“Keep your libraries, keep your penal institutions, keep your insane asylums…give man beer. You think man needs rule, he needs beer. The world does not need morals, it needs beer, it does not need your lectures and charity. The souls of men have been fed with indigestibles, but he could make use of beer.” — Henry Miller
If you think it odd to find an article about beer in a column dedicated to art and the artists who create it, then you don’t fully understand the scope of what it is I’m trying to communicate here. Or maybe you’re just not as big a fan of beer as myself or those you will find sitting on the patio at The Brewhouse with a golden, want-annihilating St. Abbey’s XXX in their hand, the sun on their face and a silent, Zen-like smile where their mouth used to be. That feeling is the result of a combination of things, but if we had to thank one person for it, we might thank Pete.
The Brewhouse is about as local as “local” gets in Santa Barbara and it plays host to the likes of live musicians, painters, photographers, students, old folks, youngsters, surfers, bikers, walkers; anyone sharing the common desire to have good beer in a good place that lacks only in pretentiousness. When The Independent decides to add the “Most Enjoyable Place to Drink A Beer” category to it’s “Best of” contest, The Brewhouse will take it year after year. But given the strong local feel of this place, you might be a little surprised to learn that it is a former aerospace engineer/transplant from back East who is responsible for the flavor of the beer found there. Last week I showed up at the Brewhouse at 9 in the a.m. to do something other than simply enjoy the brew (which Pete invited me to do later anyway). I wanted to get to know it a little better; it was time to meet the maker.
Pete Johnson of The Brewhouse
Former NASA engineer and modern day alchemist Pete Johnson uses his creative talents to brew consistently fine beer.
Pete Johnson has been in Santa Barbara for 20 years and found himself here in the same way that a lot of us have. For whatever reason, life just kind of led him here and he liked it. So he stayed. Not that Pete wasn’t exceedingly good at preparing sophisticated in-flight aerodynamics analyses and such for NASA, it’s just that he had always liked the, experimental, theoretical, and creative aspect of engineering more than the practical, day-to-day statistical stuff that he was doing most of the time. It wasn’t long after he and his family relocated to Santa Barbara that he was able to put his creativity back to work as master brewer of the Brewhouse. For seven years now Pete has been nothing less than a modern day alchemist, measuring his base materials and heating them to just the right temperature for just the right amount of time before adding the crucial ingredient at precisely the right moment to give each batch a similar (though never exactly the same) aroma, flavor and feel, rendering a golden (or brown, or amber, or black…) whole that is far greater than the sum of its parts.
As Pete or any of the Santa Barbeerians will tell you, making beer is actually a pretty simple process. You can make beer on your stove top with pre-measured ingredients in a couple of hours. But, if you can tell the difference between a Natty Ice and a West Beach IPA, you know that there’s a difference between beer and good beer. Not that I haven’t consumed my fair share of “the Natty,” but given the choice, I would choose the West Beach over the Natty nine times out of ten.
While talking about the slight variations that can occur from batch to batch due to environmental conditions and the role of yeast in the brewing process, Pete told me, “It’s not so much about making a good beer consistently as it is about making a consistently good beer.” The triple is always going to be an incredible Belgian XXX, even if it’s not exactly the same every time. Yeast is alive and ubiquitous and sometimes inventive, acting as a co-creator in any brew. And because it’s alive, from time to time it contributes something more or less unexpected to the final product — especially wild Santa Barbarian yeast. It’s pretty apparent that the wind has always blown mischievous and rebellious creatures into Santa Barbara, so there is no doubt in my mind that wild S.B. yeast is of similar stock.
So if you like to drink “good beer,” maybe you should figure out what “good beer” means to you and learn how to brew it for yourself. Or maybe you should just go have a pint at the Brewhouse and say thanks to Pete and the whole crew there for creating one of the few places in Santa Barbara with both a consistently good beer and a consistently good vibe.