By Hudson Lindenberger
If searching for superior liquid goodness that routinely takes home Great American Beer Festival medals, one must travel to San Diego, home to one of the hottest craft brewing scenes in America. The brewers ensconced in this hophead heaven have been responsible for creating some iconic brews. AleSmith Brewing Company, winners of two medals at last years Great American Beer Festival, has been leading the way since 1995. Their haul of 14 medals over the last decade is proof that something is happening here.
It has been an extended adventure for Peter Zien the owner of AleSmith, one filled with long hours, nervous nights and always one mission, to brew supreme beer. A homebrewer at heart, Peter said, “I always felt the tug of beer. I wanted to create beers for people who are connoisseurs of beer. When I would travel to Europe I loved the reverence they treated beer with, it was something special.” A lawyer by trade he decided to flee the world of torts and follow his heart to days of hops and malts. He has never looked back.
In keeping with his mission to create memorable brews the crew at AleSmith, for many years it was Peter and four others, searched for the correct vessel to deliver their lively libations. Avoiding the usual suspects they chose striking silkscreened 750-millileter bottles and 22-ounce bottles with the story of each beer on the back. Their intent is for one to savor their creations not slam a sixer – when hefting a bottle you know something distinctive is contained within.
Peter explains his motives as such, “Our beers are the Rolls Royce of beers but not in a pretentious and stuck-up manner. When you crack open one of our beers you are ensured a memorable journey, something you will not forget in awhile. We believe beer is being elevated in the public’s eyes, you will never see any dumb frogs selling our product. We want to wean the public off mass produced ales and show them what beer can achieve.” To achieve these lofty goals they source only the highest ingredients with malts and hops arriving from across the globe.
After operating with little to no profitability for well over a decade their commitment to quality paid off at the most unlikely of times, during the recession. While most companies endured layoffs and belt tightening, Peter and his small crew did the opposite – they grew. With double-digit growth the norm they now employ 27 people with plans to open a new brewery in January 2015. They have come a long way from back in the day when it would take them five hours to bottle and package a 70-case pallet of beer.
The 1,500-square-foot tasting room was completely remodeled in 2012 to allow 75 people to imbibe in intoxicating goodness. As a working tasting room located in a production brewery space is at a premium. One wall opens into the brewery and the back wall is covered with barrels filled with beer ageing for future release. The 15 taps are pouring their core and seasonal beers with one dedicated nitro line. In keeping with Peter’s original aim to pay homage to European beers there are two flush mounted beer engines to pour cask-conditioned ales. As an employee hand pulls your fresh ale you can tell there in something special occurring here. Like most breweries AleSmith has seen their tasting room business skyrocket during the last five years so be prepared for a crowd. Most days a food truck will park outside for readily available snacks ranging from gourmet-grilled cheese to Maine Lobsters.
As you peruse the chalkboard for the correct beer to suit your taste buds pay attention to the percentage alcohol, roughly half of their lineup weighs in at over 10 percent, so choose wisely. AleSmith is renown for their smooth high alcohol beers, a skill set they have mastered over their 18 years. Peter explains it thus, “We came from a homebrewer background so we are always tinkering with recipes. As we tried different approaches we realized something, our equipment helped us hit high densities in our beers and this led to smooth high alcohol beers. We used converted dairy equipment due to the fact you could not easily find brewing equipment, and its unique designs helped us achieve something unique.” Their two medal winners from last years GABF came from their higher alcohol lineup.
Old Numbskull won the Gold Medal in the Barley Wine style category for its third medal in six years at the Great American Beer Festival. The beer tips the scales at 11 percent alcohol, so be prepared when you pop the top on this one. A true west coast Barley Wine with an aggressive piney hop profile you smell the moment it pours dark reddish brown. As you sip the beer the first thing you notice is a brown sugar sweetness that is immediately followed by a big citrus kick. It is a big thick brew that lends itself well to mellow sipping. Like all barley wines it will mature with age so buy a few and lay them down.
Their second medal winner, Decadence, took home silver in the Belgian Style Abby Ale category. What is interesting about this seasonal beer is that it’s recipe changes every year – it has taken home four medals at the Great American Beer Festival in two different categories over the last six years. The beer was born to pay tribute to AleSmith’s homebrewing roots – this is an opportunity for them to have some fun. In the last five years it has been a Dunkel Weizenbock, English Style Old Ale, Maple Soaked Barleywine, Belgian-Style Quadruple Ale and an English Barley Wine. You never know what will be next but I assure you it will be fun
A couple other beers I recommend are Speedway Stout, an Imperial Stout brewed with coffee that is simply amazing, and Anvil ESB, a sublime take on an old English favorite. All beers are sold in liquor stores and at the brewery. Forgo the wine at your next dinner and impress your friends with some high quality beer.
Featured image above: Peter Zien, owner of AleSmith, with his line-up of beers. Photo courtesy of AleSmith.