Brew on ‘cue
July/August 2014 | By Luke Sykora

Smokestack / Marc Olivier leBlanc for DRAFT

Dave McLean’s second act is Smokestack, a new grain-to-glass, farm-to-table barbecue joint.

Let’s get this out of the way: Yes, Dave McLean—who opened San Francisco’s Magnolia Gastropub and Brewery in 1997—was something of a Deadhead. He’s “90 percent sure” he had his first microbrew in the parking lot at a Grateful Dead show in the 1980s, and with his voluminous salt-and-pepper beard, he looks a bit like a mid-career Jerry Garcia. It’s not a complete coincidence that when he opened Magnolia, he parked it in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, a mere block from the Dead’s notorious 1960s crash pad.

But as a brewer, he hardly fits the hops-obsessed West Coast hippie stereotype. “The whole English-influenced session beer thing is still the soul of our operation, because those are my favorite beers,” McLean says. He was first introduced to English styles like milds and bitters at East Coast brewpubs, and later made a few formative trips to England, where he absorbed not just cask ales, but the relaxed conviviality of pub regulars conversing late into the night over beers that were full of flavor but light in alcohol.

While he does make plenty of IPA for his thirsty patrons, many of McLean’s beers—like Sara’s Ruby Mild, which took a gold medal at the 2009 GABF—have been swimming upstream in a West Coast brewing culture dominated, at least until very recently, by IBUs.

At the same time, though, McLean has heartily absorbed another quintessential West Coast influence: the farm-to-table ethos that was built by chefs like Alice Waters at her Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley. These days, a coaster at Magnolia is more likely to bear a quote from Carlo Petrini, the founder of the Slow Food movement, than a Dead lyric.
“It’s about thinking about craft beer as part of the ‘good food community,’” McLean argues. “Along with ranching and organic farming and craft distilling. Delicious things with integrity, instead of mass-produced stuff.”

This May, after a seemingly endless series of delays, he finally opened Smokestack, the brewpub and barbecue joint tucked into his shiny new brewery in San Francisco’s burgeoning post-industrial Dogpatch neighborhood. (The building used to be a factory owned by the American Can Company, the corporation that manufactured the world’s first beer can.) True to form, he broke in his new brewery with a classic, rather minimalist English-style ale that he called Maiden Voyage: pretty much Maris Otter malt, English Kent Golding hops and his house ale yeast.

Beer and barbecue—big deal, right? But filtered through McLean’s focus on the provenance of his products, things get interesting. He hired chef Dennis Lee, whose family’s Namu Gaji restaurant runs its own farm, to oversee the food and ensure that careful meat sourcing was a top priority. To get things just right, Lee traveled to the Carolinas, Kansas and Texas to study traditional barbecue methods—along with a side trip to New York with McLean for a little “urban barbecue research.”

Dave McLean / Marc Olivier leBlanc for DRAFT

Smokestack’s pork—smoked over wood, chopped, lightly seasoned and tossed with apple cider vinegar—is based on a version Lee had at Scott’s Bar-B-Que in Hemingway, S.C. But the pigs themselves are local, raised at Devil’s Gulch Ranch, just across the Golden Gate in Marin County, where they’re fed spent grain from the brewery’s own mash tuns,
closing the ecological and agricultural circle.

On a recent visit, McLean seemed a bit exhausted by the gauntlet of getting his new place up and running. All the same, he was enthusiastic about the ability to work more closely with California farmers and ranchers while continuing to explore what he calls “grain-to-glass” brewing.

What does grain-to-glass look like? McLean points to a talk author Michael Pollan gave at this year’s Craft Brewers Conference, where he exhorted brewers to think more about the farming behind the beers they make.

That’s not a new idea to McLean. A few years ago, a Magnolia regular mentioned to McLean that his dad was a barley farmer in England, growing Maris Otter, the low-yielding but high-quality malt McLean uses for many of his beers. McLean ended up buying some malt from the grower, Teddy Maufe of Branthill Farm, and when Maufe visited his son in San Francisco, Magnolia hosted a “meet the farmer” hour, with a few all-Branthill ales on tap.

McLean’s beers tend to be unabashedly malt-forward—redolent of toast, biscuits, caramel and baking bread—so much so that some local brewers have apparently privately ribbed him for making beers that are “too Maris Ottery.” But if you want to taste the grain behind the beer, you can hardly do better than a Pearly Baker’s Best Bitter, or maybe the Dark Star Mild if you’re having the smoked brisket: Wagyu beef from Masami Cattle Ranch in Corning, Calif., with a charred crust and bright red smoke ring that gives way to a ridiculously tender cut of beef, all tied together by the smell of boiling wort wafting into the pub from the brewery next door.

The next wave of American brewing, McLean believes, is going to involve a greater focus on local ingredients—not just hops, but locally grown and malted barley, too, as the supply side catches up with the demand for locally sourced grain. “Now, with 3,000 breweries [in the United States] and many more in the planning stage, it’s suddenly viable,” he proposes. He points out that up until the early 1970s, Anchor’s barley was malted right in San Francisco, at one of several maltsters in North Beach, before adding, a bit mournfully: “What’s left of those buildings has been turned into condos.”  •

Published July/August 2014