A Brewery in Bayview

When beer is more than a pastime, and art speaks louder than words.

July 8, 2015 ● 4 min read

Like a person, the soul of a place doesn't reveal itself to you right away. The soul of Bayview-Hunter’s Point, the troubled, vibrant, southernmost neighborhood of San Francisco, is no exception.

What people from the outside tend to see first are the crime rates, and the abandoned storefronts, glass doors darkened by exhaust and butcher paper held in place with blue painter’s tape. Then it’s the huddles of men on street corners in the middle of the day, greetings yelled from the rolled-down windows of Impalas cruising past. But if you’re really looking, you notice the line at Frisco Fried, or the succulent gardens of All Good Pizza, or Barbara Gratta of Gratta Wines pressing grapes in her garage.

What people from the outside tend to see first when they look at Andrew Casteel is just another San Francisco guy—a lanky, bespectacled Caltech grad who rides a bike religiously and dives for abalone because of course he does. But if you’re really looking, you notice his insatiable hunger for getting ideas off the ground, that he grows hops in his yard, and that as soon as he got here, the Bayview recognized one of their own.

Along with his old college buddy Aaron Hicks, Casteel is making his foray into the forgotten food scene of the neighborhood with Laughing Monk Brewery, specializing in hybrid Belgian-Californian style beers (“You have to have something that’s unique about what you’re trying to do. If you look at the San Francisco beer scene, you have to go for where the gaps are, and they happen to be where we like to make beer,” he notes). Though it’s set to open in the fall, the brewery is already determined to be a force for good; it's already flung open its doors to local artists, and teamed up with restaurants like Radio Africa Kitchen for Community Tuesdays. It’s tempting to write this off as idealistic, but Casteel has a history as an impassioned community organizer—most recently with the Bay Area Bike Coalition—and is earnest and tenacious in equal measure. It's something the artisans of Bayview, food and otherwise, could use on their side.

“When we started, we just thought we’d be a destination brewery. We’d get a good deal on our lease and people would make their way out here because it’d be worth coming to,” Casteel says, sitting down to a late lunch with Hicks at the technicolor taqueria on their block, Marthita’s. “And then, talking to the neighbors, you find out there’s this whole community here that’s been off doing their own thing. Like this place.”

When they unveiled their collaboration with ImprintCity and Artup San Francisco—a collective of young artists who gamely covered all of the white walls of the soon-to-be brewpub with color-drenched murals—they expected maybe 50 people to show. The turnout was well above 100. It might sound modest, but for this community where even the after-church crowd heads elsewhere, it’s massive.

The event proved that they were willing to wear their love for this place on their proverbial sleeve, and the support was immediate. “All these people were so excited, telling us that they need something like this. That’s the promise of what San Francisco life should be. You should be able to walk out your door and find something great,” he says. “After that, we saw ourselves as a local brewery.” It’s a small distinction on paper, but one that touches almost every decision they make, from price point to branding.

The trick with any market, they explain, is understanding opportunity. 

The beer-drinking public can always use new options, but the neighborhood has a more pressing need: something to call its own. This prioritization is the most refreshing thing about Laughing Monk, and actually, about Casteel and Hicks in general. They stray so far from the maddening stereotype of smart white dudes epically swanning into a historically diverse neighborhood with illusions of grandeur. It’s a problem that no one in this city, or elsewhere, can quite figure out how to solve—any and all attempts seemingly leading to dreaded wholesale gentrification—without mucking around in race or economic issues. These guys are different because they’ve given themselves over to this place for the people, not the cheap square footage.

“There are experiences out here that are unlike what you get in the rest of San Francisco,” Casteel says, gesturing around him. “You hear what you hear on the news. And then you start to get introduced to everyone. I was surprised to find out just how diverse the neighborhood really was.”

There’s a certain small-town closeness between the business owners. Every person that passes by wants to know how the brewery's coming along. It makes it hard to remember that this is the same industry as the thousand-dollar tasting menus twenty minutes away. The challenge in Bayview isn’t that stores that have been here are getting kicked out so fancy places can move in, as you see in other parts of the city. It’s that it’s a ghost town. The past couple of years have seen a slow but steady pulse of new growth in the area—condos, high-rises, the usual clues—but Casteel hopes that by being prepared, they can avoid being blindsided. Using the walls of these streets as a blank canvas, and helping get artists legit approval to put their work almost everywhere you look, is a way to anchor into the cultural sand as the tide of development rolls in.

“There’s still the concern that as the neighborhood gets better, you’re able to preserve what’s here,” he explains. “There’s no way change isn’t going to happen, so we have to be careful the whole way through to make sure there’s a place for the people who have been here the longest.”

So how does a little brewery intend on doing that? By doing what taverns have done since the dawn of drinking time: providing a meeting space and good beer.

“There’s little groups all over trying to fix all this, which is kind of the problem. It’s all piecemeal. It’s not one concerted effort,” Casteel says. “Your effort as one business owner is not really enough to tip the scales. A whole neighborhood might be able to.”

By Cassandra Landry.