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Monday, July 19, 2010

Ask a Brewer: Dave McLean of Magnolia Pub and Brewery

Posted By on Mon, Jul 19, 2010 at 3:52 PM

Dave McLean. - BITTERMELON/FLICKR
  • bittermelon/Flickr
  • Dave McLean.
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.

click to enlarge JESSEPANDA C./YELP
Best part about brewing in the Bay Area? I love the larger food and beverage community context in which we ply our craft. The renaissance in locally raised/grown/made/sourced food and beverages, the attention given to them, and the community that surrounds them is inspiring. It makes for interesting cross-pollination and great friendships, too. I also think the roots of craft beer in the U.S. run through the Bay Area, not just because of Anchor, New Albion, Sierra, and other local pioneers but also because the rekindled passion for such products can be traced back to the counterculture movement of the '60s and its early reject-the-bland-and-mass-produced, embrace-creative-alternatives, DIY philosophy. San Francisco and Northern California were at the center of that mindset, with a big push for it coming from right here in the Haight. ... For me, making beer in San Francisco feels deeply connected to at least five decades of this philosophy.

click to enlarge BITTERMELON/FLICKR
Are you a stickler for traditional styles, especially with your well-regarded cask-conditioned ales, or should anything go? I go both ways on that issue. On the one hand, I think the only thing to really be a stickler about is that the beer you brew tastes as great as you can make it ― certainly free of flaws and hopefully enjoyable to drink. I think the sky is the limit as long as that rule is followed and it would be selling the craft beer community short to stifle the creativity and inspiration that help define it by treating styles as strict guidelines on what and how to brew. And that's a super slippery slope, anyway, since styles themselves have always evolved over time. The "traditional" cask-conditioned English bitters and milds that we love to showcase here are themselves more closely tied to the early-to-mid-20th century, not before (in terms of gravity, alcohol percentages, etc.).

Those "traditional" styles evolved in subtle and sometimes not so subtle ways between the 19th and 20th centuries. So, no, from that perspective, I think it's more important to follow one's creative muse and brew what you like ― whatever inspires you. But, on the other hand, what's often inspiring to me is a particular style that I might want to explore by brewing tightly within its accepted range. We specialize so much in English-style, cask-conditioned ales because I really love them, not because I think that's how beer should be brewed.

It's your last meal. What is it and what do you pair it with? Do you go with the elaborate, multicourse feast with beers paired with each, or a final taste of some favorite comfort food and a beer you know well and truly love? I've often told people Sierra Pale is my "desert island beer," so that should tell you something about my answer to this question. Despite all of the attention we give to creative gastropub cuisine and beer-food pairing here, and despite the fact that I should make an example out of some inventive pairing, I think I'm going to lean toward the familiar. At this moment (it changes by the minute), nothing sounds better than a pint of a good, moderately hoppy cask-conditioned bitter (like our Blue Bell or Billy Sunday or maybe our new Piper Pale), tapped that day. And I'd drink it with a Prather Ranch burger with Fatted Calf bacon, Gruyère, and a spicy beer mustard, on an Acme bun. If I could start that meal with a dozen Hog Island Sweetwater oysters and a glass of our Oysterhead Stout, and then end it with some Stilton blue cheese and some vintage Old Thunderpussy Barleywine, I'd die a happy man.

Magnolia Pub and Brewery 1398 Haight (at Masonic), 864-PINT.

The Alembic 1725 Haight (at Cole), 666-0822.

Other brewers in this series:

Kushal Hall from Speakeasy Ales And Lagers

Follow us on Twitter: @sfoodie. Follow Brian Yaeger at @yaeger.

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