North Park’s Neighborhood Brewery
With a solid first year under its belt, Fall Brewing is moving up and its founders feel redeemed.
Ray Astamendi | Photo by Bruce Glassman
The guys that started Fall Brewing were no strangers to the brewing scene when they decided to go it alone. For founder-brewer Ray Astamendi in particular— who has brewed for Mission Brewing, Maui Brewing, Left Coast, and most recently St. Archer—starting his own brewery was something of an inevitability.
Fall Brewing has just recently passed its first anniversary and, looking in the rear view mirror, Ray is more than pleased with where the business is today. In just twelve short months, the brewery has been noticed and praised by most of San Diego’s brewing establishment, has made solid inroads with keg accounts, and has enjoyed a steady and thirsty crowd at its North Park tasting room.
“It’s more than we’d ever dreamed we would have done,” says Ray. “Dave [Lively, co-founder] and I thought we’d still be back behind the bar, having to work most of the shifts ourselves to help make payroll and pay off our debt.” Given the fact that Fall’s lineup is not packed with super-charged IPAs and the like, Ray has also been surprised by San Diego’s positive reaction to his beers.
“I didn’t think we were going to have as good a reception as we did,” he admits. “Our philosophy is a little bit different than most. It’s not about creating the world’s craziest, most alcoholic brews.” Ray likes to say, as most brewers do, that he only makes beers that he likes to drink. Luckily, that strategy has resonated with his core clientele, who seem to share Ray’s palate and passion for crisp, clean, flavorful riffs on classic styles. He did worry, originally, that his love for beers such as pilsners would not be popular with the masses. “A lot of people still don’t consider beers like pilsners to even be valid,” Ray says. “And I think those people are really missing out.” The reception, however, has been great, and now his Plenty for All pilsner is one of Fall’s most popular beers, comprising about 40% of the brewery’s production. The majority of Fall’s tasting room lineup features impressively flavorful, full-bodied beers that are under 6% ABV, with many in the 4% and 5% range (the very delicious, hoppy, and satisfying Moscoe Session IPA clocks in at an amazing 3.8%!). Ray likes to make the point that sessionable beers are a “publican’s best friend,” in that they allow patrons to have more than one in a sitting.
After years of working for other companies and following the marketing plans of bosses, this venture has finally allowed Ray and Dave to create a brewery based solely on their own tastes. “Here, I started out just brewing all the beers I never had a chance to do at the other places,” Ray says. “The idea was to just come in here and play.” The first batch he brewed upon opening was Spirit of ’77, which was a variation of his old IPA recipe (one he used to brew at Mission). Ray remembers the first batch: “We hopped the hell out of it. It was a little higher alcohol-wise than I wanted. We knew we had to make an IPA so that’s where we started.” After that came the Plenty for All pilsner, which Ray refers to as his “passion project” and the beer that he “always wanted to brew.” It's a steam beer, a California common that actually uses the Anchor Brewing yeast strain. [Commons are steam beers that use special strains of lager yeasts that do better at higher fermentation temperatures, like ales.]
Looking to the future, Ray is hoping to start packaging soon. He says one priority is to develop recipes that are specifically designed to live well in bottles. “I’m trying to create beers that will stand on the shelf, that will have the best aesthetic quality while still maximizing flavor,” he says. “The trick is to figure out how we get a beer into that bottle and, even though it might be susceptible to the evils of the trade—temperature and time—still have it be palatable.” Dave and Ray are also talking about opening a production facility in Chula Vista, which would be for small packaging runs, barrel aging, souring, and would house a second tasting room. A second location would necessitate ramping up the output in North Park to about 6,500 barrels per year, which is roughly an increase of 100% and the upper limit of capacity. Ray says they are also talking to Premiere Stainless about partnering and piloting a larger-scale system that would be housed in North County and would provide space for a possible bottling production facility. Then there are thoughts of maybe even getting up into Orange County or L.A. “We’re not saying no to anything at this point,” Ray says. “We’re just kind of seeing how it goes.”
When they’re not dreaming about other locations, Dave and Ray really enjoy the feeling of being part of their North Park neighborhood. “The response has been great. We get a lot of families on the weekends, there are a lot of residents that can walk here and they bring their families, their dogs, and it’s a very social atmosphere,” says Ray. Feeling part of a community—being a social element in a neighborhood— is a benefit that wasn’t part of Ray’s previous jobs, which were at much bigger companies and were not located in residential neighborhoods. While scouting locations for the brewery, Ray and Dave were convinced that North Park would be an ideal setting. When they saw that this building (which used to be an auto repair shop) was available, they jumped on it.
When Fall first opened it doors, Dave and Ray were in a somewhat enviable position. Because they had both been part of the brewing community in town for some time, they had a lot of relationships and personal ties already in place. “We’re a new brewery, but we’re really not,” Ray says. “Between me, Dave, and Mike Mellow (director of sales), the three of us have been in the San Diego brewing scene quite a long time.” Ray says it was good to feel a high level of support from the get-go and it was also nice that lots of North Park people knew him from his being around the neighborhood. Ray made it a point to keep local owners and residents apprised of what he and Dave were planning, which he felt helped once the business actually opened. Longstanding relationships with local bars and accounts also meant that people saw Fall beers at Toronado, Hamilton’s, Blind Lady, and Small Bar right away—and that got the brewery lots of good exposure quickly.
All their work and years of brewery experience have more than paid off for Dave and Ray, and they have proved to themselves that there’s real value in persistence. For Ray in particular, Fall’s success feels like something of a redemption story as well. The name, he explains, “is a celebration of my many falls from grace that haven’t killed me.” Among those “falls,” Ray includes his many past brewing ventures, his divorce, and the period when he was “in debt up to my eyeballs, living in Hawaii making twelve bucks an hour.” According to Ray, this was when he had hit rock bottom, and he considers it to be the lowest point in his life. “What got me back into the game was the fact that I’d been kicked, I’d been down, but I wasn’t ready to give up the fight. So this success with Fall—it’s all those risks that I took that might have caused somebody else to succumb to a fall.” One of Ray’s favorite song lyrics goes, For one to rise one first must fall. “It’s kind of that inspiration,” he says. “It means don’t stay down. If you try and you fail, it just means you tried. You need to learn from it. It’s only a mistake if you repeat it.”
Even though his partner Dave wasn’t especially keen on the name, Ray felt strongly that he needed to call their brewery something that would remind him of what drives him. “For me it was important to have something behind the name that actually meant something to me.” It’s good to know that Fall’s name continues to inspire Ray, because it seems to keep him focused on making great beers. And great beers, let’s face it, are an inspiration to us all.