The Wicked Brewmaster

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Pete Slosberg studies the beer list with a practiced, and somewhat jaundiced, eye. Reluctantly, he orders a famous European brew and takes a sip. The photographer raises his camera; Slosberg, the Pete of Pete's Wicked Ale, immediately slides the bottle down the table so it won't appear in the shot.

It isn't so much that the beer is competition. It's the bottle. It's green. Slosberg can't bear to be photographed with it.

He has a thing about green beer bottles. "I call it the green bottle effect," he says. "There's a specific wavelength of ultraviolet light that has a direct effect on the hops in beer. It gives the beer a skunky flavor. Brown glass filters this wavelength out, but green glass doesn't.

"You should never buy beer in a green glass that's been exposed to the light."

Sitting in a bar with Slosberg is a little like sharing a beer with "Cheers' " Cliff Clavin--if, that is, Cliff had gotten his life together enough to head his own successful beer company. The facts (usually more convincing than Cliff's) come thick and fast.

"Europeans just think Americans want green bottles," Slosberg says, "so that's how they send us a lot of their beers. But if you go to Europe and drink them on their home ground, they're always in brown glass."

If you must buy beer in green bottles, he says, buy a whole six-pack, never a single bottle that's been standing outside the package.

Slosberg, who has come to this downtown Los Angeles bar from his home in Silicon Valley to talk about beer and his new autobiography, admits that not every beer in the wrong-colored bottle will have a positively bad smell. Brewers have figured out ways to remove the skunkable fraction of the hops, which is why some beers are even marketed in clear glass. "But then you're removing part of the flavor of the beer," Slosberg insists.

Apart from light, he goes on, the great enemy of beer is heat, which hastens oxidation. While light-struck beer is skunky, an oxidized beer loses all its individual flavor and ends up tasting like wet cardboard. In his new book "Beer for Pete's Sake" (Siris/Brewers Publications, 1998), Slosberg suggests an experiment to teach yourself what oxidized beer tastes like. It takes two weeks and involves yogurt, nine bottles of beer and comparison tasting.

OK, not many people will ever perform that experiment. In fact, not many people would even think of suggesting that experiment. The fact that he does is a testimonial to the beer mania that has taken over Slosberg's life.

Which is somewhat to his surprise. "I never even liked beer until I was 29, when I made a batch of my own," he says.

Reversing a common pattern, he got into beer through wine. In 1979, he took up home wine making while working at a Bay Area company, but soon he realized he hated the idea of waiting five years for the wine to be ready to drink. Somebody suggested making beer, which involves only a few week's wait.

His first batch was an epiphany. "I realized what was missing in all the beers I'd had," he recalls, "was the flavor of malt. I'd always loved malted milk and chocolate-covered malt candies when I was a kid." The big-name beer brands favor a middle-of-the-road style, neither particularly malty nor hoppy.

He became an enthusiastic home brewer, entering his product in beer contests. His specialty was a style he pioneered known as American brown ale. It has a stronger hop flavor than English brown ale but the same sort of malty, fruity aroma. Finally, in 1986, he and a co-worker (who is not, curiously, a beer-drinker himself) started Pete's Wicked Ale as a commercial enterprise.

In the intervening dozen years, the company has moved beyond micro-brewing to become one the larger upstart brewing companies. Pete's Wicked Ale, Wicked Red Ale and other brews are widely available at restaurants and bars and many liquor stores.

The success story is largely due to Slosberg's mixture of determination, business shrewdness and jovial, bar-buddy personality. He had to work around the clock for days to bottle his second commercial batch so he could hustle it out of the brewing facilities he was using before the premises were padlocked as the result of the proprietor's bankruptcy. Early on he used his English bull terrier, Millie, as a trademark and then had to go through a lawsuit with Anheuser Busch when the giant brewing firm came out with its own Spuds McKenzie promotion.

But he capitalized on every opportunity (he became the official brewer of Pete Wilson's gubernatorial campaign: Pete and Pete's, get it?). And he lectured whenever he could about oxidation, green bottles and his various other obsessions. He genially describes his book as "just a bunch of my lectures, or rants, assembled and given some semblance of structure by a very talented editor."

One of his favorite topics is the difference between ale and lager (the usual American beer). "Everybody says it's because ale uses top-fermenting yeast and lager uses bottom-fermenting yeast," he says. "Not so.

"Traditionally the yeast used in lager stays in the bottom of the tank when it ferments, unlike ale yeast, which rises to the top, but that wasn't what made the beer lager. It's the fact that it was fermented in underground caves, at a cool temperature. Lager yeasts ferment at 40 to 50 degrees, while ale yeasts ferment at 50 to 60 degrees.

"In fact, there are ale yeasts that are bottom-fermenting. If you want to make an ale at a brewing facility that's set up to make lager, you just use a bottom-fermenting ale yeast and ferment it at ale temperatures. That's what I do.

"Since ale is fermented at a higher temperature, the yeasts produce more aromatic compounds. The difference between ale and lager is that ales have these fruity or spicy flavors, and lagers don't."

Another is the wonderfulness of hops, which provide the bitter flavor in both the lager and ale styles of beer. "People have always doctored beer with herbs and spices." he says. "You can make it bitter with oregano instead of hops. In fact, a company was making an Italian oregano beer a while back, but it had to be consumed fresh. The great thing about hops is that it's not only a flavoring but a preservative."

Some of the topics Slosberg veers onto are the sort of thing you might hear in a bar and accept with the traditional grain--or two--of salt. For example, his theory that Britain gets its name from "bryton," the ancient Greek word for beer.

But his enthusiasms are infectious. Drink with him for a bit and you may find yourself looking on your beer bottle with horror.

Oh, no--it's green!

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