Skip to Navigation Skip to Content

From Scratch: Magnolia Brewery's Bonnie Lee's Best Bitter

The underbelly of the Upper Haight’s beloved Magnolia brewpub at first resembles a scene from The Matrix, with 1,800 square feet of cramped basement lined with steel tanks and plastic tubes. But Grateful Dead stickers and a friendly team of self-described “brewers with beards” are evidence of a more benevolent plot. It is here that owner Dave McLean—who has the enthusiasm of a hobbyist but all the knowledge of a master (including a degree in brewing science from University of California, Davis and 20 years experience)—has kept Magnolia’s taps flowing for the past 15 years.

“Your brewing style is defined by your heart, soul, taste, and limitations,” says McLean, whose own style tends toward that of his beloved English ales with a relatively quick 14-day warm-fermentation process—a perfect fit for his basement operation. McLean brews three batches of seven 210-gallon barrels each week. Over the course of a year, he makes up to 40 different brews.

Among his favorites, Bonnie Lee’s Best Bitter is a thirst-quenching homage to English ales, made with heirloom Maris Otter barley that has been malted (sprouted then dried) and kiln toasted. The lightest grain, with a sweet cookie-like aroma, provides a foundation of flavor and sugar (which becomes alcohol during fermentation), while two heavier toasts contribute to its auburn color and complexity. A single variety of Golding hops balances the grain’s sweetness to create the refreshing crispness of a classic English bitter. Seven days of warm fermentation with the house yeast transforms this bittersweet combination (called “wort”) into beer, and then another week resting in a conditioning tank harmonizes the flavors before serving.

Challenged to keep up with demand, McLean plans to expand his operation this month to a more spacious new brewery in Dogpatch, where a trio of 60-barrel fermenters will eventually allow him to increase production tenfold. “It’s been fun living like teenagers in our parents’ basement,” he says. “Now it’s time to grow up a little.”

This article was published in 7x7's September issue. Click here to subscribe.