01/15/1996 at 01:00 AM EST
IT'S NOT EASY BEING A LITTLE GUY IN a world of giants. In 1986 novice brewer Peter Slosberg, a computer-product manager at the Rolm Corp. in Santa Clara, Calif., printed a picture of Millie, his late white bull terrier, on his first bottles of Pete's Wicked Ale. Trouble was, Millie looked a lot like another bull terrier, Budweiser party animal Spuds MacKenzie. To avoid a legal dogfight, Slosberg decided to go with a new mascot: himself.
Thus began a metamorphosis from computer nerd to "the Pete," as his wife calls him, of brewery fame. Slosberg, 45, may never achieve the Q rating of Spuds, but his is the face that launched 345,000 barrels of Pete's Wicked Ale last year, making it the second-largest seller—distantly, after Samuel Adams—in the specialty beer business. "Pete's Pete," says Daniel Bradford, a beer-industry analyst, of Slosberg's appeal to beer drinkers as well as investors (who drove up his stock almost 40 percent when it went public last year). "He's a big beer geek." Slosberg now spends half the year on the road talking suds, and he appears in most of his company's ads. When he's in the office, he personally answers calls to the 800 number printed on every label. "People seem to like the fact that there is a Pete," he says.
Slosberg is now synonymous with beer, but until he began brewing his own back in 1980, he didn't even like the stuff. Born in Norwich, Conn., the youngest of two children of a grain-supplier father and an antiques-dealer mother, Slosberg studied for degrees in engineering and business administration at Columbia University in New York City while driving a cab. Married in 1975 to Amy Margolis, 43, he moved to Rochester, N.Y., where he settled into the finance department at Xerox, and then to Belmont, Calif., for a job with communications-equipment maker Rolm. (Margolis, a former government administrator, now stays home with sons Eric, 13, and Alexander, 9.)
In 1980 a bottle of homemade wine at a friend's house inspired him and Margolis to round up winemaking equipment, plus 200 pounds of cabernet grapes, and set up a winery in the basement of their home. They squeezed the grapes, strained the juice through cheesecloth, and fermented and bottled it. "Then it dawned on me," says Slosberg. "What do we do for the next five to 10 years while we're waiting for it to age?" Agitated, he phoned the equipment company and learned that, with some tinkering and $20 worth of parts, the winemaking gadgetry could be used to make beer. "I was a skeptic," he says. But two months later when he sampled his first flavorful batch, a brewmeister was born.
Slosberg joined a home-brew club at Rolm, where, by 1986, his ale recipe had become so popular that he and a colleague, Mark Bronder, now 45, decided to start their own microbrewery. (Bronder continues as a company director.) The name for their ale came easily: "You're the brewer," said Bronder. "Let's call it Pete's." But it was missing an adjective. They picked "wicked" after hearing a routine by a comic who was fixated on the word. "We thought, 'My God, it's only beer,' " recalls Slosberg. "Let's have fun with it."
With $50,000 of startup capital from friends and colleagues, Slosberg and Bronder rented a local commercial brewery for four days and, working around the clock with 15 of their buddies, turned out 500 cases of Pete's home brew. That quickly sold out, prompting Slosberg to quit his job at Rolm. By 1991, Pete's Wicked Ale was selling 200,000 cases a year.
With money from his stock sale, Slosberg—who owns shares worth $8 million—hopes to build a $30 million brewery in Northern California. Profit counts for a lot, but his first love is beer itself. "Call me an evangelist," says Slosberg, who says his goal in life is to bring some variety to the palates of beer drinkers. "There's more to life than Bud, Miller and Coors."
ELIZABETH FERNANDEZ in San Francisco