Cellar Rats: Dave McLean of Magnolia Brewing Co

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Dave McLean is solidifying his place in the San Francisco food and wine Hall of Fame (adding to Magnolia Gastropub and The Alembic) with the impending opening of Smokestack, a new restaurant venture in the Dogpatch that will be adjacent to the cavernous new brewery. The food will be done be Dennis Lee of Namu Gaji. We’ve been hearing “March” as the reported opening, so now seems like a great time to share some insight from a recent visit with Dennis where he tells us about the learning curve for making beer in the new space.

For San Francisco, Magnolia has been a pioneering craft beer even before there was really a market for such a thing. Over the years, as the collective interest and thirst of San Francisco has grown, so has the scale of Magnolia’s little operation on Haight Street. They went from a 7-barrel brewery in a pub basement, to a 10,000 square foot space producing three times a much brew in the relentlessly emerging Dogpatch. Last month, we visited Brewmaster Dave McLean to get the lowdown on the new project.

The prevailing narrative of the visit was, while they were really digging the new digs, there’s still a lot of tweaking and learning. It’s one of the really fascinating things about restauranteurs, or entrepreneurs in general. You can spend 16 years mastering a craft, then pull the rug from beneath you by entering a new venture. Then, (almost) everything is brand new again.

They’ve also noticed the yeast in the Dogpatch are much friskier than those in the Upper Haight. With more active yeast, you have faster fermentation, so again, another adjustment. With a slower, controlled fermentation the flavors have an opportunity to develop. There are refrigerated jackets around the tanks to help cool them down when needed.

After all these years, Dave still admits to making beer with his eyes and taste, but concedes that eventually they’ll build a lab to help quantify. Not really because they feel they need to, but almost to satisfy their own curiosity. The way it was described made it feel more like adding a toy store than a laboratory. Not sure when their anticipated adjacent restaurant, Smokestack is expected to open, but we’ll definitely be back to check out those digs too.