Photos © Brian Stechschulte
Since the Summer of Love the Haight-Ashbury has become a hodgepodge of punk rock politics, headstrong hipsters, modern bohemians and tourists searching for remnants of the counter culture movement. Craft beer wasn’t part of this quirky San Francisco neighborhood until 1997, when Dave McLean opened Magnolia Pub and Brewery. Over fourteen years the brewery has garnered a solid reputation and GABF medals for its decidedly British spin on craft beer. McLean guides the ship as Brewmaster, but you should also get to know his talented Head Brewer, Ben Spencer.
Spencer started brewing at Magnolia in 2004 after moving from established breweries in Colorado. He runs Magnolia’s basement brewery and works closely with McLean to develop recipes that achieve a shared vision. I recently sat down with Spencer to learn more about his background, perspective on the craft beer industry, working relationship with Dave McLean, the BRU/SFO Project, and the challenges associated with Magnolia’s impending expansion into San Francisco’s Dogpatch neighborhood, which will include a new 30 barrel brewery and restaurant.
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So where did your background in brewing begin? How did you get started?
I moved to Colorado running and screaming from my hometown of Richmond, Virginia, when I turned twenty-one. I took a pilgrimage to New Mexico and thought I would want to live there. Turns out, I didn’t. One of the stops along the way was Boulder, which I loved. So I did a u-turn and headed back. I was living in a house with a bunch of random people and I was finding jugs in every little open space with tin foil and a rubber bands on them. One of my roommates was a homebrewer and we would drink mead, talk about beer, and I quickly became interested.
From there on I was enthusiastic about the whole craft. It’s such a cool mixture of being a scientist and artist at the same time. It really appealed to me. I started drinking at a local pub and getting to know the brewers and started sitting in on some brews, started making mead at home, started making homebrew and quickly ran into a pretty vast and tight community of homebrewers in Boulder. The next time I was looking for work I saw the Oasis Brewery had a production facility job for a keg cleaner so I took it.
At twenty-one years old I got to work around beer and at the time I was living up in a cabin in the hills outside of Boulder. It was just the perfect marriage of lifestyle. Living up in the hills and then coming down to make beer, then going back up. It was great. I worked myself through a number of different positions in the brewery in the first year and a half. Then pretty quickly became discouraged by being in a factory setting and got out of it for a couple of years by working with Greenpeace.
Three or four years later decided I didn’t want to do that either. I realized I had it pretty good and needed to get back into the industry. In 2000 or 2001 I started working with Oskar Blues in its original form. It was a five-barrel brew house in the basement, which is now a pinball room in the original Lyons restaurant. I lived across the street and worked in the brewery. I helped them build the twenty barrel, which was their first expansion and from there moved to Boulder Beer Company where we were working overnight stacking palates with six packs that we were sending to our first big contract with Frontier airlines. They would take a palate of canned beer. For a five-barrel brew house to come up with a palate of beer with a two head canning system and one seamer was really quite a challenge.
So that contract was a blessing and curse?
You have to look at growth, opportunity and cost. It was the jumping off point for where they are today, which you couldn’t argue has been anything other then incredibly successful. At that time I got to know more people in the industry. I was working closer with people that were doing what I liked, getting to know the community, and going to GABF every year.
If things were going so well, why did you leave?
I loved it at Boulder Beer, but it was time to move since there wasn’t any forward moving opportunities for me. It felt like the right time to look for a change. I started poking around and one of my friends Mike Altman, now brewmaster and owner of Iron Springs, was forming the idea of building Iron Springs at the time, but was helping Dave McLean out. Dave was going through some staff changing. We started chatting and after a handful of interviews I jumped in my car for California.
What’s your impression of the current craft beer market and where does Magnolia fit in?
For the past five or six years the industry has really moved towards doubling products, doubling ingredients, raising alcohol, raising bitterness, really trying to hit you over the head with flavors, which is great, but its not what we do here, except for six or seven times a year. All of it has it’s place, but I think a lot of people in this industry are either getting older, or realizing that three seven and a half percent beers are going to crush you and want a little bit more flavor, and not just flavor numbing characteristics, like extreme bitterness, extreme hop aroma, extreme alcohol flavors.
Believe me, I still drink those beers and I love them. I love where Vinnie Cilurzo and Tomme Arthur are taking this industry and creating this niche for themselves by going after these enormous beers. More power too them, I’ll be buying them, but that’s not where we fit in. I think what your finding is a shift back towards people wanting the assertive flavors, but not wanting as high of alcohol content. You’re seeing a lot of brewers making more Pale Ales with IPA hoping. Shaun O’Sullivan and Zambo have Bitter American, Roger Davis is doing varietal styles with new hops as they come out. Brewers are doing one hundred percent variety Pale Ales. We have a few varietals that we do here as well. Our Prescription Pale is one hundred percent Cascade. Blue Bell Bitter is one hundred percent East Kent Goldings. These are two of the more traditional, but that’s where we park our car. You’ll find some Nugget, Summit and some Simcoe hops in our more assertive beers, but you’re also going to find Saaz, Hallertau and other Noble hop varieties.
Magnolia’s two latest GABF medals hang above the taps.
When the BRU/SFO Project comes around each year are you itching to make Belgian beers?
Absolutely, it’s exciting. It’s a cool opportunity to break up the doldrums. If we just picked the first beers that people fell in love with and stopped innovating, we would have stopped brewing new beer thirteen years ago. As ingredients and the market change we interpret what’s going on in the industry from both a supply and demand side to figure out where we play a part and how to get everyone excited, while still being able to maintain some tradition. It’s a cool thing and it’s the whole reason BRU/SFO and Strong Beer Month exist.
Long Break Bitter
How do you approach planning for BRU/SFO? Are the beers new every year and how does it compare to Strong Beer Month?
For BRU/SFO we have beers that we’ve repeated each year and we produce some of our favorite Belgians, but with less handcuffs. There’s less history involved with the BRU/SFO Project. Strong Beer Month is a freight train out of control. We have a handful of stables and then we usually throw a couple wild cards in each year. We still like innovating and coming up with new things and using new ingredients, particularly in a format where you can knock people over the head with them. People know what to expect and they expect innovation. Our Barley-wine, Double IPA, Imperial Stout and Tripel are all beers you’re going to see every Strong Beer Month.
Is there any beer your just dyeing to make but you haven’t had the chance yet?
I’ve got along list. It’s more ingredients we want to brew with. We knock them down every year, be it coffee or a culinary kind of ingredient, something we feel has a place in beer, like pumpkins and pumpkin seeds. I have to look at my list! I always get excited by blending up new Bitters, Ordinarys and Best Bitters, which we do pretty frequently.
A few times a year we’ll sit down and talk about a new ingredient or hop we want to showcase, like this Branthill project that we have going now. It’s the only Branthill Malt in North America and we’re doing a line of Bitters with it, that include New Speedway Bitter and Long Break Bitter. The farmer’s son lives around the corner. We’re going to try and step up different variations using the malt as we go along and show people what it can do. It’s really cool to be able to get that malt in this country. It’s not that the Maris Otter we use is anything short of fantastic, but having farm specific coastal Maris Otter is wonderful. Most of what we get is in an area of Yorkshire and just like grapes, malt is going to have a different characteristic where it grows. We want to use this ingredient to stroke your palate, not crush it.
Mash Tun and Kettle
Are there any Bay Area brewers in particular whose beer you get excited about?
Roger Davis over at Triple Rock is doing a fantastic job. Zambo and his first couple years at 21st Amendment is obviously killing it with two GABF gold medals this year. Arne Johnson, one of my best friends up at Marin Brewing, always has a very sharp way of looking at beer, recipes and ingredients. We share a lot of our ideas and trends. I definitely enjoy drinking their beer. Not to take away anything from everyone else making beer in the area. Even the homebrewing community is killing it these days. Everything is hopping. I don’t see an end in sight. I hope not. We’re building a big brewery!
There’s a ton of good beer being made in the Bay Area, which really keeps the pressure on us to continue moving forward. As much as one or two or five brewers can affect the movement of beer and flow of beer in the country, you can’t do it alone. It takes a community of great brewers in the city and Bay Area. We’re friends, we hang out and discuss our trades, which keeps everything moving forward.
Fermenters and Brite Tanks
How has your working relationship with Dave McLean evolved over the years?
I’ve really enjoyed working together with Dave. Magnolia’s office, back before there was a second restaurant (Alembic) and a third in the planning stages, about three or four years ago, was downstairs, so Dave and I were working together day after day. I was doing most of the hands on stuff and we would discuss every little change, how to sharpen our craft together and quickly both decided that two brewers make better beer then one brewer. There’s no ego involved, it’s just how are we going to get the best beer out of this place. Obviously, if he tells me to start making light American lagers tomorrow I’m downstairs ordering six row.
Over the years we’ve developed a respect for each other’s style. We’ve been making great beer together since I got here, but the beer was great when I got here, so it wasn’t like I was the savior. There was nothing here to save. There was already a really good following of people. We had a lot of people coming in, which makes it a lot easier as a brewer because you can turn beer over faster. Fresh beer is better. That’s our whole hook. If you tell customers that fresh beer is better and they don’t sit down to a fresh beer, you’ve lost them. You might as well not even say anything.
In the last eight years the beer environment here in San Francisco and the Bay Area in general has been on a huge incline. People are becoming more aware. People want a fresh product. They want a face on it. They want to sit down for a pint and listen to the guy chat about what they did in the brewery that day. The food and beverage industry are quickly catching on and we’re kind of taking over wine as the food pairing.
What excites you the most about the new brewery?
Extending our reach. It’s an opportunity to make our craft more available to a larger number of people. Although we can share our beer with a lot of people here at Magnolia, its limited. Its a small fifty seat restaurant at the corner of Haight and Masonic that doesn’t get the notoriety you get with being able to create more product.
It’s also going to be a huge challenge to maintain this small level of craft quality at a larger scale. It’s keeping us interested. It’s keeping the money flowing. It’s keeping everybody moving forward. One of our big mantras around here is “taking it further.” That’s our intention. It’s like, all right we’re doing it really cool, but as soon as you slow down long enough and pat yourself on the back, someones doing it cooler. This is our career. This is what we do with our lives. Were pushing it here and you have to do that. The food and beverage environment around here is pushing, and as soon as you stop pushing, your part of what was going on last year, not what’s going on next year. So that’s our goal is to continue moving forward.
Will you have more room for experimentation at the new brewery?
Initially were looking for the room for experimentation to come from making some of our bigger selling beers at the new brewery, like Blue Bell, Kolsch and Proving Ground. We’ll quickly stop making those here, which will open up fermenters to start messing with new yeast.
Are you nervous about getting the recipes to translate?
I’m more excited then I am nervous. It’s a big ol’ game. It’s a challenge. No two vessels are going to be the same over there. We’re using the dynamics of the vessels downstairs to decide upon what’s going to be easiest beer to step up, but at the end of the day we’re going to make some of our simple beers and do a lot of record keeping, see what’s working, what’s not, and putting the beers next to each other and making slight changes. So it’s awesome. It’s going to make us twice the brewers that we are currently.
Nobody expects anybody on the planet to be able to reproduce a beer off the top of their head on a different system. It just doesn’t go like that. It’s going to be really cool to see what it takes to make that brewery into what we’ve got going here. Were not at all intimidated by that. We’re looking forward to getting our hands dirty. It’s going to be an opportunity for Dave and I to get our boots wet and figure out how to make these beers over there.
We’ve done some experimentation with two of our contract breweries over the last couple of years, so we’ve translated recipes to larger systems. Drake’s Brewing made Kolsch and Proving Ground for about eighteen months and for about the past eight months we’ve been making our Kolsch and Proving Ground at Hermitage.
Nobody loves contracting out their beer, but we can only do about a thousand barrels here per year. Incorporating some contract work while we’re working on our next project is gonna get us close to two thousand barrels this year. It’s an end to a means. Luckily the brewers we’ve worked with are friends and talented. It wasn’t very hard to translate our recipes to fifteen and now a twenty-five barrel system, which is still smaller then what we’re building. Were building a thirty-barrel system. We started planning a twenty barrel and quickly ran into the idea, slash reality, of it taking about the same amount of energy to do both. For a packaging style facility with a market already established we’d be rebuilding a twenty barrel in five years, which takes so much infrastructure change.
Is there going to be enough room to expand down the line if you want?
Luckily, the facility that we’re moving into is very modular. Most of the surrounding businesses in the building are light industrial, assembly type stuff, so going up and out is a probability. The owner and all the neighbors are very excited to have us. We’re being very well received and everybody is doing what takes for us to be there. It’s set up for success. Were not forcing it, which is why haven’t done it in the last few years. We’ve been at capacity here for over three years, which is when you either decide that this is enough, or it’s the time to move forward. Neither of us are sitting on a huge stack of money so investment and planning is a huge part of it. Were building a fifty-year business. It takes a lot of foresight. It’s going to be cool.
Last corny question, what’s your desert island beer?
Is supply an issue?
Honestly, from being in the Northern California brewing community, I really enjoy my assertively hopped beers. I gotta tell you Blind Pig and Union Jack are two of my favorite beers and if I were stuck on an island, then one of those might be what I drink out there. It’s tough. There are two different moods you’re going to be in. You’re either pissed or you’ve got a big old pile of beer on a desert island and you’re happy. I drink up and down the board here and everywhere I go. In a desert island selection you have to take into account what you’re doing at the time. You know what I mean? If it’s snowing and cold at a pub in England I’m going to order a big Oatmeal Stout, which is the perfect beer for that moment. Every moment of your life has an appropriate beer, but I do find myself reaching for the hops.