By Gregory Daurer | Aug 13, 2019
San Francisco, California
"I love the fact that I'm brewing again," says Cantwell, about his return to a brewhouse close to two years ago. In that regard, the author of the book, Brewing Eclectic IPA: Pushing the Boundaries of India Pale Ale and the co-author (with Peter Bouckaert, formerly of New Belgium Brewing Company) of Wood & Beer: A Brewer's Guide notes three Magnolia beers which are being readied for this year's Great American Beer Festival: a cucumber-and-Meyer lemon IPA; a guava-and-habanero pepper Double IPA; and an Imperial Stout aged on the Brazilian wood Amburana, which Cantwell says imparts "amazing, spicy flavors." "I think what my strength has always been is coming up with recipes," he says.
Cantwell is noted for having previously co-founded the Elysian Brewing Company, which opened its first Seattle location in 1996. It was due to Elysian being thrice-named Large Brewpub of the Year at the GABF that led to Cantwell being honored with the Russell Schehrer Award for Innovation in Craft Brewing in 2004. "I'm an IPA drinker," says Cantwell, before citing two of Elysian's creations. "Space Dust and Dayglow -- I love those beers."
Elysian not only captivated beer drinkers in the Pacific Northwest, its popularity led Anheuser-Busch InBev to make a successful overture to buy the business in 2015. Cantwell says Elysian's three partners were "absolutely at odds" over the prospect of selling to AB Inbev. While two approved of the purchase, Cantwell parted ways with Elysian as a direct result of the sale. He didn't brew professionally again until becoming part of Magnolia nearly two years ago.
In August 2017, New Belgium announced the $2.7 million acquisition of Magnolia, which had been undergoing bankruptcy proceedings. Cantwell says New Belgium now owns 80 percent of Magnolia, while he owns the rest. (Although it was announced at the time that the Belgian brewery Oud Beersel would be an additional partner, it ultimately didn't pan out that way.)
The deal gives New Belgium a prime market in which to spotlight selections of its beers on tap, including some wood-aged offerings. And Cantwell says Magnolia benefits from being able to "piggyback on" New Belgium's infrastructure in terms of accounting, human resources, and materials acquisition.
Plus, two of Magnolia's canned beers -- its Kalifornia Kölsch and its Proving Ground IPA (which will soon be replaced by another beer, Narrow Universe, an updated version of Proving Ground designed by Cantwell "with input from Seth Wile, our head brewer") -- are brewed and packaged in Fort Collins, before the "100-ish barrels" per year are shipped to San Francisco for sale.
The "professional symbiosis" between the two breweries has also given Cantwell and New Belgium's co-founder Kim Jordan -- who have been referred to as a beer "power couple" -- a chance to participate on a mutual project, while spending time together.
Given Cantwell's unhappy parting of the ways at Elysian, is there anything he's taken away from the experience that he wishes he could have included in his 2013 book, The Brewers Associations's Guide to Starting Your Own Brewery?
Cantwell says it's important to lay out a brewery's "core values" prior to opening -- such as "having some language that defines what it is you're setting out to do, and some of the principles by which you intend to operate" when challenges (including the prospect of a sale) arise. The other would be having an "exit strategy -- not just for yourself, but for remunerating your investors." Consider, as well: How might ownership transfer in the future? To family? "I've been kind of embarrassed that I didn't treat some of those things [in the book]," says Cantwell. "Back in the '90s when we started Elysian, you weren't really supposed to have an exit strategy."
Within the same publication, Cantwell raises an anthropomorphically-framed question to help businesses define their brand. So it seems like the perfect inquiry to ask Cantwell regarding his latest venture: "Who is Magnolia Brewing Company?"
Cantwell answers, "One thing that Magnolia had done [since opening in 1997], I think, is develop a good, solid San Francisco-based culture. I would say that Magnolia Brewing Company is the spirit of a lot of people who make up the population of San Francisco -- which of course changes, but also has constants that people think of."
That's why, playing off its original location in the Haight-Ashbury district, the company's packaging includes an image of a hit of blotter paper with a magnolia flower on it, designed to appeal to a customers who sometimes wears the "funny hats and the brocade and the leather -- and probably aren't old enough to have been around during the Summer of Love [in1967], but they carry a lot of that culture with them."
The majority of Magnolia's 3,000 barrels (down from around 3,900 in 2016) are brewed at its 30-barrel brewhouse in the Dogpatch neighborhood, noted for its artists' lofts and DIY aesthetic. Although Cantwell has transitioned Magnolia away from its predominately British-centric ale styles, he makes sure Milds are still on tap at both of its locations, while adding more experimental IPAs and beginning to offer wood-aged and sour beers.
"Free form, free spirit, entrepreneurial, very creative and colorful -- I think those [descriptors] fit with both places," says Cantwell of Magnolia.
Favorite beers: Cantwell says, "I like all these breweries that are coming up with new IPAs, all the time. Locally here [in the Bay Area], we've got Fieldwork and Cellarmaker -- and I think we make IPAs [at Magnolia] right up in that quality and category. There's another brewery in Santa Cruz called Humble Sea that does that kind of stuff really well. Up in Seattle, a couple of my former co-workers have started breweries as they left Elysian. One of them is called Cloudburst; that's a fellow named Steve Luke, who's doing a really good job, not just with IPAs, but with various other things. One that I'm really looking forward to having more of -- and they'd only just opened when I was at their brewery -- Future Primitive, [co-founded by] a guy named Kevin Watson, who ran the Elysian Capitol Hill brewery. So I guess my favorites shift around, but those are the ones that I crave when I go out and go to a local beer bar and see what they have on tap."
Challenges: Selling beer in an increasingly crowded market. "It's more challenging than I thought it would be, says Cantwell. "There are thousands more breweries than there were when I got out of Elysian. There are no gimmes, really. On top of the obvious things like having to have top-quality beer and having your business work, you've got to be able to claim enough of the potential customer's attention to get habitual [business] from them, and to sell beer out in the trade. That's especially hard. So, I thought it was going to be a little easier, but it's had a lot of challenges."
Opportunities: Amid the notorious gentrification in San Francisco, Magnolia's Dogpatch location happens to be situated about a mile away from the brand-new arena for the NBA's Golden State Warriors. "It's been pretty exciting," says Cantwell. "It reminds me of how the original Elysian brewery was sort of off the edge of things in Seattle, and within a couple years the neighborhood kind of came to meet us. And that's what's happening here in the Dogpatch neighborhood. Dogpatch is really the last neighborhood in San Francisco to develop, or one of the very last ones."
Needs: "We need customers," says Cantwell. "We need places to sell our beer."