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As the Iraq War got under way in March, Dog Bites shuddered at the realization that if those slippery WMDs ever reached San Francisco, our dearth of handyman skills would render us as helpless as Willie Brown on a Tibetan trade junket. We decided to resolve this by honing the talent that would be most useful if Saddam ever managed to destroy crucial American manufacturing and distribution networks: the time-honored ability to home-brew beer.
To this end, we headed out to San Francisco Brewcraft, a hole-in-the-wall resource for wannabe moonshiners in the Richmond that displays two telling handwritten signs on its windows: "No cell phones" and "Yes to about everything else." Buckets of grains, malts, and bottle caps line the shop's shelves, and equipment ranging from carboy brushes to floor bottle corkers is artfully strewn around the store. Yeast and hops are stored in what appears to be a soda refrigeration unit; Rosie the store mutt sleeps quietly in an armchair.
Our Half Glass Starter Kit included a free class on the basics of home-brewing, and the session commenced, unexpectedly, to the sound of reggae beats. "I've given this class hundreds of times," announces Brewcraft owner and teacher Greg Miller. "And I get bored from saying the same thing over and over again. So unless there are any problems, I'm going to leave the music on. It entertains me." Dog Bites and our lone classmate, a middle-aged Asian man, have no objections, and the music thumps on.
The 60-year-old Miller styles his gray hair long and his beard shaggy. He wears dark sunglasses indoors and could pass for Jerry Garcia's twin. As his beer seminar begins, Miller drops his first pearl of wisdom: "If you ever want to see the easy way to do anything, watch a fat man." Along with 35 years of brewing experience, Miller carries a sizable paunch that legitimizes his advice. Throughout the class, he uses colorful language to underscore each step of the beer-making process, from the actual brewing to fermenting to bottling. At one point, Miller advises us against squeezing the last juice from brewed grain into the wort (beer in its infancy), warning, "You'll stand there like a monkey fucking a football." However, he is careful to emphasize that brewing beer should be a hobby in which "you don't have to squeeze your sphincter too tight."
Six months and two successful batches later, Dog Bites rolls back to Miller's place to pick up supplies for a winter brew. When we walk in, he is outlining the relative merits of hops pellets and whole-leaf hops to a customer (less oxidization). He then proceeds to hold court from a throne of three plastic lawn chairs stacked atop each other.
"People that do this consistently do this because it's relaxing," says a mellow Miller of brewing. "It's like playing a game of golf. It's a way to disconnect and get centered." He emphasizes that sweating the details of a beer recipe defeats the hobby's purpose. "If you're making neutron bombs, that's one thing," he says. "We're making beers."
Miller brewed his first batch while employed as a social worker for Indian tribes in Colorado. "My first beer tasted like someone had taken the jockstraps out of the 49ers' locker room and soaked them in water," he admits. (Under his tutelage, Dog Bites' first batch tasted much better than that.) Miller kept at it nonetheless, moving to California a decade ago to start up a home-brew business with his wife, Barbara.
True to Miller's word, San Francisco Brewcraft recipes are handwritten on colored sheets of paper that appear to have been salvaged from a keg spill, and stored in a rack with no intelligible filing system. When we offer our credit card to buy supplies, the cashier says we don't need to worry about signing the receipt. During our conversation with Miller, Jim "Rev" Jackson, the newly inaugurated house brewmaster whom Miller is grooming to take over some of his responsibilities, silently presents Miller with a handful of tiny plastic home-brew gadgets. "How much?" Miller asks rhetorically. "I don't know. A buck."
Miller calls himself a Zen brewer, and discusses philosophy and science as readily as he describes gradations of taste among German wheat ales. During our most recent visit, he mulled the discovery of endoplasmic reticulum, as we nodded politely and acted like we might have an inkling of what he was talking about. (Subsequent Googling indicated that ER has something to do with protein synthesis in cells.) Miller went on to express fascination that "every thought that happens in the brain starts with sodium and potassium moving across the cell wall. It's scientific, but it's mystical."
But the payoffs for making beer are about as mystical as a kick in the liver. "The thing about brewing beer is you can get your machismo together and share beer with your friends," says Miller. And if they're lucky, home brewers can even stumble into epic achievement. "Very occasionally, you'll make a beer that'll knock your dick in the dust," he promises. "Beer they sent heroes off to war with. Epiphany beer."
Thanks to Miller, if those Iraqi WMDs ever do make it to California, we'll be able to console ourself with some pretty good suds. Now that's a tasty epiphany.