Two years ago, when Rockslide Restaurant & Brewery was in search of a new brewer, they wanted to ensure the happiness of their longtime loyal customers—some of whom had been in the pub’s 19-year old Mug Club since the very beginning. The Wednesday night regulars (numbering 200+) can be mighty particular about their Rockslide beer.
The owners gave the nod to local, Zorba Proteau, a self-proclaimed science geek who came by his love for brewing by happy accident. Physics, engineering and chemistry were among his areas of interest as he pursued a biology degree at Mesa State. When he wasn’t studying, he was homebrewing—tinkering with recipes and paying attention to the parameters of his creations. Proteau is of the school of brewers who sweats the numbers of beer, especially bittering.
“Although my techniques are science-based, it all comes down to great tasting beer,” Proteau said. He’s been fortunate to have a few good mentors, including his chemistry professor Tim D’Andrea, and brewmaster Jim Jeffryes at nearby Kannah Creek Brewing Company. Proteau got a kitchen job at Kannah Creek where he immediately began pestering Jeffryes about brewing.
“Jim would review my home recipes and sometimes give me some leftover malt and hops,” Proteau recalls. His homebrews, created while waiting for a chance at a craft brew job, got better and better as he earned his biology degree. Eventually Kannah Creek was busy enough to bring Zorba to the brewing side of the business, where he earned his craft brewing certification through the American Brewers Guild.
“Jim taught me how to make beer in a professional setting and really set me up for a great career,” said Proteau. In between breweries he worked for a while at a local distillery, excited that his science insight also transferred to spirits. Finally, 18 months ago, his mug came in with Rockslide.
“At Rockslide, beer is a means to enhance our food,” Proteau explained. “My marching orders were to honor that relationship. It was a great opportunity for me. I got to walk into this special brewing operation that I had long admired through the front window.”
At the end of four months, the beer coming out of Rockslide was all his. The science Proteau swears by is evident, with a distinctive, tiered finish through the taps. His fine-tuning kept the popular Widow Maker Wheat flowing. The Raspberry Wheat, Cold Shivers Pale Ale (named after the overlook at the nearby Colorado National Monument) and Rabbit Ears Amber Ale are welcome company on the light side of the palate. The Kokopelli Cream Ale, named after a local trail, offers a nice pop to pave the way for the house Big Bear Stout.
The special releases are where Proteau really hits his stride. Vintage, a pilsner lager, tastes very familiar, like a faint memory—fizzy, crystal clear and golden—like a macro beer, but in a craft beer tuxedo. Proteau grins, “You noticed that, huh? It’s a stab at a light macro beer, but it’s the difference between a store-bought apple pie and a homemade pie.”
Selling beer through science seems all right with regulars and new patrons. Based on the last quarter sales, Rockslide is trending to well exceed its 2012 beer sales.