Raising one last glass to Pete's Wicked

Pete Slosberg was trying his hand at winemaking when he realized he was too impatient to wait out the fermentation.

The homebrew supply store owner suggested making beer, which didn't take as long, but Slosberg wasn't much of a beer drinker.

You might be if you brewed your own, he was told.

So Slosberg, a Norwich native, brewed a batch. The flavor reminded him of the malted milk balls that he had loved as a kid.

And, as they say, the rest is history.

That was 1979, and seven years later, after a lot of trial and error, Slosberg rolled out Pete's Wicked Ale.

Now, 25 years after he started tinkering around in his Belmont, Calif., kitchen, Pete's Wicked Ale is no more. The Gambrinus Co., which bought the brand from Slosberg in 1998, discontinued the line as of March 1.

Like most of the country in the mid-1980s, I was drinking mass-produced American lagers. When I could afford something a little more pricey and wanted to enjoy something more "exotic," I'd grab Michelob, Molson or Dos Equis.

For me and many others, Pete Slosberg changed that. I was so struck by Pete's Wicked Ale that I brought two 22-ounce bottles to a golf tournament to share with my playing partners. As we stood in the parking lot, I poured the dark ale into plastic cups.

With just a few sips we came to the same conclusion as Slosberg had: American beer didn't have to be blonde and flavorless.

Slosberg had a few things going for him: a great beer, the hip use of wicked in the name and a drinking public that was ready for full-flavored beers.

He was a member of a generation of brewers who weren't afraid of hops and would never consider adding rice or corn to the brew kettle.

Pete's Wicked Ale, the first American Brown Ale, became a huge hit. Strawberry Blonde, Honey Wheat and some seasonal beers followed. Before long, Pete's was the second largest microbrewer behind Boston Beer Co. and its Sam Adams beers.

Pete wrote a book and traveled the world spreading the craft beer message.

When he came home to the Norwich area - brother Steve was The Day's columnist - I was sometimes lucky enough to tip a few with him and listen to his stories.

True to his homebrewing roots, Pete was obsessed with freshness. At a bar with dozens of taps, he mentioned that his beer had been oxidized.

Later, we stopped at a liquor store so he could check the dates on his bottles, to make sure they weren't selling old beer. By then, the image of the bearded Pete was recognizable, and the employees were pretty sure it wasn't an imposter heading into the cooler. He took beer that was past its date and put it aside, telling the employees that it would be replaced by the distributor.

Pete now lives in San Francisco, having exited the high-end chocolate business. He has collaborated with the brewers at Dogfish Head on a beer and is helping to organize the first annual South American beer competition (www.southbeercup.com).

In an e-mail last week, he said Pete's Wicked Ale really died in 2000, when Gambrinus changed the recipe to make it lighter. They had taken an award-winning, groundbreaking ale and turned it into just another beer.

Fritz Maytag (Anchor) and Ken Grossman (Sierra Nevada) were among the early craft beer pioneers, paving the way for the likes of Slosberg and Jim Koch (Sam Adams). Similarly, there wouldn't be Dogfish Head, Great Divide, Magic Hat or Cottrell without Pete Slosberg.

So join me in raising a glass: To Pete, it was wicked while it lasted.



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