Friday, May 15, 2009 | Brewmaster Peter Zien took over Alesmith Brewing Co. in 2002 and has presided over a rise in output from 800 barrels a year to 2,000 barrels a year since then. Last year, the Mira Mesa-based brewery won the coveted Small Brewing Company and Small Brewing Company Brewer of the Year awards at the Great American Beer Festival.

Zien, who has a law degree from the University of San Diego, started home-brewing in 1994 and has become an icon among local brewers and beer fans by producing high-octane beers with names like Speedway Stout, Horny Devil and Wee Heavy.

We sat down to talk with Zien about pairing beer with food, the worst beer he’s ever had, alcohol, and the city’s burgeoning brewing industry.

What’s the worst beer you’ve ever tasted?

Well, there’s some home brews that I made as an amateur that I wasn’t very proud of. Sometimes the nature of experimentation takes you places you don’t want to be.

There’s an ingredient — a medieval spice called sweet gale — that is reputed to cause rapid drunkenness. So I made a beer with that and it really turned out candy sweet. It was really bad and I made more than one of my friends sick.

Did it get you drunk quick?

It did, actually. It did also help that it was 11 percent alcohol.

As far as commercial beers though, I couldn’t even name one. Sometimes brewers miss the mark, but in general I’m just such a huge fan of beer that I’m just forgiving.

Talking of alcohol content, most beer tends to be about the same — around 5 percent alcohol — is there a threshold to how much alcohol you can put in beer and do they limit it because alcohol just tastes bad?

Alcohol has a lot of flavor characteristics, so many in fact that they haven’t even listed them all.

Alcohol’s a huge component of beer and it seems that, over the years, beers have fallen into this 5 to 6 percent range because that’s the balance of flavors between malt, hops and alcohol that makes for very nice, drinkable beer.

Half of our lineup — 50 percent of the beers we brew here — are over 10 percent alcohol. We make some high-alcohol stuff. It’s not easy to make high-alcohol beer.

This country has so many great micro breweries and wonderful beers, so why do people in this country have such a fascination with drinking beer that most experts don’t consider to be very good?

I think that is changing. I think the proof of that is that the mass-produced beers have not had growth in their sales for seven years now, while the micro-brew segment continues to grow.

It’s kind of a political answer: World War II came about and malt became more important for making bread, so brewers started throwing more adjuncts into the mix — corn, rice, things like that. People came back from the war brand-loyal. They remembered the beers that were shipped over to soldiers.

So, for years there was just this mass-produced beer, adjunct-heavy, very light-bodied, fizzy, yellow, nothing-flavored beer that we’ve been brainwashed by television ads to drink. It’s taken a while to undo all that. I think we’re right in the middle of it right now, this beer renaissance.

People are finally to the point where they don’t believe that opening this little can of beer is going to create this wild pool party in the back, where people are going to start jumping out of windows and all these great things are going to happen. That’s just trying to get you to not think about the beer. Whereas, if I were to make a commercial, it would only be about the highest quality ingredients we use, the amount of time each one of us spends monitoring fermentation and making sure these beers come out so they taste delicious.

Is it a good time to be a brewer?

Absolutely. We’re short on every order. I have five distributors throughout the country and we can never give them all they want. Every drop we make, we sell. I doubled our size and we’re still in that position. We just can’t make enough beer.

I have a list of distributors waiting that’s 50 individuals strong. They keep calling and wanting more, so I think right now is the best time to be a micro-brewer. There’s tremendous growth, tremendous information available to make quality beer, tremendous raw ingredients available. I think it’s the height of brewing right now.

San Diego has a strong tradition of making good beer. What do you put that down to?

Everyone’s trying to figure that out: How did San Diego, this little Navy town, jump onto the world beer map? We often find ourselves in the top five now. You hear “What are the top five cities? Prague, Munich, San Diego …” It just sounds so crazy.

I think because of the weather and stuff, a lot of people move here. So there’s more people to begin with. The water’s not great though, so it’s not that. I think it could be the way that we all share: The San Diego Brewer’s Guild brings us all together monthly to meet. Some people might think Stone is a competitor of mine, but they’re not. Stone is my distributor and, as (Stone Brewing Co. CEO) Greg Koch so eloquently put it, “We’re compatriots, we’re not competitors.”

We’re here to help each other. It may seem strange that another local brewery is selling my beer, but to me it doesn’t seem strange. We have no overlapping styles and we have a great relationship. I think that exemplifies the camaraderie and cooperation that we show.

We’re almost like individual pieces of string. When we wind ourselves together, we become rope. The big guys might be stainless steel braided cables, but still, we’re stronger as rope than string.

The concept of pairing beer and food is becoming very popular these days. Is it a fad or a legitimate idea?

I absolutely believe it’s a legitimate idea. When the dust settles a few years from now, beer will be the accepted pairing and wine will be less so.

From the beginning of time, we put meat and things over open fires. We developed a taste for roasted flavors and caramelized flavors. Those are two flavors that I can easily bridge through my beers. I have the ability to create roasted flavors with the roasted barley we put in our Speedway Stout. I can also create wonderful mayard reaction, which is a cooking term for caramelization, in many of our beers too, and that’s the bridge. Beer seems to be the more friendly, bridging, contrasting drink.

We also do one beer-pairing dinner a month here. Nothing against wines, I know wines pair wonderfully, but the ability to reach specific notes in our beers to match the food — wine can’t touch that. I have way more ingredients at my disposal to make beer.

They’re choosing single vintages, fermented, they maybe pick up some wood from the barrel aging but, for the most part, I can actually set up to make beers to pair with food. When done correctly, it elevates into a third great thing: The food is improved and the beer is improved and you make this third thing, this melding.

What’s a really wacky ingredient you’ve heard about being added to beer?

I heard of a brewer who replaced adding hops to the beer with adding yams. He found a type of bitterness that came out of the yams in the boil that replaced the hops.

Last year, we got hit with a big hops shortage. Hop prices went through the roof and I think that’s what forced him to experiment.

In England, where there’s a really strong ale tradition, ale is traditionally served at room temperature. We’re not that keen on doing that in the United States, but is it becoming more popular?

We’ve always done casks here. We sell firkin (small casks of ale) and tin casks, to be served with a hand pump. There are seven different accounts in San Diego that require those from us.

Cellar temperature real ales cannot be beat. Fifty-five, 60 degrees Fahrenheit, the tremendous smoothness you get out of those casks, it can’t be beat. I’m a huge fan of cask ale and I wish more breweries did it.

So, how does one become a brewer?

I’m a hobbyist by nature, I’ve always been fascinated by great beer. In 10th grade, when I was well underage to drink them, I had a 300-bottle collection in my room. My folks were older than most, my dad was in his 50s, and they would take me to Europe, where we’d drink the great beers in England, Germany and Belgium.

In 1994, on my birthday, I went to the home brew mart and bought myself a kit that I saw in the back of a magazine. The guy who sold me the kit is now the owner of O’Brien’s Pub (in Kearny Mesa). He sold me the kit and now he buys my commercial beer to sell in his pub.

I have a law degree, from the University of San Diego, and I was supposed to go that whole path, but, for me, I always wanted to be an artist and make money, so when I found brewing I though “This is it, I’ve got everything.”

People always laugh when I tell them I chose brewing over being a lawyer. I told my mom I’d be a judge one day, she didn’t know I meant a beer judge.

Does anyone make beer that will age for decades and improve with aging, like wine?

The higher-alcohol beers age quite well. On the back of all of our 750 ml. bottles of strong beer, we tell you to age these for 36 months or longer.

We’ve opened 12-year-old bottles. We bottle condition everything. We put flat beer in the bottle and we add live yeast and sugar, so these are living things and they’re going to change over time. The complexity changes, and what tends to happen is that sherry-like notes and vanilla notes creep in over time. They become very interesting.

Thomas Hardy, in England, they started bottling that in 1968 and they’re still serving those bottles from 1968. There’s really no reason why it should fall apart.

But low-alcohol beers, anything under 7 percent, you’re not going to want to drink it after six months from when they produced. They’re still going to be drinkable, but they’re not going to be good. You’re going to get cardboard and paper-like flavors, and those are not good.

Are you guys basically always drunk?

I can’t speak for my crew but I personally don’t drink while I’m here. I need to be the one person that’s OK if something bad happens. I live three miles down the road. I can leave. And then I drink a lot.

— Interview by WILL CARLESS

Dagny Salas

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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