Some people seem to know, abstractly, that Magnolia brews all its own beers on site–in the basement of the restaurant at 1398 Haight.
But really? It’s so small down there! So we had to see for ourselves.
Yes, it turns out, all the beer at Magnolia really is brewed in the basement. We talked with Magnolia’s owner and founder, Dave McLean, to see how it works.
First, a little bit about Magnolia and Dave.
Magnolia was opened in 1997, a handful of years after Dave graduated from college in Boston and made his way cross-country in an odyssey to sample three things: national parks, microbreweries, and the Grateful Dead. This was just after the microbeer boom in the mid- to late-1980s, and Dave was already interested in seeing what the rest of the country had to offer.
When he arrived in San Francisco he found an small but growing community of breweries that included–most notably, at the time–beers like Sierra Nevada, Anchor Steam and the Mendocino Brewing Company.
By the time he got to San Francisco and started experimenting with home brewing, he knew he wanted to make beer and open a pub. So he went back to school, to UC Davis’s brewers program, learned what he had to learn, and found a place to open up.
That place was the former drug store restaurant at the corner of Haight and Masonic, and when other beermakers took a look at the space Dave wanted to use as a brewery in the basement of 1398 Haight, he was told it couldn’t be done.
So he took 9 months to dig the basement out, lower the floor, restructure the floor joists and foot the supporting beams, and when he was done, he had enough space for a brewery–barely.
So there we are.
The basement of Magnolia is still small. It is also both hot and cold, and smells like molasses and the inside of a loaf of bread. It sounds like a small machine.
The beer starts here, as malt, which McLean imports from England because it’s a variety he likes. It looks like this, and tastes like very dry sweet toast:
Here’s the cat out of the bag:
After different kinds of malt are run through a mill and cracked, sort of like a coffee bean, they go into a big steel tank where hot water is poured on the mash and the water is extracted. The water then goes in this thing, which is where it’s boiled and gets sugar added. (The sugar is what the yeast needs to eat later, so it can make the alcohol.)
Then it’s cooled and gets run into the next room, where it goes into another big tank and gets the yeast. That’s where it kicks it for about a week, before it’s tapped off into a keg to mellow out and wait to get piped upstairs. This room is cold, and it looks like this:
See? Tiny! The whole basement fits inside the footprint of the restaurant upstairs, but there’s still room for all that beer (the photo above is about enough beer to last the pub part of a month) and for the cask conditioning room.
The cask room is where beer sits and a slightly warmer temperature and carbonates naturally. This more traditional, more English mode of serving beer is a niche that Magnolia has carved out for itself over the years, and remains unusual in the U.S., which is why the occasional gauche bargoer wrinkles his nose at a pint of cask: it’s earthier, and warmer, and a little flatter than what you’re used to.
So the next time you’re sidling up for a pint, think about all those tanks and piles of malt and yeast downstairs doing their magic, or talk to Dave about the beer. (He’s not as active in the daily beer making as he once was, but the recipes for the different brews are largely his. And trust us, he knows his stuff.)
We’ll see you there.
(N.B.: We should tell you that Magnolia advertises with us, as you’ve seen by now. But we like them anyway.)