Friday, April 04, 2008

The Session #14 - Griz revisited


Back in late 2006, the online version of the local fish wrap knocked out a quick character study on one Mr. Greg William Miller Stein, in what was intended to be a series of vignettes that exuded a certain provincial vibe, framing a deliberate tableaux comprised of the iconoclast pirates of the Barbary Coast. And sensibly so, as he's a bit of an easy target as a 300-plus pound, 6' 2", mid-60s, dyed-in-the-wool alpha hippie, complete with standard issue Uncle Jesse beard and overalls, not to mention the lone proprietor of a home beer/wine/cider/sake supply shop in the great city and county of San Francisco. Not to mention, he has the habit of churning out gems like this one:
I answered the phone the other day -- and I really was ecstatic about this -- I answered the phone and I couldn't think of what my name was. If I could have totally forgotten about it for a longer than I did, I would have said I'd have made it. I was that close. But it came to me.
And while his wife - always in the store, ready to lend a hand - goes by Barbara, most people know Mr. Stein by his adopted moniker: Griz. And as I'm no better a man than the good local leisure journalists of this fair burg of mine, I'm taking aim on that same easy target today in reply to Stonch's klaxon call to The Session.

Growing up, I always had fond, strange memories about the beer my father made with one of his good friends, a beer that I oddly recall tasting and smelling like a perfect German pilsner, a memory that was surely reformatted, corrupted, and rewritten once again as my senses of taste and smell hooked into that fine convergence of poorly modified continental malts and Hallertauer hops as a young boy visiting his family biyearly in Darmstadt. In my early twenties, I came across a book on my parents' shelf that had to have been their instruction manual, Byron Burch's Quality Brewing, within which, as a bookmark, was the business card for a homebrew supply store on Taraval, way out in the outer Sunset. I visited that store once before heading up to school in Eugene, where I had a fairly unremarkable time assembling my pioneer brewing rig and gathering the makings of what would turn out to be a rather raunchy pale ale, and moved on. There was more homebrewing back up in Oregon, fueled by a growing thirst in turn inspired by the climactic years of a music degree and nightlong, nearly gymnastic sessions of Mortal Kombat. By the time I'd returned to the city I've always been happiest to call home, that store on Taraval had since disappeared. So, I went packing across the park to Brewcraft, recipe sketches in hand, met Griz, and had my entire conceit of brewing turned on its head.

Much has been said about Griz, his philosophizing, typically awesome store soundtrack, sometimes challenging customer service skills, crazy handwriting, and near-boundless enthusiasm for a good chat about anything and everything. People love to comment on the somewhat feral nature of the shop, crammed to the gills with ingredients and gear, dark corners hiding surplus mysteries (and often a small dog), and the incredibly enthusiastic and friendly people he finds to help man the storefront. Lacking from all the Griz-centric discourse, sadly, is his personal approach to homebrewing, and what wisdom he imparts on his budding, impressionable Bay Area zymurgists as they enter his lair in search of knowledge.

In fact, most of the advice he dispenses to the casual beginner is slightly unnerving in its vagueness, its decidedly ambiguous and unscientific nature, a style attributable perhaps to 40-plus years of brewing combined with a Zen-like philosophy of "letting go" formed by the aleatoric beauty of nature found in the I Ching, the post-LSD trippiness of quantum mechanics, and the slacker/drifter mantra of "whatever." When pressed for the exact, precise details of a chemical process, he almost flinches as the duty-bound part of his psyche forces the buried knowledge out into the open like forcing water through stone. You'll get your spot-on answer about Iso-Alpha-Acids and the relation to Isocohumulone to apparent bitterness and hop utilization at varying pH levels, but he'd much rather tell you to just stop worrying, add an ounce of Hallertauer at the end of the boil before moving on to his thoughts on current issues facing the Ute Indians and theories on Inner Richmond architectural styles (the short answer: caffeine). And this was eminently difficult for someone like me, a young wannabe perfectionist who was ready to tap into the databanks of a the local superhomebrewer and who wanted to get everything *just* right.

"Don't ever set out to emulate a beer, because you just can't do it no matter how hard you try." Might as well go out and buy that beer you revere so much while working on making one of your own that you like even better, he might say. Sure, he'd look at the recipe idea you brought into the store and subtly recommend little tweaks here and there. And sure, after he lectures you on the amount of money, number of scientists, loads of high-tech gear and whatnot supporting the major professional brewers in the world in their pursuit of consistency and flawlessness, he'll reply to your request of an Anchor Porter-style recipe with some runic scribbles on a blank sheet and a set of barked orders to whomever's manning the grain bins. But if you really want to see him light up, approach the topic of wild fermentation, when the brewer admits the limitations of his control, and nature takes over, like it does in the naturally fermented apple ciders of Griz's youth. And this, an aesthetic of brewing that takes into account the wilderness factor, the magical, unreliable and oftentimes pleasantly surprising roll of the dice involved in asking a pot of grains to convert their starches into a sugar that some helpful microorganisms can further refine into a psychoactive drug (not in replacement of the hard sciences involved, but of higher priority in the ethos of brewing), is the world into which Griz took my little hobby, and from there it'll never leave.

The regrettable coda to this little essay is that I haven't had the chance to see master Griz in over a year now, thanks mostly to the ever-increasing challenges on my time presented by work and parenthood, but also a casualty of having moved pretty far from his shop. Place that alongside my eagerness to make my own mistakes now (in no small part due to Griz's own guidance) , and an online shopping habit inspired mainly by laziness, and the main incentives for my hanging around his shop haven't been strong enough to change my current habits. But as a guru, Griz is always calling me back, to introduce my daughter, shoot the breeze (about Jungian analysis or Napoleon's horse, likely), and remind me that while reflecting on the complexities of life, it pays to "relax, don't worry, and have a homebrew."

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