AleSmith Brewing Company, founded in 1995, isn’t one to follow trends. Its operating strategy is basically this: do the opposite of what everyone else is doing. So far, after 25 years, it seems to be working very well.
Where nearby breweries like Pure Project and Kilowatt Brewing slowly and strategically open satellite tasting rooms across San Diego, Vicky and Peter Zien, the duo at AleSmith’s helm, waited until long after they’d outgrown their exceptionally diminutive tasting room before opening a mind-bogglingly huge new facility down the street in 2015. The location is smack in the middle of Miramar, a neighborhood known locally as “Beeramar,” thanks to its abundance of top-tier craft breweries.
Instead of churning out trend-driven releases to satiate the FOMO crowd, the Ziens doubled down on seminal brews like their Speedway Stout, whose numerous variants regularly garner acclaim. Rather than kick back and collect accolades, AleSmith has shared its success — by donating time, energy, and finances — to causes they believe in, both in the local community and the world at large. Homebrew clubs like QUAFF and BJCP study groups often utilize AleSmith’s large production space pro bono for judging beer competitions, and hosting educational classes. Numerous charitable beer releases help fund organizations — for example, proceeds from AleSmith’s 2015 Christmas Noël (or “No-L”) Belgian Strong Ale went to lupus research.
Since 2015, the Ziens have actively supported the Lost Boys and Girls of South Sudan, a non-profit group aimed at improving the lives of Sudanese refugees now living in San Diego after fleeing violence in their home country. By hosting walk-a-thon fundraisers, selling books in the brewery store, creating a Speedway varietal using Ethiopian coffee beans, and hiring a number of refugees at the brewery, Vicky and Peter have committed to philanthropy as a cornerstone of the brewery.
In 2019, AleSmith launched Anvil of Hope, a program that helps provide housing assistance to San Diegans facing homelessness, meals for families experiencing food insecurity, and educational scholarships for at-risk youth, many of whom are on the brink of aging out of the foster care system. As president of the program, Vicky spends much of her days focusing on how AleSmith can continue to make a difference in the lives of people inside and outside the community.
The following interview with Vicky has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity, but maintains the essence of both Ziens’ dedication to making the world a better place, one beer and one action at a time.
1. What do you value most in your current role?
The ability to help make a difference. I wear many different hats ranging from owner, culture and community advocate, and president of a non-profit, so you can imagine how busy my days are. I’m honored to be part of such a diversified and remarkable group of men and women that make AleSmith the company that it is.
2. How have you personally been affected by Covid-19 and/or the recent social justice movements like Black Lives Matter?
We feel tremendous sadness for both those who have lost their lives to Covid and to social injustice which also makes us very angry. We were proud to participate in both local and national Black is Beautiful collaborative beer campaigns to raise awareness to the issue as well as raise funds for several organizations such as NAACP. It’s nice to see more people and more businesses take a stand against social injustice; however, it will be nicer when that phrase is truly part of history.
3. What are some tangible steps you as individuals, or as a company, are taking to address racial equity and justice in craft beer?
Great question. We should all do something proactive. I am Hispanic, and Peter is Jewish, so we both grew up hearing racial slurs and have always been sensitive to these issues. Embracing diversity is one of our longtime company values which you will find on our website: “We value and respect diversity and the different backgrounds, experiences, and ideas that diversity brings to us.” You see it in our hiring practices and onboarding process as well as our daily lives. My new favorite AleSmith shirt is our “Peace, Love, Equality, and Beer” T-shirt, which is currently being redesigned to allow other breweries to participate to continue the love across the nation. We plan to donate proceeds to Paving Great Futures, which recently won California’s Charity of the Year.
4. How, when, and why did you and Peter get involved with the Lost Boys and Girls?
We were making the transition to our new building in 2014 as part of our expansion plan and had begun hiring for our increased production/packaging needs. I read an article in my church newsletter for employers to consider hiring members of The Lost Boys of Sudan refugee group for general labor needs. I felt like my prayers were answered. I interviewed our first Lost Boy, Alephonsion Deng, and he quickly brought a deeper sense of gratitude to our entire team. Since then, we’ve hired 10 Lost Boys of Sudan and have conducted numerous fundraising events on their behalf.
5. What made you decide to focus on supporting the Lost Boys and Girls of Sudan?
Peter and I read the book “They Poured Fire On Us From The Sky,” which was co-written by Deng, and were in awe of their 1,000-mile journey to refugee camps with a relentless determination to survive. Civil war and frequent bombing of their villages forced them on this trek where many were killed along the way by militia, wild animals, and lack of food and water. Many ate mud and some drank their own urine just to survive. We have met and hired several members of the Lost Boys since then, with the common theme expressed of unending gratitude. Their foundation raises money to provide education, meals, and clothing to the children of South Sudan.
6. What is the program’s mission, and how are you working towards it?
Peter and I have been planning Anvil of Hope since we got married. I shared my childhood memories of poverty and wanting to help low-income families, and Peter wanted to help foster children. We knew we wanted to use AleSmith as our vehicle to help others, and our dreams became a reality with the formation of Anvil of Hope.
7. How has Anvil of Hope evolved since its inception?
We officially started the process in October 2019 and received our 501c3 designation at the end of March 2020, but launching during the heat of the pandemic didn’t seem right. Although I felt like I was prepared and had done my research before Covid, I took advantage of the extra down time and intensified my networking virtually. I have learned so much from others in the non-profit industry, and I realize now I was not as prepared as I had originally thought.
8. Why do you think these types of initiatives are so crucial in the beer industry?
Our country has historically struggled with alcohol, and it’s important to demonstrate that a brewery can help communities at large. It would be such a different world if everyone did their part to help others. Some may not be in the position to do so, and we feel blessed that we are able to help others while doing what we love. We do know several other breweries who have done charity work, and it’s nice to see that those of us who rely on community support are able to pay it forward.
9. What other philanthropic and charitable initiatives are you currently working on?
We have always had it in our hearts to want to help others, so we have offered up free space at AleSmith for non-profits and shared a portion of proceeds to help their causes. We have personally held various fundraisers for causes that we are close to, including working closely with the Tony and Alicia Gwynn Foundation to help them raise funds for at-risk youth. We recently brewed a beer, AleSmith for Hope, and donated proceeds to the San Diego Food Bank, which provided over 52,000 meals to the community.
10. What’s next for the Ziens and AleSmith? (Answered by Peter)
My wife and I will never stop dreaming about “what’s next” for us and AleSmith. It is an important desire to help our employees reach their personal goals and create endless opportunities at AleSmith. We very much want to make a difference in this world and will continue to grow our non-profit Anvil of Hope. Although smack in the middle of a very challenging time, we will continue to push for a better world and will do our part to make AleSmith and Anvil of Hope positive forces in this desire.