In 2015 The Grateful Dead celebrated their 50th Anniversary. The four living original members of the band decided to mark the occasion by going on tour one final time. The Fare Thee Well Tour would only make two stops – San Francisco and Chicago. San Francisco is the Dead’s hometown, Chicago is where lead guitarist and singer, Jerry Garcia played his last show with the band.
Recently we caught up with Dave McLean, Founder and Brewmaster of San Francisco’s own – Magnolia Brewing. Dave is no stranger to the Great American Beer Festival. He has attended 17 in the last 21 years, as a judge in most cases. In 2011, his beers almost swept the Special Bitter category when New Speedway Bitter and Bonnie Lee’s Best Bitter took Silver and Bronze respectively.
The 2nd Annual Grateful Dead Brunch was a Thursday morning affair where we got to chat about music, beer, and what its like distributing in a market like the Bay Area (now home to over 100 breweries).
The following interview took place at his annual GABF kick-off event at Old Major in Denver’s LoHi neighborhood.
CBG Nik The idea of a Grateful Dead brunch sounds pretty kick ass. I tailgated with Chicago Brew Bus before one of the Chicago shows this summer.
Magnolia Dave I got into craft beer and the Dead at the same time in the early 90s. The original Magnolia Brewery location is in Haight -Ashbury because I’m a Deadhead, I moved out to San Francisco to see more Dead shows.
CBG Nik As I walked from the beach to the parking lot I ran into brewers who would tell me how this is their 15th Dead show or their 38th Dead show. It surprised me.
Magnolia Dave I’ve thought about this a lot. In the old days there was quite a bit of commerce going on in the tailgate lot. Back then craft beer was alternative; it wasn’t on anybody’s mainstream radar. I’m pretty sure the first time I had certain craft beers like Sierra Nevada Pale Ale was out of a picnic cooler at one of those shows.
In the 90’s sometimes the best beer in town was at the tailgating lot of a Dead show. A lot of other brewers have said that to me. There are certainly Deadhead brewers out there.
CBG Nik Was the plan always to start a brewery once you got to California?
Magnolia Dave I moved there right after college. I’m originally from Pittsburgh, I graduated from school in Boston with a business degree that I really didn’t like or want, but it did end up being useful. I really loved beer; I had just recently purchased a homebrew kit. I thought I should probably get a job, but I was really into beer. I got obsessed with it so I decided to study brewing. I went to UC Davis, they have a Brewing Science Program there.
CBG Nik It’s one of the best in the country.
Magnolia Dave There was always the Siebel Institute in Chicago. But at the time there was no university brewing course. I was lucky that I landed 70 miles from Davis where there was a brewing school. I did that for a year and a half with the intention of opening a brewery. After that we started looking for money and space. I immediately started down the path of “I have to open a brewery.”
CBG Nik What styles of beer were you most excited about after brewing school?
Magnolia Dave After school I went to England a couple of times. I was starting to get into English style beers. Even back in Boston there was a place pouring 5 beer engines, those beers peaked my curiosity. By the time I got to England I was really into the delicate nuances of English Bitters. These beers were only 4% ABV but had really complex flavor.
Batch Number 1 at Magnolia back in 1997 was an ESB. It was called Blue Bell Bitter, we still make it as one of our core beers. We’re known for our English ales. We’re really into English malts like Maris Otter and Golden Promise. Most everything we make is with an English yeast strain; it yields a nice, nuanced, fruity complexity.
Around 2000 we made our first over the top west coast style IPA with our English ale strain called Proving Ground. It is 100 IBUs and aggressively hopped. Proving Ground almost instantly became our best seller.
CBG Nik That’s just how it is, Americans have a crazy love affair with hops.
Magnolia Dave From 2000 until last year it outsold everything we produced. What’s interesting is that this year our Magnolia Kalifornia Kölsch is pulling ahead. I’m excited about that, it’s more in line with our overall approach, which is lower ABV, and tasting the malt not just the hops.
CBG Nik It’s always fun when I have a group on my tour, we tell them to pick any beer they want and collectively they decide to order a Pils or a Kölsch.
On the other side of the world you have breweries in Europe going the other direction and replicating American styles.
Magnolia Dave Collectively, we craft brewers have created this monster with our love for this insane amount of hops….and that’s cool, it will never go away. As a group of hundreds of brewers we’ve introduced the world to aggressively hopped beers…the world has changed.
CBG Nik What drew you to a place like Old Major in Denver to hold your brunch event? This place is contemporary farmhouse carnivore cuisine, for sure.
Magnolia Dave Well, Justin Brunson is the Executive Chef here and one of the partners. I feel like he enjoys doing here what we do back in San Francisco. Full animal butchering, they bring in the whole pig and use every part. There is also a focus on sustainable sourcing from local ranches; we take a very similar approach. This is my favorite place to eat when I’m in Denver.
The guys just kill it here, the food is crazy good. The cocktails are great too it’s not just about beer. It’s an honor for us to have our brunch here.
CBG Nik This is one helluva party you have going here today. What’s your favorite beer event back home?
Magnolia Dave For the last 9 years we’ve produced San Francisco Beer Week, The Opening Gala is my favorite event. Beer Week includes beers from all over the world. The German bar has unique German beers that week, etc, etc. But the Opening Gala is just local businesses. There will be 100 Bay Area breweries attending that event this coming year, but it feels intimate.
They are nearly 500 breweries in California; roughly 200 of those are in the expanded Bay Area.
CBG Nik Good Lord! What’s it like selling beer an area with that many breweries?
Magnolia Dave If I were starting a new brewery in a place that’s so saturated I might be a little scared. You can do it with the right approach, and if you make good beer.
First you need to have really good beer. In the 80’s you could get away with bad beer because people were just happy to have a local brewpub. Nowadays you can’t let a batch of bad beer get out, you can never screw it up.
We were mostly just a brewpub for 18 years; we only recently ramped up our distribution side. Most people who know us have been to the brewpub over that time. We’ve been at it for so long that there is some name recognition for us. People appreciate our approach, the types of beers we make are less about IPA, and we don’t do a lot of Belgian stuff. We are pretty focused on balanced session beers.
You also need to have focus on the narrative. You can’t just be ‘Brewery 200’ with another pale ale and a porter. You need to have a plan or you may not gain any traction.
CBG Nik People want to know why you do what you do.
Magnolia Dave Exactly
CBG Nik How does your new brewpub compare to the original location?
Magnolia Dave The little corner brewpub with the 7 bbl brewhouse crammed in the basement on Haight is still going strong. It’s not going anywhere, that place is the little engine that could. So much of our identity over the years is built into that space. It has a maximum capacity of 1,000 barrels annually. We can’t shoehorn any more tanks into that basement.
The new space has it’s own restaurant attached to it. We will do 5,000 bbls this year. When we add more tanks that will grow to 15,000 annually. The new space is all about production and distribution. The original space is still making three 7 bbl brews a week. Taking our high demand beers like kölsch and IPA, and moving them to the new production brewery allows us to make more one-off and experimental beers at the old space. We got to expand and make beer in a more efficient way, and we got basically got access to a pilot brewery to experiment even more.
CBG Nik Dope. This was a great chat, thank you, I’m a little bummed I didn’t make it into any of the actual Dead shows in Chicago. It was completely sold out. The largest shows in the history of Soldier Field.
Magnolia Dave It was an absolutely epic weekend.
CBG Nik We’ve been jamming to the soundboard cut of the live show in the office a lot lately.
Magnolia Dave The vocals were a little rough in the first shows. A couple of the guys are new, Trey Anastasio from Phish and Bruce Hornsby. Deadheads are like picky sports fans, like “ Man, I can’t believe they flubbed the transition there. “ but it’s all done out of love for the music. The parts of the show that were good, were really good. I mean imagine how hard it is for Trey, to fill those shoes…to try to be Jerry!
CBG Nik ‘Standing On The Moon’ from the Chicago show is the one that gets the most replays when I listen to those performances.
Magnolia Dave That was an epic moment. They did a good job as one last go round. It sounded perfect, killer production value as well.
I went to all 5 shows….the Chicago shows were way better.
If you find yourself in the Bay Area be sure to visit one of the Magnolia brewpub locations.
The Original Magnolia Gastropub & Brewery 1398 Haight St, San Francisco, CA 94117
The newest brewpub is located in Dogpatch. Magnolia Brewing Company 2505 3rd St, San Francisco, CA 94107
Special thanks to Debbie Rizzo and Dave McLean for making this interview happen.