Brewing Beer in San Francisco
As I travel around the country on my Beer Bible book tour, I hope to sit down with brewers from time to time and chat about their lives, their cities, and whatever moves them. Last week I was in San Francisco.
Those who have seen Dave McLean or visited Magnolia, the brewery he founded, may be tempted to jump to certain conclusions. The original brewery is located a block from the most famous intersection in America—the corner of Haight and Ashbury. The brewery’s founder, Dave McLean (rhymes with bean) looks like more than a passable facsimile for Jerry Garcia. And, on the overcast morning I visited, McLean was sporting a t-shirt commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Grateful Dead’s founding—containing a typically obscure, inside reference only other Deadheads would appreciate. It would be easy enough to look upon these sights as conclusive evidence that Magnolia’s essence comes with the aroma of Nag Champa.
Magnolia has now begun a slow colonization of San Francisco, but we were sitting in the original site, which despite the location, actually looks more like 50s London than 60s Haight; lots of wood and puffy leather (leatherette?) booths. Five glorious cask engines are mounted at the bar, a testament to McLean’s advocacy of cask ale—also a special favorite of mine. These might have been clues that the easy conclusion—Magnolia is a nostalgic remnant of a nearly-dead hippie past—might not tell the complete picture. And indeed, the picture of Magnolia—and San Francisco—is too complex to be reduced to stereotype.
We started by discussing how McLean, lured by good beer and, yes, the Grateful Dead, had driven from the East Coast with the idea of settling there. “Getting into the Dead, all the parking lot beer was craft beer. Not just because of the flavor, but because it was alternative. You’ve got the hippies selling their wares, and it wasn’t Budweiser.” He’d had his first craft beer, a Sierra Nevada Pale, in the parking lot outside a Dead show, and he fell in love. He was going to college in Boston at the time—where there was already plenty of craft beer—but the West Coast called to him. “It was home base for the Dead and Deadheads, and I was drawn out here by that.” Legends are made by connecting similar dots in a chronology, but real life is stippled with incongruity. McLean was studying business with a concentration in corporate finance when he drank that first Pale. And although he did settle in the Haight when he arrived in the early 1990s, he was ambitious, enrolling in the program at UC-Davis to learn how to brew professionally.
Since the late 1840s, San Francisco has been powered by a steady infusion of immigrants motivated by equal parts dreaminess and hard-bitten ambition. On my first evening in the city, I walked through its different epochs: passing first through Chinatown, then stopping off at City Lights bookstore (a mecca for the Beats); mounting Telegraph Hill and seeing the famous feral parrots (San Francisco is one of the rare cities with avian ex-pats), and then dropping down into a zone inhabited by software start-ups. I met friends at one of these, and we toured around the office where young techies played ping-pong, and where the kitchen was stocked with beer and had an espresso machine. Afterward, I took my first Uber to the Greens Restaurant, the eatery founded by the San Francisco Zen Center that helped turn vegetarianism mainstream—yet another layer of history.
McLean was at the tail end of the flower child migration (it seemed to die with Jerry Garcia), and he still embodies a part of that ideal. The pub was just coming alive as we sat down to talk, and the stereo’s first track, the Dead’s Franklin’s Tower, poured out as he described the changes he’d witnessed as two subsequent migrations had changed the city outside his doors.
“I came two years after the ’89 quake, so there was still a post-quake recession going on. It felt pretty sleepy when I got here. It was nice; the East Coast was very frenetic and people were hanging out in the parks. It was a nice time to come. Then the first dot-com boom took off just after I opened Magnolia—’98, ’99. It felt big at the time: the streets got more crowded, traffic got bad, restaurants were hard to get into. And then it crashed. 2001 was the bust, and that was the one year we didn’t have growth at this location. And then the slow climb back up to this crazy, current time which feels like an order of magnitude bigger than the first round. Everybody wants to live in the city; that’s different from the first round. There’s a lot of simmering resentment and anger because people are losing their apartments—there’s an interesting class economics dynamic that’s dominating all the news and papers and blogs.”
This is a palpable anxiety felt throughout the city. A couple hours later, I’d be sitting at the Connecticut Yankee, a dive bar near Anchor Brewing, wolfing down a burger before a tour there. The working-class guys next to me were expressing the same sentiment. So did cabbies, bookstore owners—even my native San Franciscan techie friend. At one point, McLean said ruefully, “It’s kind of a bummer. It’s great for business, but San Francisco is losing its soul—or has lost its soul. There’s a sameness. It used to be the Marina versus the Mission, but now the Mission has become the Marina. The Marina has won.”
But. Real life is stippled with incongruity. Magnolia is flourishing. Young people pack his brewery in the evening. McLean is enjoying life, still going to shows, but also settling into domesticity. “I have a daughter, and it’s nice to have some family time. Being at home, cooking, it’s pretty fun relaxation to me.” He acknowledges that breweries are one of those entities that creates continuity, helps preserve community. “I have a real strong sense of place, and I feel like the places we’ve opened are contributing to that sense of place.” Waves of change pass over the city, but they leave behind more permanent fixtures—those institutions that, far more than boom cycles, give a city its identity. Even if the changes are disconcerting, McLean’s life, and his brewery’s, are doing well.
Of course, we talked some beer, too, and my sense is that Magnolia is actually on the cutting edge of brewing trends, too, despite its old-school cask orientation. “Sometimes the new is celebrated as the future; it’s supposed to go in this direction. You should be putting cucumbers in your imperial gose. But should you? We’re not traditionalists for the sake of being traditional—there are just some flavors that go great together. That’s just good beer.” As the session beer movement grows, McLean may find himself leading a new generation to tasty, balanced beers.
San Francisco is always changing. The current wave of techies will leave another layer of history behind, along with Chinatown and the Haight. Something is always coming next. It’s not the new waves that define a place, though, it’s the ones that manage to endure through them. A couple miles away, Anchor Brewing is a great example of what old institutions mean to a city. McLean would love to have Magnolia join Anchor as one of those preservers and definers. “I have kept my heart in San Francisco; I have a lot of love for it and I want to see it figure itself out and stay cool.”
He is beginning to do that, and not by creating just an old hippie pub. Magnolia is one of the best advocates for cask ale in the country (brewers wishing to perfect the art should talk to McLean), and is now expanding to other locations. A new, larger brewery opened earlier this year in a neighborhood called Dogpatch, and is nothing like the Haight. The new neighborhood, adjacent to the water, hearkens back to a slightly earlier time in San Francisco’s history, to the mid-20th century, when the waterfront was a rough place where men did hard work. You can get cask ale there, but also smoky whiskey or smoked meat.
Before leaving, I asked McLean what he thought the next wave of change would bring to San Francisco, and he had no guesses. The future’s hard to predict. Whatever it is, he hopes to be welcome that next generation of new arrivals to his cozy pub and offer them a pint of good cask ale.