Beer labels depicting the Rincon's sacred diamondback rattlesnake, and beer names reflecting the Luiseño band's culture
Back in 2016, the Rincon Band of Luiseño Indians established a 15-barrel craft brewery on its reservation near Valley Center. Called SR76 Beerworks, the brewery and tasting room operated alongside the Rincon Harrah’s casino. The brewery is still there, but these days it goes by a more telling name: Rincon Reservation Road Brewery, or 3R Brewery for short.
“When we first got involved in the craft beer space, we didn’t really know that much about it,” acknowledges Ruth-Ann Thorn, who chairs the board of REDCO. That’s the Rincon Economic Development Corporation, which, just like it sounds, manages the Rincon tribe’s economic interests, including the brewery. “We hired consultants to help tell our story,” says Thorn, “It was a good try, but the problem was, it wasn’t authentic.”
SR76 was named for State Route 76, which parallels the trail Rincon Luiseños historically traveled from their summer fishing spots in what’s now Oceanside, to Palomar Mountain, where they would harvest acorns. “What we want to do,” says Thorn, “is allow people to see a little bit of our history.” The problem was, there wasn’t an automatic association between to connect the SR76 brand and where it came from.
So the REDCO board dropped the firm, and reached out to members of the tribe to come up with a brand that more clearly ties the route to a specific, native people: Rincon Reservation Road.
Of course, the story of indigenous Americans requires a lot more nuance than a beer label can provide. But beyond being an economic driver for the community, REDCO views native-brewed beer as an opportunity to raise the profile Rincon culture and people, who refer to themselves as “the original Southern Californians.”
As Thorn tells me, “We’re trying to let people know, yes, in the midst of all that, we’re still here and we’re relevant.” But for the most part, the goal is to keep it light. “We kind of want to get beyond the tragedy and talk about all the great things that are happening,” she says, “and the beer’s one of them.”
One way beers have done so has been their names. A hazy IPA gets the name, Luiseño. A blueberry saison is called Tuupash, the Luiseño word meaning “sky.” And a hefeweizen goes the handle, Rez Dog.
That stems from “reservation dog,” a term applied to wild dogs sometimes knowns to roam Native American reservations. But Thorn explains an alternate meaning: “It’s a term of endearment from one native American to another,” she says. “Wild dogs, they’re scrappy and resilient.” Characteristics, she says, Native Americans can relate to. “We’re resilient,” she says, “We’re scrappy when we need to be.”
Veteran brewers from the San Diego beer industry have been behind the Rincon beers so far. What sets Three R beers apart is that they're brewed using water from the reservations aquifer. Some seasonal beers use ingredients grown on tribal land, including sage, elderberry, and orange blossom. The tribe has started a nascent hop garden, which will provide fresh hops brewed into beers serve out of the Three R tasting room.
However, in the past year, the brand has settled on a regular, canned lineup, and made headway in local distribution, including several North County Costco stores. Distributed beers include a West Coast IPA dubbed the Chief. The Rincon band does not nominally have a chief — rather, they’re led by Bo Mazzetti, the tribe’s chairman since 2007.
Mazetti says his favorite of the distributed beers is the brewery’s amber ale, Red Rattler. The rattlesnake is a sacred animal to the Rincon, which is why the Three R logo depicts a red diamondback. It’s REDCO’s hope that the logo will someday be familiar across the country, as Three R aims to become the country’s first national, native-owned brewery.
Aiding that pursuit may be a distribution network less readily available to other San Diego breweries. In addition to local stores, Three R beers have been increasingly sold to other reservations throughout Southern California, including Morongo, Cahuilla, Pechanga, and Sycuan. As the native beer concept spreads, the latter could soon see its own beer namesake.
“We are working on creating beers for our neighbors,” Thorns says, including for the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation. “We’re not Kumeyaay,” Thorn clarifies, “But we thought it would be a nice thing for that tribe to see their name on a beer.”