AleSmith owner Peter Zien has been a fixture in the San Diego beer scene: He was the President of QUAFF, San Diego’s venerable homebrew club and earned his Grand Master BJCP judging level, even before purchasing Alesmith Brewery in 2002.
“Right from the beginning, we always tried to make the best beer we could and focus on quality: Quality was all we had. The brewery was made up of a bunch of dairy tanks and ill-suited brewing equipment; that’s where the homebrewer sensibility came through, and we were wonderful at thinking things out and jerryrigging equipment.”
In the early 2000s, breweries didn’t zoom to success overnight: In fact, Zien says AleSmith was in the red for more than a decade; from 1997 to 2008 there was “no profit to speak of.” What kept him going? Simply: “I was having fun. It really is a great lifestyle. Certainly, it was hard work, brewing every day. In the beginning, we couldn’t afford to hire people, so I was driving a forklift and cleaning bathrooms. But we stayed motivated because we really believed we were doing something special.”
He also believed the tide would turn, and that eventually drinkers would discover craft beer. That shift began in 2007: “I believe the loss that year was $20,000 or $30,000, and I thought, ‘We’re really close to flipping.’”
In 2008, four out of five of AleSmith’s entered beers won medals at the Great American Beer Festival, earning the brewery the coveted Small Brewing Company of the Year title. Today, AleSmith has ten 100-point beers on RateBeer and has won RateBeer’s Best Brewery award three times. And that old dairy equipment is long gone: AleSmith just opened a 105,500-square-foot brewery featuring a new 80-barrel brewing system that will churn out ten times the amount of beer that it had previously. The new digs have a two-story tasting room, outdoor beer garden and a museum dedicated to San Diego Padres legend Tony Gwynn; Zien is also opening CheeseSmith, a cheese-making shop within the brewery that will focus on beer and cheese pairings.
“I pinch myself once in a while,” says Zien. “Sometimes I forget how we got from there to here. There were some tough years. I could be on my knees crying for out of disappointment, or crying when we won a big award because I was so happy for my employees. It’s an emotional journey.”