By DAVE MASON
NEWS-PRESS STAFF WRITER
Maybe beer making is rocket science.
After all, Pete Johnson was a physicist working on the space shuttle before he and others started the Brewhouse.
He went from working for NASA to keeping customers happy at a Funk Zone restaurant known for its home-crafted beers, cocktails, local wines, burgers, pastas, steaks, bratwurst sausages, seafood and more. Prices range from $2.50 for the Oyster Shooter to $29 for the 22-ounce Porterhouse, with many items in the $10 to $25 range.
Today, Mr. Johnson, 65, whose career went from astronomical to gastronomical, is happy in his down-to-Earth job.
“I love making beers, and I love sitting around and talking to people about beer,” the easygoing restaurant co-owner told the News-Press recently during lunch as customers sat down in the patio and at the bar.
“I think the food has always been really good. It’s just a fun, relaxed place to hang out,” said Mr. Johnson, whose ales include a deep amber one called — what else? — Rocket Science Red.
The Brewhouse will celebrate its 22nd anniversary May 25-29 with a $7.99 burger-and-beer special.
The restaurant with out-of-this-world beers is known for being packed.
“A lot of local fishermen hang out here because we’re not that far from the harbor,” Mr. Johnson said.
Bar manager Maria Yapur said customers feel at home at the Brewhouse.
“It’s their living room. They come in, and they see their buddies,” Ms. Yapur told the News-Press at the bar as a couple men drank beers and clinked glasses.
The customers’ enthusiasm and the upcoming 22nd anniversary celebration mark the latest chapter in the life of Mr. Johnson, the scientist-turned-brewer.
He earned his master’s in physics in 1977 at Kent State University in Ohio.
“I worked in Houston for six or seven years on the guidance system for the space shuttle,” he said.
“I came to California to work at Lockheed in Burbank on various defense projects that remain classified, but one year in Burbank was enough,” said Mr. Johnson, who found Santa Barbara was a better fit for his idea of the California dream. He began working at General Research in Goleta.
The Santa Barbara resident discovered homebrews during a backpacking trip with his brother in the late 1980s in Northern California. They stumbled onto a magazine article listing brewpubs and microbreweries that were on their travel route.
“We stopped at those places, and I developed a taste for this type of beer,” said Mr. Johnson, whose enthusiasm grew when he got a bottle of a homebrew made by a fellow scientist at General Research.
In 1998, Mr. Johnson became involved with his first restaurant, one with a microbrewery, when he, chef Gary Jacobson and Barbara Long were among the partners who started the Brewhouse.
“Everybody who works on the beer and who has assisted me genuinely cares about the beer. I think that’s true of almost every microbrewery,” Mr. Johnson said.
He said the Brewhouse’s most popular beer is its West Beach IPA. “I think almost every brewery in California would say their IPA is their most popular beer.
“People have developed a taste for hops, and the more hops you put in, the better,” Mr. Johnson said.
Besides the West Beach IPA, the Brewhouse’s ales vary from the Nirvana Pale Ale, described to have a West Coast style, to the Motivation Destroyer IPA, which has tropical and citrus notes.
Mr. Johnson sighed with a smile as he discussed Belgian ales that he named “Saint Barb” in honor of St. Barbara. They’re brewed in the Belgian monastic tradition, and the notes in the lineup vary from raisin and chocolate to citrus and honey.
“In Belgium, they treat beer the way the French do wine. It’s part of their culture,” he said.
Mr. Johnson said his beers pair well with Brewhouse’s food, in much the same way as wines. “You use the lagers in the way you would white wine, and ales, the way you use red wines. Ales are more robust and full-flavored and can hold up to hearty meats.”
Speaking of which, Mr. Johnson is a big fan of his restaurant’s cheeseburgers.
“We sell more cheeseburgers than anything else,” he said. “I could live on that and eat that seven days a week if my doctor would let me.”
For the News-Press photo shoot, Jamie Jacobson, the restaurant’s general manager and Chef Jacobson’s daughter, brought out the Western BBQ Burger, which features a beef patty topped with barbecue sauce, smoked bacon, cheddar and an onion ring on a brioche bun.
The Brewhouse also sells its Mint Lamb Burger and Vegetable Burger, as well as sandwiches varying from Grilled Chicken to the Santa Barbara Cheese Steak.
Mr. Johnson is a big fan of Brewhouse’s salmon that has a crust created from the potato chips made in the restaurant.
“The potato chip crust gives it a nice crust and saltiness that I think complements the salmon, which is usually local and fresh,” he said.
Mr. Johnson noted the kitchen also does a great job with its Pan Seared Ahi, which comes with wasabi sesame soy sauce over creamy risotto and steamed spinach. “It’s always a tasty fish.”
Mr. Johnson said he enjoys the Bacon Wrapped Filet Mignon. “The filet is always a great cut of meat. I like my steaks. And if you put bacon on anything, it makes it better.”
He added that he likes the restaurant’s creative twist with its Jerk Chicken.
“It’s Jamacian style and comes with mango salsa,” Mr. Johnson said, noting that the spicy dish isn’t very hot. The dishi also has rosemary new potatoes and sugar snap peas.
Besides its human customers, the Brewhouse welcomes dogs at its patio, where the canines can enjoy dishes from a menu just for them. Choices vary from a burger on whole wheat toast points to steak bites, a warm chicken breast cut into strips and dog biscuits with beef gravy.
Mr. Johnson said the marrow bone is popular.
“Your dog can take a while to eat that while you have time to chat with your friends and have a beer or two.”