AleSmith owner/CEO ages into cheese making

“Cheese is milk's leap toward immortality.” — Clifton Fadiman

Ever the Renaissance man, AleSmith owner and CEO Peter Zien continues to be an inspiration to brewers and local consumers by creating world-class beers while at the same time exploring new gastronomic adventures through his own passion for learning and development. Now on the threshold of releasing his latest project, CheeseSmith, to an eager public, Zien is busy crafting and aging cheeses for fromage-loving fans countywide.

PACIFIC recently caught up with Zien between batches to find out how CheeseSmith came to be, which cheeses inspire him and how to build the perfect cheese plate for guests.

PACIFIC: What was the genesis of CheeseSmith?

PETER ZIEN: It goes back to purchasing AleSmith in 2002. After our first few batches, I was giving my grains to a woman with goats in Ramona. She would bring me raw milk from the goats. Making cheese was in the back of my head, as I am from the Midwest. I started simply with chevre and herbs de Provence. I started bringing my cheeses in (to the brewery) and people gobbled them up. Then I became a serious home cheese maker. I started entering contests, and I got Best of Show one year (at the San Diego County Fair).

How did you learn to make cheese?

I read everything I could, and I saw Cal Poly (San Luis Obispo) has courses. I’ve taken all of them, some of them twice. You get to be around cows, make cheese and be in a classroom with experts. I’ve been in (the beer) industry 17 years, and you know everyone in the room, but to be the new kid in the room again is exciting.

What is it about cheese making that attracts you to it?

I find it scratches the same itch as brewing. In the general sense, you are tricking Mother Nature into making something for you. They both require about the same amount of time, patience and adherence to cleaning.

How is cheese making and brewing similar or different?

Cheese is a gentle little beast. Beer is more like cooking, you lay procedure of top of it. Cheese making is procedural — one degree of temp, one minute of time makes a difference. Cheese making demands a level of care that is greater than brewing, and I’m glad they are different.

Whose cheeses inspire you as a producer?

Cowgirl Creamery (Point Reyes Station, Calif.), I have to force myself to stop eating it. I sit there and marvel, and I swear under my breath, “How do they make that?!” Cypress Grove (Arcata, Calif.) Humboldt Fog has set the standard. Also Point Reyes, the Limbergrers coming out of Wisconsin, and the Trappist cheeses abroad, like those from Chimay and Orval.

What’s a fun fact about cheese making?

The average cheesemaker is over the age of 45, female, and has a PhD.

Give us a few tips on how readers can create a perfect cheese plate?

The best way to “wow” your guests is to give different textures; milk choices like goat, cow sheep, even buffalo; and fat contents. Have fun with it. Try fromage blanc and chevres, along with a triple cream, brie or camembert. Experiment with a Gouda aged one- and three-years, and a cloth-wrapped cheddar.

What are some of the flavors locals can expect from CheeseSmith?

An aged Horny Devil, Nut Brown ale cheese, and a Speedway Stout cheddar rolled in Vietnamese coffee. The carbonation forced small holes in the cheese, and it slices like a dream. But don’t expect to bite into these and taste beer. Also Gouda, Havarti, Feta, mozzarella and Wisconsin-style curds.

When can we feast on these delicacies?

About a month from now. I’m in R&D now, if anything I’m asking for patience. I want it to be of the highest quality, that’s the basis of all art.

Look for CheeseSmith to be served soon at AleSmith, 9990 AleSmith Ct., Miramar, 858.549.9888, alesmith.com.

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