Good Beer Hunting

Critical Drinking

Critical Drinking with Nate “Islander” Soroko

Nate Soroko walks into the bar. You don’t miss him. Nate is seemingly larger than life, in more ways than one.  He’s been at it in the San Diego beer scene since 2004 and he’s seen it all. New bars, new restaurants, new breweries, new players. When it comes to beer in San Diego, Nate knows his stuff. 

Nate's done it all — tending bar, working festivals, hosting beer brunches, and of course, chugging back pints of beer at an impossible speed when challenged by the archetype overambitious drunk Pacific Beach frat boy. You don’t mess with Nate. All-in-all, the “Islander” knows the story behind the good, the bad, and the ugly sides of the craft beer explosion in San Diego. Sipping on pints of Blind Pig at Toronado, where Nate currently tends bar, splitting his time between there and at Modern Times Beer, that story gets told.

So, “Islander,” huh? What’s the story behind the moniker, and the inspiration for your life on social media as Toronado Islander?


“Islander” represents a lot of different aspects of who I am. To start, I was born in the Pacific Islands, on Palau. But some dude from Fresno doesn’t know where the fuck Palau is, I mean there are 18,000 islands in the Pacific. That kid doesn’t know and doesn’t understand. So, I am just an Islander.

It really started when I was working festivals for Vince [Marsaglia] and Pizza Port. People would come up to me and say, “Hey, it’s that Islander dude from Pizza Port…or from The Liar’s Club.” This was back in 2004. And back then, it was all 40 year-old white dudes in the scene. There were no females or minorities who were into craft beer, so I stood out as an Islander in that sense too.


You moved to San Diego in 2004, and you landed a gig at The Liar’s Club — how’d that come about? Were you already into beer that early on?

Not really, I was drinking Blue Moon, Pyramid, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and I was cooking a lot. I landed the job at The Liar’s Club because I was the only person to show up with an actual written resume at a grungy dive bar in Mission Beach. That’s where I fell in love and got an education on beer. I started off drinking a lot of darker beers and stouts, beers like Decadence from AleSmith and Mortality Stout from [the now defunct] Reaper Ale. Then it was tasting IPAs like Sculpin and instantly it was “what the fuck is this?,” and then beers like Nelson from Alpine. And then it was all downhill from there.

You fell hard for those hoppy San Diego-style beers.

I love hoppy, bold beers. I remember one night I was drinking a pint of Pure Hoppiness from Alpine, right next to a dude who was drinking a Corona or something like that. And I said, “my beer can kick your beer’s ass.” And I meant it. Now that’s printed on the Pure Hop shirt and Alpine sells them out at the pub.


But beers like that — Sculpin from Ballast Point, or Pure Hoppiness from Alpine Beer Company —those weren’t always what you would see in San Diego. I think that there has been a meteoric shift in the paradigm of what it means to drink beer in San Diego, and specifically, what particular beers people are geeking out about today. What was it like back then, drinking beers in San Diego, comparatively to today?

It’s hilarious. There are more beer bars on 30th Street [in North Park] than there were in all of San Diego. Back then, the only players were The Liar’s Club, O’Brien’s Pub, Downtown Johnny Brown — and I think that Callahan’s Pub was doing some stuff. That was it. People were excited about Stone Brewing Company and Pale Ale, that’s what people knew. Some people knew about Pliny, but still, it wasn’t a big thing like it is today. People wouldn’t drink Alpine beers, because it had the reputation of being East County swill.

Obviously today, that has changed.  Craft beer is everywhere in San Diego, and you see the two dominant trends of IPA and sours.


Who is it that is driving those trends?  Who is the beer drinker today in San Diego, what are you seeing from your side of the bar?


The intelligence level of the drinker in San Diego, it’s light years ahead of where we were back then. Especially with White Labs here in town, people get it and they understand what yeast means to beer. People can drink a beer and think “that’s an AleSmith beer” or “that’s a Stone beer.”

You are also seeing more women and minorities getting into beer in San Diego, and that’s awesome. And ironically, with more women getting into the scene, there is less of a stereotype of what a man can drink. You’ve got dudes coming in and ordering a Radler or a Framboise and not giving a fuck. Bartenders don’t just laugh that off these days. You even see it with glassware, people get pissed when you serve them a beer in a shaker pint and not a tulip glass. No one is bitching that the beer is not a proper pint.

There is so much beer in San Diego, and so many different choices. People are willing to give a new beer or brewery a shot, but if it’s shit, that’s it. People can be crazy loyal and choosing, especially when it comes to hoppy beers, there are just so many here.


Are people ordering and talking about IPAs like they would dissect a red wine?


Absolutely, people are silly sometimes. “I don’t’ like these hops — I hate New Zealand hops — I hate C-hops…”


At Societe Brewing Company we saw that a lot too with The Bachelor Party last year, when we had three different versions of our single hop IPA on tap at the Tasting Room. We had The Bachelor with Mosaic, with Simcoe, and with Amarillo. You’d get people coming in, “oh, I totally love Amarillo, bro.” But the funny this is that they would be drinking the Mosaic version instead.


Yeah, I think folks are more intelligent about beer these days, but also more naïve in a sense too.


Are folks getting bored yet?


Some people are “over IPAs." For example, you see people gravitating toward Pivo and the idea that “I just want a pilsner.” Some people don’t waste time on IPAs. You also see a trend in lower alcohol stuff. Instead of a 7-8% beer, people want to order a 5-6% beer. I might get one or two people asking about what stouts I have on tap, but there are sure as hell a lot more people asking about a Session IPA.


So that gets to the idea of consumer choice and self-selecting the beers that are popular here. That’s the curation of a beer list. How do you curate the line-up in a town as tight and competitive as San Diego?


You better damn well know your bars identity and the identity of your clientele. We [Toronado] cater to the hop-heads, people come here looking for IPA. You’re never going to see four lagers on tap or six different Nut Browns. Compare that with a bar like Hamilton’s Tavern, where [Scot] Blair curates a more diverse tap list and tries to keep on an example of everything. But it ultimately comes down to sales, I took a look at our 50 best-selling beers in 2014 — Speedway Stout was the only non-IPA on that list. Seriously, IPA sells. We tried to do a fucking Oktoberfest here, and people would order maybe one Hofbrau mug and then they would immediately go back to drinking Pliny. Again, it is what it is in San Diego.

What happens when you leave people off the beer list?


That’s the beauty of San Diego. We have loyalty to a bunch of good people at good breweries, so their beers are on almost by default. We love the people at Ballast Point, but it just so happens that we sell the shit out of Sculpin. It’s business smarts too. We have the Coronado guys in here drinking regularly, so we keep Coronado on a lot too. It’s about 60% a business decision and 40% loyalty. If the beer doesn’t sell, that’s when it can get hard.


So what are those easy decisions, and like you say, what are some of those harder ones?


Ha, beers like Sculpin. Now that’s the definition of an easy decision for us. There are a few breweries where we have an open door policy, where if you walk in with a keg of anything from them, we will take it. You walk in with a keg of Sculpin and it’s going in the coldbox, no questions. Then there are the guys who are making awesome hoppy beers, Beachwood Brewing & BBQ, El Segundo Brewing Company — those are easy pick-ups too. The harder decisions are where loyalties might not sync up with what people want to drink in San Diego. Ian [Black] opened up here in San Diego after coming from the Toronado in San Francisco, so he’s got a lot of ties up there. So you take, for example, 21st Amendment’s IPAs, and put them up against San Diego IPAs, that’s where the difficult decisions come into play.

Then there are some decisions that, like it or not, are driven by — for lack of a better term — the “pay-to-play” mentality. Firestone Walker makes some awesome, limited beers like Parabola or if you look behind me, we have bottles of PNC in the cooler. Sometimes that might mean bringing in 10 kegs of Pivo — we don’t take those beers just to get the others, but if we have to have a pils or something on, then we are going to pick one that is a great beer in itself as well. Or Noble Ale Works, maybe we bring in a lot of the awesome hoppy beers that Evan [Price] brews up there [in Anaheim, CA], and that means we might get a couple extra kegs of Naughty Sauce [a highly sought-after Golden Coffee Milk Stout, served on Nitro]. At the end of the day, it’s still got to be about good beer. And, when it comes to buying beer, Ian has the final word and the buck stops there.


Absolutely. So let’s switch gears for a minute and talk about food, specifically beer and food. You’ve got a reputation in San Diego as being one of the best when it comes to putting beer and food together.  


I started working on my chops as a line cook, then also cooking food for festivals in San Diego. It started snowball to where I just started putting beer into the mix with food. And I had been to enough beer and food events where I was getting bored, so I wanted to go anti-norm with a lot of the things that I was doing. That whole idea of pairing a Quad with bread pudding, that’s bullshit. “Oh, I want to pair a beer with raisins and brown sugar in it with a food that is exactly the same.” Same thing with Stouts and deserts. It’s disingenuous to me if you go to a beer and food event, and you can create the exact same experience at home. I want someone to think “that’s not going to fucking work.”

But it’s also about playing and working together with other chefs in San Diego who are doing it right. Like Tyson Blake from O’Brien’s. Karen Blair [Bar Manager at Small Bar SD] has probably the best beer and food pairing mind in San Diego. Nick Brune of Local Habit is doing some incredible work. Colby Chandler from Ballast Point is amazing too, but he’s fucking cheating — the man brewed the beer.


Before we go, I have to ask about your presence on Social Media these days. “The Full Pint” ran a poll, I remember, titled “The Most Famous Craft Beer Celebrity,” and you won that thing by a landslide. I mean, it wasn’t even close, and we are talking about going up against folks like Tomme Arthur, Vinnie Cilruzo, Jim Koch, and Garret Oliver — what does something like that mean to you? Do you take that seriously?


I try to have fun with it, and not take it seriously. I wouldn’t be shit without Toronado, that place and Ian and my co-workers and regulars made me. I know that I have some influence, and I try to give some love to people who don’t get the recognition that they deserve. People that should get the recognition. I mean, there are people who don’t even fucking know who [Jeff] Bagby is in this town! People don’t give Pizza Port the credit they deserve. Tyson and O’Brien’s doesn’t get the credit. Some of O’Brien’s people are the best craft beer people in this town.

The most important thing to me, as a bartender, is the trust that my reputation gets me. I get people who come in and just say “pour me whatever.” And they know that I know what’s up. It’s also getting people to try new beers, converting folks. Whether its Lost Abbey’s Duck Duck Gooze, or Schlenkerla Helles, I can find you a beer you are going to love.


It sounds like you really love beer.


Look at me — you’re damn right I do.

Q+A by Mike Sardina
Photo by John Newsome