AleSmith Brewing Company was founded in 1995 by Skip Virgilio and Ted Newcomb in a small, single-unit space in the commercial district of Miramar, San Diego. With a 15-barrel brewhouse, AleSmith built a reputation on large-format bottles of imperial-strength beers and classic, West-Coast-style hoppy beers. These releases quickly brought AleSmith notoriety as one of the nation’s top craft breweries: it has consistently ranked in the top 10 of RateBeer’s “Best Brewers in the World” and has won multiple Great American Beer Festival and World Beer Cup medals.
However, despite these early accolades, the company struggled to turn a profit in San Diego’s then-small, underdeveloped craft-beer market. These financial struggles led to AleSmith’s sale to Peter Zien in 2002. Zien was a friend of Virgilio’s, was highly regarded in San Diego’s homebrewing scene, and held a doctorate degree from the University of San Diego School of Law—all of which combined to make him a good candidate to pull AleSmith out of its financial hole.
During his first few years as owner and brewmaster, Zien worked tirelessly to make AleSmith profitable—even using his personal savings, and loaning money from another business, to keep the brewery afloat. Zien also never turned down an opportunity to promote the beer. Eventually, word started getting around.
In 2007, Zien’s attorney friend invited him to hold a tasting of several AleSmith beers at a Friday happy hour put on by the San Diego law offices of Foley & Lardner LLP. Naturally, Zien jumped at the opportunity, and brought along samples of AleSmith IPA, Speedway Stout, Nut Brown, and Horny Devil (a Belgian Strong Ale). After his presentation, Zien met Chris Celentino, a partner in the law firm at the time, who became enamored with what Peter had to say.
“I had been a fan of AleSmith for a long time,” explains Celentino. “I especially liked the X [Extra Pale Ale] and Nut Brown, and we talked in detail about the beers. The craft quality and Peter’s passion were evident in the beers, and I really thought he was a nice, easily approached guy.”
Unbeknownst to Zien at the time, Celentino would later introduce him to one of San Diego’s most revered sports figures—a meeting that would also lead to the creation of San Diego Pale Ale .394, now one of the brewery’s best-selling beers
In February of 2014, Celentino called Zien out of the blue. He explained that his client—a high-profile sports figure—wanted to have a beer made, and he thought AleSmith was the brewery to do it. “Celentino said to me, ‘Do you want to guess who it is?’ Zien remembers. “In San Diego, it’s not that hard to name—I said Dave Winfield, Philip Rivers, and Tony Gwynn. He said, ‘You got it—it’s Tony Gwynn.’”
One of San Diego’s most beloved figures, Gwynn played 20 seasons in Major League Baseball for the San Diego Padres. During his career, Gwynn won eight batting titles, seven Silver Slugger Awards, and five Gold Glove Awards, finishing with a .338 career batting average. As one of the best and most consistent hitters in baseball history, he was inducted in the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2007, his first year of eligibility. Gwynn was the rare player in his era to stay with a single team for his entire career, regularly accepting less money to remain with the small-market Padres.
“When first asked by the Gwynn family and their advisors for my advice, there was no doubt—Peter was the guy,” Celentino says. “I knew he would approach the opportunity with the same drive and passion that Tony approached his craft—hard work, dedication, and attention to detail. It was the right match from day one.”
A meeting at the Gwynn home in Poway was set, and Celentino asked Zien to bring along some samples of beer. When Zien and his wife, Vicky, arrived at the Gwynns’ home, they were greeted by Alicia Gwynn and her daughter Anisha. Tony, however, was not in sight.
“I brought our X, our IPA, our Nut Brown Ale, and Horny Devil,” Zien says. “I thought with those four, and perhaps even blending some of them, I could narrow down what Tony likes.”
At the start of the meeting, the two parties got to know each other, and Zien introduced the AleSmith brand. “The lawyer had said to me before, ‘Look, no pressure, but it’s not about money. It’s about if they like you or not,’” he says. “So we talked about how we strive for perfection, how we didn’t want a gimmick here—it’s not just going to have Tony’s name on it. It’s going be something that AleSmith fans are going to respect as well.”
“So 30 minutes into it, [Alicia] told her daughter, ‘Anisha, go get T.’ She left the room and came back and around the corner turns Tony Gwynn, larger than life.”
Gwynn had one unusual motive for making a personalized beer, Zien soon discovered. At the previous year’s Baseball Hall of Fame inductions, former Mets pitcher Tom Seaver had brought along wine that had been made for him. Gwynn always wanted to try Seaver’s wine, but Seaver never shared it with any hitter that hit well against him.
“He said, ‘You know what, Seave? I’m going to make my own beer, then—for hitters,’” Zien recalls.
Gwynn gave Zien his initial instructions for the beer—he wanted “something light but with a kick,” a vague description that didn’t give Zien much to work with. Gwynn sampled the AleSmith beers, but none of the four were to his great liking. “He admittedly drank macro beers before, and he was just barely exposed to craft beer,” Zien says. “He didn’t dislike any of the beers—he just had something in mind that he could drink easily. He said, ‘I don’t like bitterness. I don’t like any beer that is bitter.’”
Gwynn detested the bracing quality of AleSmith X, which is brewed with a large dose of bittering hops. After tasting each beer individually, Zien made an impromptu blend: he took a clean glass and filled half with IPA, half with X.
“The heavier, sweeter malt bill of the IPA, with more aroma hops, I think that tempered the X, but the X lightened up the body and made the alcohol a little lower,” Zien says. “He started responding to that one—he said ‘Hmm, it’s not what I want, but it’s the closest of anything I’ve had here.’”
Gwynn admitted he enjoyed the floral and citrus character of the hops in AleSmith X and IPA, but reiterated that he didn’t want any of the bitterness of either of those beers.
“I explained to him a little bit of the dilemma—that floral, citrus hop thing you’re loving is created by the hops that create bitterness as well,” Zien says. “They go hand in hand, but there are some procedural things we’re able to do to enhance the flavor and aroma of the hop and decrease that bitterness.” Zien also explained that utilizing a slightly sweeter malt bill could cover up, or temper, some of the undesired bitterness. “We had our marching orders,” he says. It was time to experiment.
After the Ziens drove away from the Gwynns’ home that day, Peter received a text. It was Celentino, and the message contained just two words: “home run.”
“After speaking to Peter and Vicki, Tony was convinced that this could turn out to be a great relationship,” Alicia Gwynn remembers. “They were very knowledgeable about craft beer, very honest and forthright. They are about building long-term relationships—they love family.”
In the meantime, Zien went back to the brewery and shared the meeting’s outcome with Ryan Crisp, current director of brewing operations at AleSmith, and Todd Fitzsimmons, AleSmith’s head brewer and first employee (Fitzsimmons is currently in his 23rd year at AleSmith).
After discussing Gwynn’s feedback, the three developed a plan for the first batch of his beer. The recipe was unlike the other beers that AleSmith made at the time: an extremely hop-forward ale, boldly flavorful and aromatic, but with minimal bitterness.
Zien took the first batch to Gwynn’s house for sampling. “You know, he’s a perfectionist,” Zien says. “I told him, ‘We have thick skin—tell me what you think. It doesn’t have to be this one. We’re on a journey here to come up with the beer that you want.’ He said, ‘Yeah, you know, it’s good—it’s just too bitter still.’”
Zien and his team went back to the drawing board. They further sweetened the malt bill and used primarily dry hops in the hop bill, utilizing newer, floral hop varieties that were hitting the market in 2014. After two additional rounds of tweaks, they came up with a beer that was a hit with Gwynn.
While perfecting the recipe for Gwynn’s beer, Zien began to see why a partnership between the two made perfect sense.
“It kind of just came to me—Tony Gwynn, making a beer, in San Diego, the team he didn’t leave,” explains Peter. “Although he must have been lured, he never left in 20 years. Here’s a 20-year San Diego brewery making the beer for him—both of us striving for perfection. Both of us students of our respective games: Tony’s batting, ours brewing. I started to see the story—I started to see how we were the brewery for this, and why he wouldn’t want another brewery to make it.”
“I think, at the end of the day, Tony—who cared for his family more than anything—wanted to leave behind a lasting legacy that would help the San Diego community remember the Gwynn family, his adoring wife and great kids and grandkids,” Celentino explains. “Peter’s dedication to making a beer that is exactly the way Tony wanted it to be was the home run I anticipated when I made the introduction.”
During the process of developing his beer with AleSmith, Gwynn was also dealing with a serious illness. He had been battling cancer since 2010, when a malignant tumor was found inside the parotid gland in his right cheek. The tumor was surgically removed along with his lymph nodes, but the surgery left Gwynn’s face partially paralyzed on the right side, and he was unable to smile or close his right eye. After further chemotherapy and radiation treatments, he was declared cancer-free and regained his ability to smile.
However, in 2012, the cancer returned. After another round of surgery, chemo and radiation, Gwynn was once again declared cancer-free. A year later, it was back. This time, he had had enough—he was exhausted and decided to forego further radiation treatment. Although Gwynn’s health was deteriorating at this time, he never complained.
“He was jovial, telling jokes, talking about the Hall of Fame,” Zien says.
The recipe was finalized in late April 2014, and Zien expected the production of the beer to take approximately five weeks, possibly four if they pushed it. Zien and the Gwynns eyed an upcoming beer festival at Petco Park on June 6 as the perfect platform to launch their collaboration. Meanwhile, they began developing the beer’s branding. Many names were thrown around, including some of Gwynn’s nicknames: Mr. Padre, Mr. 3000, and Punch and Judy (a reference to Gwynn’s ability to hit so many singles).
“We looked at the names, and I remembered that year, 1994,” explains Zien. “I said, ‘Hey, .394 when you almost hit .400.’”
But the name really came together when Zien decided to put San Diego on the bottle.
“I remember [Brooklyn Brewery brewmaster] Garrett Oliver used to joke about West Coast brewers, and specifically San Diego,” recalls Zien. “[Oliver would say], ‘You guys are so into your hops out there, why don’t you just make a San Diego-style beer? Call it San Diego Pale Ale, San Diego IPA, whatever, just have San Diego in it.’” While up late in bed one night, Zien had his ‘aha moment’: call the beer San Diego Pale Ale .394.
AleSmith made its deadline of June 6, 2014, and released .394 on draft just in time for the Padres Beerfest at Petco Park. “To this day, that beer set a record for how fast a half barrel could be killed at one of these festivals,” Zien says. “And we went through three of them in about 40 minutes.”
Unfortunately, Gwynn was too ill to attend the festival and see the release of his beer—but his wife Alicia joined AleSmith at the event to see .394’s record-breaking reception.
Then, just 10 days after the festival, on June 16, 2014, Gwynn passed away. The night before, on Father’s Day, he had gone into cardiac arrest and was rushed to the hospital. He died in the early-morning hours of June 16 from complications related to parotid cancer.
“He had been in and out of the hospital all week,” recalls Zien. “He was home, he was happy for a few hours, he saw [his] beer and opened it. His wife told him how well it was received in the stadium. He drank it, and he told his daughter how proud he was of it.
“A brewery not particularly known for doing things timely, we managed to get this done in time for Tony to actually see it happen,” he says.
Although the beer had Gwynn’s name and the city of San Diego on the label, Zien was unsure how .394 would actually sell in the market. Back in 2014, Pale Ale was a struggling style, unable to compete with IPA, and many breweries stopped making them all together.
In 2014, AleSmith brewed 750 BBL of .394, which represented around 5% of its total production that year. Against AleSmith’s expectations, the beer was a resounding success, and the team couldn’t keep up with demand.
“We had expected a good amount of local interest due to Tony’s popularity locally, but we never imagined that it would take off as quickly as it did,” says Crisp, AleSmith’s director of brewing operations. “It’s grown exponentially each year and has become our best-selling beer, and one of the best-selling craft beers in San Diego.”
Although Gwynn hasn’t been around to show off his beer in Cooperstown, Alicia has ensured that his fellow Hall of Famers have been able to enjoy it. Since the release of .394 in 2014, she has smuggled the Pale Ale into New York for the annual Hall of Fame Induction. In 2017, AleSmith officially had a distributor bring the beer to the event.
AleSmith donates a portion of the proceeds (roughly 10% of the gross sales) of .394 to the Tony and Alicia Gwynn (TAG) Foundation. “TAG provides opportunities for people with obstacles in their lives, whether that means you’re homeless or having trouble getting a job and you need clothes for an interview, things like that, or you’re indigent and you have no money and no food,” explains Zien. “It’s a pretty wide and broad philosophy of what TAG does to help.” AleSmith also organizes the Tony Gwynn 5.5K Walk and Run, which donates 100% of the net proceeds to TAG.
As the years go on, AleSmith and the Gwynns have become even more closely tied together. Within AleSmith’s new 109,000 sq. ft. headquarters, a corner of the taproom has a small museum dedicated to Tony. Alicia had been searching for a place to showcase his memorabilia before much of it heads to Cooperstown, and after talks with the city of San Diego weren’t progressing fast enough, Zien offered to carve out a space at AleSmith.
“I started to see a story here,” he says “You can go into this taproom, you can look at Tony’s over 300 pieces of memorabilia from his career, including gold gloves, silver bats, first hit balls, unbelievable photos with Ted Williams and Pete Rose, signed jerseys, 3,000 hit balls, and then you can leave that and go try a beer that Tony actually helped make. That’s a really unique experience.”
As much as Gwynn’s legacy is tied with San Diego and the Padres, it took a few years of negotiating with Petco Park to get .394 on tap. From 2014 to 2015, .394 was available in all of the bars surrounding Petco, but it wasn’t served in the stadium.
“We couldn’t afford it for a while, but Alicia was working with the management, and we actually got a pretty sweetheart deal because they wanted [the beer],” Ziensays. “It’s really the park that Tony built—why would you not want his beer there?”
In 2017, Petco Park officially opted to take on .394. “It was just a huge moment when we got it in there,” Zien says. “I went to opening day 2017, and I went to this one bar in left field that had it. Everyone that was around me—I bought a round for everyone. We held our glasses up, and I looked at the glass and looked at the field, and something just hit me—my eyes started tearing up, and I could hear Tony’s voice again.”
Although there are plenty of craft options at concessions and specialty bars throughout Petco Park, only two craft beers are offered to fans in their seats (except for a few luxury sections with dedicate servers that offer more options). One of those beers is .394. And last year, it finished number two in the park in all beer sales.
Since last season, the stadium has expanded the exposure of .394. The beer is now served from 31 different tap handles, and the park even created a club dedicated to Gwynn and his beer: Club .394.
“It’s a dream come to reality given the fact that Tony is such a great part of the Padres’ history,” Alicia says. “It’s part of his legacy.”
Today, San Diego Pale Ale .394 is one of AleSmith’s best sellers. It’s also no longer the only beer that AleSmith has brewed in partnership with the Gwynns. Other collaborations have followed, including a 12-gallon batch of a 19-ingredient Bock with Alicia and a Session IPA created with Tony Gwynn, Jr.
“It came out of me just always wanting to hustle for a buck and get to that next person to expose it,” Zien says. “Who could have predicted six or seven years later, this guy is going to call me and choose me over all the other brewers in town? That little gig I did at the law firm is paying off big now.”