Bottoms Up

Beer and wine in the Bay Area and beyond

Backgrounder: Magnolia, the San Francisco brewpub

Dave McLean with beer
Dave McLean, proprietor of Magnolia Pub & Restaurant in San Francisco. He had to dig out the basement by hand to create a brewery. Photo by William Brand

A Deadhead finds craft beer is life-altering

By William Brand

SAN FRANCISCO – Did Dave McLean see his future as brewer -proprietor of Magnolia Pub & Brewery, the only brewpub in this city’s historic hippie Haight-Ashbury, at the bottom of a bottle of Red Tail Ale, purchased in the parking lot outside a Grateful Dead concert in 1989 when he was a student at Boston University?

It’s unclear – even to McLean today, as he churns out an impressive list of cask-conditioned ales, Belgian and Kolsch-style beers and regards his booming pub business in a space that was hippiedom central when a young Jerry Garcia and his fledgling band roamed the Haight.

But this much is certain: The Dead definitely figure in the equation.

“It’s true for me and I know it’s true for other brewers. Some of us got our introduction to West Coast micros in Grateful Dead concert parking lots,” McLean says.

“Lots of people on Dead tours would bring the beers with them to sell. Shaun O’Sullivan (21st Amendment, San Francisco) and I both discovered the beers that way at different concerts,” he says.

“It was a funny thing, you didn’t expect to see. These coolers full of beer in picnic coolers on skateboards.

He walked out of BU in 1992 with a business degree in corporate finance, a love for the Grateful Dead and the beers of Northern California. Moving here was a no-brainer. “My grandfather had recently passed away and left me a bit of money. I didn’t invest it wisely; I moved to San Francisco and went to a lot of Dead shows. He also got into homebrewing.

“I remember walking into The Homebrew Shop on Taraval and telling the guy I really liked Red Tail Ale and how could I make a beer like it? He gave me the recipe for California Amber,” McLean says. “I made and I loved it. I started brewing obsessively.”

He cared so much that he took all those science courses like microbiology at UC Berkeley extension he had religiously avoided as an undergraduate.

His science education patched up, he enrolled in Dr. Michael Lewis’s brewer’s program at UC Davis in 1993. A year later, while many of his classmates were looking for work at breweries, he took a different route: his own brewpub.

“Against all better judgment, without getting any professional brewing and restaurant experience, I began raising money,” he said. The site happened kind of like Dead concerts, which relieved heavily on serendipity. After a long, fruitless search, his real estate guy said, `You know I have this place for sale in the Haight.’

“Really’ I said. `Where is it?”’

It was six blocks from McLean’s house, an apartment building with a restaurant on the ground level. It was more than that: A former Rexall drug store, built in 1903, it was the site of Magnolia Thunderpussy’s, a world famous, late-night, headline-making, hippie ice cream and desert parlor back in the Haight’s glory days, circa 1968. One desert: Pineapple Pussy (a hollowed pineapple filled with strawberry ice cream covered with whipped cream, chocolate shavings and a cherry, according to McLean, who has researched the building and posts his research on the pub website.

But as we all know, acid days turned to heroin horrors and the street of love died a long time ago. By 1995, when Dave signed a lease it was empty.

That’s when the work began. McLean found a contractor through a classmate fromUC Davis, Peter Licht, head brewer at Coast Range in Gilroy. There was a basement, but it was a mess, McLean said. “We had to lower the floor, carrying out the dirt in buckets.”

He opened the doors on Nov. 11, 1997, just as the wettest rainy season in many years began. In that El Nino season it rained every day through January, except for five days and there were no people on Haight Street.

“It was just dead,” McLean said. “The only people who came were people who follow beer.”

Fortunately, the beer was damn good and a line of handpumps, serving true cask- conditioned beer, kept the beer geeks coming. McLean’s expertise with cask beer comes from many, many trips to England and long experience.

The food was also excellent and that brought in neighborhood residents. Every year, except 2001, the pub’s enjoyed double digit growth.

These days, life is good for this brewer. He and his partner, Demetra Delia, who was a server at Magnolia’s, have a daughter, Lily, age 2. And yes, there’s a beer named after Lily, Saison d’Lily, brewed with all Belgian malts and English hops.

He still loves brewing. “It’s a nice blend of art and science. I’m still delighted every day. I feel I’m lucky beyond belief,”McLean says.

Magnolia Pub & Brewery, 1398 Haight St., San Francisco, CA 94117, (415) 864-PINT, www.magnoliapub.com.