The history of the Rincon Band of Luiseño Indians reflects 14,000 years of life in this region. What is now called the San Luis Rey River connected the Payomkawichum (People of the West) with friends and relatives as they followed its meandering path with the seasons while hunting, fishing, and gathering food between the mountains and the coast for millennia. In recent years, the tribe has built success and sustainability on their 5,000-acre Valley Center reservation with a casino, Harrah’s Resort Southern California. The brewery venture takes its name from its place—Rincon Reservation Road—as the tribe continues evolving and extending its cultural reach through craft beer.
In 2015, wanting to step outside the box in its efforts to generate revenue and jobs for the tribe, the Rincon Economic Development Corporation (REDCO) noticed San Diego’s flourishing brewing industry and took steps to become a part of it, leading to the construction of the state-of-the-art brewery at Harrah’s Resort Southern California. Opened in December of 2016 as SR76 Beer Works, it was—and remains—the county’s only tribal-owned-and-operated brewery. The business was built to grow, but despite having a Karl Strauss expat at the helm, a luxe tasting room, and availability throughout the resort, SR76’s beers failed to find the traction REDCO had hoped for.
“We came in naive. Not knowing how to run that type of business, we were very hands-off and allowed consultants to take over,” says REDCO chairman Rik Mazzetti. Roughly two years in, REDCO decided the business needed to be taken in another direction and that it was time for the tribe to go all in.
“We became very hands-on and learned what it took to run a brewery from the ground up, from cleaning kegs to filling tanks and equipment maintenance. Along the way, we were introduced to Shawn Steele, a master brewer with over 20 years of experience. He showed us how to do things and helped us establish a direction and operational flow.”
With newfound knowledge and an industry vet in their corner, REDCO relaunched its beer-making operation. But this time, the tribe, its history, culture, symbolism, and identity were at the forefront. Going by the new handle Rincon Reservation Road Brewery—3R Brewery for short—the business relaunched in January 2020 and, even after multiple years of Covid-related challenges, has grown to become the success REDCO initially envisioned. There are multiple reasons for that, but paying homage to the tribe across all aspects of the business was key.
“We native members of the tribe wanted to stay true to our heritage,” says Mazzetti. “It’s a point of pride being able to establish a brewery that puts forth a quality product utilizing our own water and ingredients we have here.”
That water comes from an aquifer fed by the San Luis Rey, which the tribe refers to as the “river of life.” It was the main artery that led the Rincon people from hunting in the eastern mountains in the winter to fishing and foraging near the ocean during the summer. Coincidentally, the water from that life-sustaining waterway is ideally suited for brewing.
“The hard water from the aquifer is graciously softened from Harrah’s system into our own feeds. It’s a great base for many of the styles we produce, including our IPAs and red ale,” says head brewer Zeth DeVore. “It’s compatible across the board so long as we put our salts in according to style. Sometimes we don’t even have to add any. I’m lucky in that regard.”
DeVore’s luck was running when REDCO received authorization to use 10 acres of reservation farmland to plant hops. The 3R team is currently researching which hop varietals will grow best in our region, and they hope to see bines on the rise later this year. Those homegrown hops will join a list of other indigenous ingredients that lend a sense of place and cultural significance to 3R’s beers. To date, the company has used reservation-farmed guava and pomegranates, as well as blueberries and raspberries.
Symbolic illustrations from the tribe’s past appear across 3R Brewery cans, like the rattlesnake emblem that was popular in ancient basket artwork. Paintings and murals rich with history grace the walls of the original tasting room and a satellite taproom, which opened last year. Located on Newport Avenue in Ocean Beach, it provides a means of connecting with people one-on-one away from the reservation, something the tribe considers a momentous step forward.
Other accomplishments include 3R Brewery beers finding shelf space with larger retailers along with high-profile placements at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, Disneyland, and soon, Petco Park.
When looking back on how far 3R Brewery has come, Mazzetti says it would not have been possible without the generous and willful assistance and encouragement of other San Diego beer professionals. “People in the local brewing industry have been so helpful to us. Everybody helps each other. The outreach from the beer community has been so touching, and we are thankful to the many people who have helped get us to where we are today.”
Ode to a River originally published in issue 70 summer 2023.