still, it begat an instantaneous obsession with brewing and the simmering of ideas that later manifested as Magnolia.

Which do you prefer, the physicality of brewing down in the basement, or the sociability of the street-level bar? They're interconnected, and time in the brewery nearly always includes some work that takes place behind the bar, too, like tapping casks, switching out beers, cleaning lines, etc. One of the things I love best about Magnolia and brewpubs in general is the close connection between brewery, kitchen, and pub. It makes brewing very similar to cooking for people, in that we can see immediate reactions to whatever we've been working on.

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