Dave McLean, the founder, got indoctrinated into the craft beer scene in the parking lots at Grateful Dead shows in the Boston area the late ’80s/early ‘90s, where many of the Dead’s followers brought brews with them from the West Coast shows. Once he settled in the City in 1991 (in the Haight, natch), he began home brewing almost immediately.
After finishing the brewing program at UC Davis, he found a space at Haight and Masonic just a few blocks from his home. The small space had an even smaller basement, in which he managed to cram a seven-barrel brewhouse in 1997.
That tiny brewhouse is still churning out quality brews to this day.
The location already had a colorful history before Dave’s arrival, with one of the former proprietors being the famous Magnolia Thunderpussy. Given that, you really can’t get more San Francisco than by naming your new brewery Magnolia (Dave continues the tribute with his barleywine — Old Thunderpussy).
Seeking to expand production, Magnolia opened Smokestack, a brewery/BBQ joint/whiskey bar in the Dogpatch district, in 2014. That name also comes from Dave’s love of history, a nod to the Dead’s remake of Howlin’ Wolf’s song “Smokestack Lightnin'”, as well as to the neighborhood’s industrial past.
(BTW, Magnolia also makes a damned tasty Smokestack Lightning Imperial Stout, which I was fortunate enough to enjoy during the last Beer Week)
Although all his businesses have been profitable (he also owns The Alembic in the Haight), Dave filed for bankruptcy in late 2015, seeking to restructure his debt-load from the expansion. All businesses have continued operations during the process, which continues. In fact, during this time Magnolia recently brought their first packaged products into market, Kalifornia Kolsch and Proving Ground IPA, both in cans.
Dave was kind enough to chat with me via email, and talks more about history, Magnolia’s bankruptcy, the Dead’s influence on his record-keeping, the can rollout, and the one collaboration he’d still love to do as Magnolia approaches its 20th Anniversary.
The Beerverse: To get this out of the way, can you comment on how the bankruptcy is proceeding? Looking good to emerge from it?
Dave McLean: We’re diligently working on our steps forward to emerge and while it has taken longer than I had hoped, I’m pretty happy with how much we’ve been able to accomplish during it and how it hasn’t had any impact on the experience at our brewpubs nor our beer. It was a major milestone to launch our canned beer during this time.
BV: How has the can rollout gone? Is Blue Bell Bitter still on the horizon? Are there plans for others?
DM: The cans have been selling so well that it has been hard for us to keep up. It was incredible to see the initial reception in terms of how so many people know the brand and were thrilled to be able to take Magnolia beer home in a convenient format after all these years. We’re just getting to the point where we can spread some around to our other distributors outside of San Francisco and we’re beginning to work on the next releases. Yes, I really want to put Blue Bell in a can.
BV: Putting the bankruptcy aside, how has the Smokestack experience been? I know you changed chefs and tweaked the menu last summer. How has that been received?
DM: I feel like both restaurants are operating better than anytime in their past. We saw some opportunities to optimize the service model at Smokestack last year and there are always menu adjustments to be made at both restaurants. Everything seems to be well-received and we have a lot more in the works in terms of some additions to the Smokestack menu.
BV: Some big anniversaries are coming up in the Haight this year — the Summer of Love’s 50th, and Magnolia’s 20th. Any plans to commemorate the two? Any special anniversary brews?
DM: Both are big milestones and we’re excited to celebrate them with our community. The Summer of Love is coming up fast and our own anniversary is in the fall. I’m kicking around some ideas for a 20th anniversary beer. More to come on that.
BV: I’m a historical preservation buff (one of my columns is called “Beer Preserves”, featuring breweries in historic buildings). Can you talk a bit about the history of both locations?
DM: Sure, that’s something that really appeals to me, too. One of the first things I did when I signed the lease for the Haight location was to go to the San Francisco History Room at the public library and dig into what had been there before us.
Our Haight building has a pretty interesting history—built in 1903, it was a grocery store in the early days and then was a pharmacy for many of its years, with that era ending in 1964. It then became the Drugstore Cafe, one of the early hippie businesses in the Haight (they had to change the name to the Drogstore after a run in with the California pharmacy board).
And then a legendary woman named Magnolia Thunderpussy took it over and opened a cafe named after herself. She only ran it for a couple of years but those years stand out in a lot of people’s minds and we still hear anecdotes and stories about her and that era of our building. She moved on and took her name with her (next to the Boarding House on Bush, where she ran the kitchen and put out basically the same menu as she had served at her Haight location).
Our space became the Psalms Cafe, something of a hold-out hippie business after most of them fled and the neighborhood had a long hangover. It was a breakfast spot, Dish, throughout the ’80s until 1996, when I took it over.
While our Dogpatch space [Smokestack] doesn’t have quite as colorful history, it’s special in its own way, as is the history of that neighborhood.
It was the industrial heart of San Francisco for many years, and our building was part of the American Can Company, which started across the street in the early 1900s and expanded by building our building in the 1940s. Incidentally, the American Can Company produced the first beer can, but not in San Francisco (they had several plants around the country).
They shut their San Francisco plant in the 1960s and the buildings sat empty for a few years. The father of the current owner bought them and subdivided them into spaces for artists, artisans and craftspeople, and other creative types who wanted affordable space in a then-desolate part of town.
Now it is at the center of one of the hottest neighborhoods in the city and home to an amazing patchwork quilt of cool, independent San Francisco businesses of all kinds.
BV: I’ve never seen such detailed beer archives on a brewery website. The way your library can be cross-referenced and sorted is a researcher’s dream. Why is that so important to you?
DM: I can’t quite explain why, but it is, so we try to record it all. And there’s so much more along those lines that I’d like to add when and if I have time. I’ve always been that way about the Dead, too—identifying with the tapers and collectors who chronicled every version of every song, every setlist, etc. To that end (and sports can be this way, too), the stats and facts can tell stories, reveal patterns and give context to both history and the present. It’s also just fun to look back and be reminded of some of this stuff.
BV: Your list of collaborations is quite impressive. Are there any bucket-list collaborators you haven’t yet gotten to work with?
DM: Well, what has been most fun about our collaborations has been the organic way in which they have all come about, rather than having a master plan or wishlist. That’s important because to me it helps make the case for one of the things that’s special about the beer world. It’s an amazing community full of friends new and old and the inspiration to collaborate almost always seems to come for me out of a social moment with someone, usually over a beer. That’s what’s fun about it. There’s an element of not trying to hard and letting things unfold in interesting and satisfying ways.
That said, as we approach 20, I think a lot about how much Brian Hunt from Moonlight helped me make Magnolia a reality when most people didn’t think I could squeeze a brewery into the basement at Haight and Masonic. And yet, we’ve never brewed together. I’d like to fix that.
BV: Finally, I gotta ask — hazy IPAs, yes or no? Is the kerfuffle justified?
DM: I can appreciate the good ones and get the idea but I’m not all that into them.
Thank you, Dave! I really appreciate you taking the time.
A final note. Although Dave noted his collaboration brews usually happen organically, I think we as a community need to help him out just this once. A Magnolia 20th Anniversary collaboration brew with Moonlight needs to happen. What better way for Dave to celebrate this milestone than with the guy who helped him out so much when he first started?
Mr. Hunt, if you’re reading this, whaddya say?
Friends of Mr. Hunt, if you could pass this note along to him, I’d really appreciate it. I think we all would enjoy the result.