BY ALANNA BERMAN
There are only four ingredients in beer: water, yeast, malted barley and hops. And while those four ingredients are in every drop of beer worldwide, it takes a little something extra to make a beer outstanding — passion. At AleSmith Brewing Company in Miramar, owner Peter Zien brings that ingredient to the next level.
After buying his first home brew kit in 1995, Zien knew he couldn’t get enough of producing his own home brews. Later, as a volunteer at the very same brewery he now owns, his passion for craft beer grew into an even greater appreciation, which is evident upon first stepping into his humble little microbrewery. Fascinated by the science and art of making beer, his eyes light up as he explains the stage when yeast ferments and creates carbon dioxide and alcohol, turning what is basically sugar water into beer.
“The yeast just gets in there and just knows what to do,” he says. “There are all these molecules jumping around in there like crazy until they start to get a little sugar high. It’s a real lesson and tie to the beginning of life, and it’s all going on in these vats.”
And Zien (cousin to another well-known “expert” in the food and drink world, Sam “The Cooking Guy” Zien) is knowledgeable about everything else there is to know about a good bottle of brewsky. He’s held literally every job at the brewery, and though he’s now owner, he continues to play an active role in many aspects of the daily operations.
But beer wasn’t always where he was supposed to end up. Zien earned a law degree from the University of San Diego and was studying for the bar exam. One day he stopped studying for the test and broke the news to his parents that law just wasn’t for him.
“Growing up Jewish, you do a lot of things for other people all your life,” he says, “but thankfully, my parents were okay with the fact that I decided not to be a lawyer. I think they knew all along I wasn’t a very confrontational person.”
It wasn’t too long before Zien’s hobby of home brewing began to play a big role in his life.
“I just couldn’t make enough beer,” he says. “I was waking up on brew day jumping out of bed to taste my latest batch, and I started entering all these contests with my home brews.”
In 1996, Zien took home first prize at the Del Mar Fair for a Pilsner he brewed at home and was approached by a local home brew club looking for new members. Zien had found a likeminded group with which to share his hobby in the Quality Ale and Fermentation Fraternity, or QUAFF. In 2001 he was QUAFF’s president, leading the group to win some of the greatest honors in home brewing circles: State Home Brew Club of the Year and National Brew Club of the Year.
“My father always told me that if you operate with integrity and honesty, then all good things come to you,” he says. “That is the reputation that I hope I’ve carved,” he says.
Zien’s father, a solid businessman who died in late 2001, had owned a popular restaurant in St. Paul, Minn., called the Criterion in the 1950s. (Known for its high quality food and exceptional service, the Criterion was where his father met Ray Croc and was introduced to the McDonald’s franchise, eventually becoming vice president of the corporation.)
“[My father] told me that when he ran the Criterion, he would get up at 4 a.m. to pick out the meat, and I got that strong work ethic from him,” Zien says. “Before he died, I remember he said, ‘That dummy’s going to buy a brewery someday, I know it,’ and he said it lovingly, but there were a few years I thought perhaps maybe I did make a mistake.”
Since its founding, and then for years after Zien purchased the brewery, AleSmith was in the red. It wasn’t until 2009 that the brewery became profitable, but nothing had ever deterred Zien or his team.
“I believed in what we were doing, and I saw that the microbrews segment was growing,” he says. “I figured, there’s got to be one year where [the losses will turn into profits] and finally we won’t be losing money.”
It was a slow and steady determination that finally attracted the beer world’s attention to the little San Diego microbrewery. In 2008, AleSmith was named Small Brewery of the Year at the Great American Beer Festival, the largest competition in the world for breweries.
“I’m not a huge risk-taker, so our growth has been in my comfort zone,” Zien says. “Kind of slow and steady, but, you know, I think now [my father] would be very proud with what I’ve done.”
AleSmith continues to win awards for its 10 regular beers and five seasonal beers at competitions nationwide, and it’s known worldwide for some of its specialty beers — like the limited supply batch of bourbon barrel aged 2009 Speedway Stout released just last month to crowds lined up outside the brewery overnight. Part of what makes the beer so good is the small staff who produces it and the locally sourced ingredients.
“We try to be in contact with the people who are growing our hops, and when it comes to the barley we like to see the plants,” Zien says. “We try our hardest to stay local and support the local market when we have that option.”
Often, that means sampling the raw grains and other raw ingredients to ensure the quality is suitable for AleSmith’s beers.
“I’m a big believer in tasting everything raw that goes into my beers, so we’re eating the grains raw right out of the bag,” he says. “If it doesn’t taste good at that point, then you aren’t going to make good beer with it, so we are always smelling out hops and getting the freshest things we can. Absolutely no corners are cut when it comes to our beer. We have to treat the water we use to make the beer, because in San Diego, our water isn’t that great. If we didn’t treat it first, your mouth would pucker every time you took a sip.”
Along the same lines, Zien prefers taking the natural route when it comes to giving their beers a little froth. Instead of pumping carbon dioxide into the bottles following the brewing process, Zien prefers the old fashioned method. He adds a pinch of yeast and sugar to each bottle before capping and allows the ingredients to do all the work. While this process requires each bottle to sit for two extra weeks, the difference in taste is noticeable.
Additionally, AleSmith gives back to the community by recycling the spent grain leftover during the brewing process by giving it to local farmers to use for feed for cattle and goats. In turn, one farmer began bringing raw goat’s milk to the brewery for trade, which has steered Zien toward his latest venture as a cheesemonger. He’s taking classes at Cal Poly’s Dairy Institute, adding a “clean room” to the brewery’s space and plans to have cheeses — some of them made with AleSmith beers — for sale by the beginning of 2012.
“[Since I bought the brewery] I’ve tried to turn it more into a business (while still keeping with the artistic nature of brewing) to really make sure that we could exist forever,” Zien says. “It has to be a labor of love if you are going to make it in this business. I’ve realized my dream.” A
AleSmith Brewing Company is located at 9368 Cabot Drive in San Diego. The AleSmith tasting room is open to the public Thursdays and Fridays, 2-7 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays, noon-6 p.m. The last Saturday of each month, Zien conducts brewery tours. Reservations are required and can be made by calling (858) 549-9888. For more information about the brewery or where to buy AleSmith beers, visit www.alesmith.com.