Success tastes good for craft beer purveyor Peter Zien
For the better part of two and a half centuries, a cornerstone of American life has been a fervent belief in the value of good old-fashioned hard work; the kind of roll-up-your-sleeves, nose-to-the-grindstone labor that our fore-fathers championed, and that, to this day, undergirds our nation’s prominence and prosperity.
Peter Zien wants nothing to do with that blue-collar credo. At least that’s what he’d like you to believe.
“I knew early on that I didn’t want to go through the motions of working a 9-to-5 job that was all about making money and not about happiness. I just didn’t want to work that hard,” he says. “I wanted to play.”
That was then, this is now. These days, Zien is all about racking up long hours if that’s what it takes to fine-tune his skill set as one of the country’s premier craft beer brew masters. And if the success of his award winning, San Diego-based AleSmith Brewing Company is any indication, the truth is that he has a work ethic that won’t quit.
“I know it sounds like a cliché, but when you love what you do, it really doesn’t feel like work,” he offers, then adds with a laugh, “I never knew hard work could be so much fun.”
And so wonderfully tasty, for that matter. A self-described hobbyist by nature, Zien’s love of a great-tasting ale blossomed during his teenage years in the late 1970s. While his peers were collecting Farah Fawcett posters and Kiss albums, Zien was amassing an impressive bottle display featuring beers from across the globe.
“When I was 16 years old, I had a 300-bottle beer collection,” he recalls. “My dad took us to Europe a lot around that time, and one of the best parts about it was that I got a good taste of what really good beer tastes like,” he chuckles.
What’s no laughing matter to Zien is the exacting process by which he and his staff create some of the best-tasting beers to be found in San Diego, or, for that matter, anywhere else.
A recent visit to his Kearny Mesa, Calif., brewery revealed two facts very quickly: Zien is hands-on in every facet of the brewing process for each of the 15 types of year-round, seasonal and barrel-aged craft beers AleSmith produces (he even samples every batch of coffee that’s brewed specifically for his critically acclaimed Speedway Stout); and that he’ll never, ever cut corners in producing his product. The latter is something that can’t be said for many big-name beer distributors.
“We’re artists here, and we view the brewing of beer as the perfect blend of art and science,” Zien explains. “Unlike the big distributors, beer gets first-class treatment, always. There’s not going to be a pool party when you open my beer. Frogs won’t talk. What I will tell you is that everything we produce is top of the line, and you get what you pay for.”
This adherence to quality over quantity has helped raise AleSmith to lofty heights in the microbrewery market. In 2008, they earned the prestigious Small Brewery of the Year award at the Great American Beer Festival, which is the equivalent of the brewing industry’s Academy Awards. Zien takes great pride in such an impressive achievement, but kudos are nothing new: he’s racked up more than 400 medals and honors since he began brewing in 1995.
“It’s a really collaborative effort here,” he says, quick to direct praise towards his hard-working staff. “When you drink one of our bottles, at least five of our seven employees have to touch it before it goes off the line. They’re all home brewers, and bring their own unique talents to creating some of the best beers on the market.”
Zien is also one of only 13 accredited Grand Master Level One Beer Judges in the world; a remarkable accomplishment for a guy who, after graduating from USD’s School of Law in 1995, really had no idea where life would lead.
“Yeah, I know it sounds kind of funny, but after I earned my JD from USD, the one thing I was sure of was that I didn’t want to end up in a courtroom,” he admits. “I really loved my time at USD, but I also know I’m not the first person who graduated from a law program and realized that they didn’t really want to practice law.”
The legal profession’s loss became the beer connoisseur’s gain, and judging by AleSmith’s impressive growth over the last few years, it appears Zien and his beer-brewing compatriots won’t be slowing down anytime soon.
“We have 50 distributors waiting their turn to get our beers. There’s no way we can fill all of our orders,” he says before offering a glass of the caramel-flavored fan favorite Anvil ESB Ale. “It’s certainly a great position to be in, and one we’ve worked hard to get to.”