Obituary: Nate Soroko, San Diego craft beer icon, dies at 39
Soroko was a longtime ambassador for the local craft beer industry, remembered for his love of community and natural ability to connect with others
Nate Soroko, a celebrated bartender and chef in San Diego known for his love of craft beer, infectious laugh and larger-than-life personality, died at his home in Lemon Grove on June 12 at age 39.
Soroko got his start in the industry as a line cook at the Liar’s Club in Mission Beach, followed by stints at Pizza Port Ocean Beach, Alpine Beer Company and Ballast Point Brewing, among others. But most knew Soroko as a longtime bartender and chef at Toronado San Diego, a now-shuttered craft beer bar in North Park. He was also one of the first employees at Modern Times Brewing and continued to support the brewery as a brand ambassador.
Born in Saipan in the Northern Mariana Islands, Nathan “Nate” Samuel Soroko was adopted at birth, raised Jewish, and grew up in Guam; Eugene, Ore.; and Rancho Cucamonga
Soroko, an only child, was close with his extended family and developed a strong bond with his cousin, Brady Grover of San Marcos. Grover, who also did not have siblings, says his relationship with Soroko was more like that of a brother.
Grover described Soroko as a class clown and “life of the party” growing up, with high energy and a passion for making people laugh. From a young age, he possessed an innate ability to connect with just about anyone.
“He was truly a complex person. He’s got that really witty, funny personality ... but also very introspective and really thoughtful, and I think that came across through his relationships with people,” says Grover, adding that Soroko’s intelligence and almost photographic memory allowed him to easily recall small details and past conversations with others.
Grover says that the time Soroko spent with his mother in the kitchen likely influenced his decision to pursue a career in the restaurant industry. Soroko’s career choice led to a 2004 move to San Diego, where he lived primarily in the North Park and University City neighborhoods.
“I think he gravitated toward restaurants because he got to be creative and develop his passion for food, (which) eventually grew into craft beer,” Grover says. “But also the social aspect — I think he liked being in the back of the kitchen, the camaraderie there.”
His work in the food and beer scene was more than a job to Soroko — it was a community. According to friends, Soroko was a rarity in the industry: a jubilant, selfless personality who constantly promoted others, even if he didn’t have anything to gain from their success.
“He looked out for a lot of entrepreneurs in the restaurant and brewing industry. … He would go out of his way to tell folks about new places or events,” says Brandon Hernández, founder and executive editor of San Diego Beer News.
Friends, acquaintances and even strangers often sought career advice from Soroko. He was candid about what he thought of their ideas, but pushed them to pursue projects they were passionate about. Many of these individuals have since found success in the industry and partially credit their accomplishments to Soroko.
“He was like the air traffic controller of people’s dreams and wishes. ... He would point or guide them in the right direction,” says Mike Arquines, co-owner of award-winning Mostra Coffee and founder of THE LAB: Dining Sessions.
“He was everyone’s hype man,” adds industry professional Seth Marquez, who started the restaurant Ironside Fish & Oyster in Little Italy and worked at various bars around San Diego. Upon hearing the news of Soroko’s death, Marquez got a tattoo in his honor.
“This (work) is all for Nate now,” he continues. “I want to be what Nate was to me, to other people.”
Big in build and personality, Soroko is remembered by many for his loud voice, drinking games, and boundary-pushing jokes that showcased his wit and humor.
But Soroko was equally known for his generosity and kindness. For his friends, he would do anything. He wrote funny poems about them to recite at the bar; mailed over books or beers or bags of pasta that he thought they’d enjoy; and drove hours after a shift just to grill them a birthday meal.
“You didn’t have to earn his love, you didn’t have to earn his friendship,” says Emily Grover, Brady’s wife, who refers to Soroko as her brother and shared their plans to start a food blog together. “Once you met him, he cared about you.”
This courtesy extended to strangers, too. If he saw someone drinking alone at the bar, Soroko would make sure to introduce them to someone; if he found out a customer was visiting from out of town, he’d give them brewery recommendations and sometimes even offer to drive them there himself.
Even with his expansive and ever-growing network, Soroko always seemed to find time and energy for everyone.
“He had a gift — he could make you feel like the most important person in his life at that very moment, and I believe you truly were in his eyes. ... It wasn’t a gimmick,” says Bryan Broussard, a regular patron and volunteer at Toronado who became a close friend and roommate of Soroko’s.
Though Soroko welcomed everyone into his circle without judgment, beer industry chef Karen Barnett says his accepting personality did not stop Soroko from being outspoken about the rights of women, people of color, the LGBTQ+ community and other marginalized groups.
“With Nate, it was a safe place, and you don’t always feel that in certain scenarios (in the beer industry),” says Barnett, who previously owned and operated Small Bar in University Heights. “You knew that you weren’t alone, and you didn’t necessarily have something to worry about. There was someone in your corner — an ally in the room.”
Soroko’s ability to connect poured into his professional craft. He had a knack for matching beer and food, regularly hosting private beer pairing dinners in his friends’ homes.
In 2014, he began a recurring brunch series at Toronado alongside Arquines, which ran until the bar’s closing in March 2020. These events, which often sold out, invited various breweries and chefs to experiment behind the bar and in the kitchen at Toronado.
With COVID-19 restrictions lifted, Arquines intends to resume hosting beer pairing events at different venues. However, he notes that the experience won’t be the same without Soroko: “We’ll always leave a seat at the table with his favorite beer, which is Blind Pig.”
Over the years, Soroko became a public figure in San Diego and beyond. To honor his contributions to the local craft beer community, Societe Brewing Company released a beer called The Bachelor: an experimental, single-hop IPA that features Soroko’s silhouette on the can’s label.
He also grew a substantial social media following under the nickname Toro Islander — a nod to his residency at Toronado and Pacific Islander roots — and has been featured in various articles and rankings, including earning the No. 1 spot for the biggest craft beer celebrity in a 2014 nationwide survey from The Full Pint.
In 2017, Soroko participated in a Q-and-A-type interview for a Facebook group dedicated to craft beer. When asked how he hopes to be remembered after his death, Soroko writes in part: “When I go, I want people to talk about me like the best IPA they ever had.”
When he wasn’t at a San Diego brewery or restaurant, Soroko spent his time practicing jiu jitsu; reading books, often giving them to friends after; smoking the occasional cigar; listening to a broad music library, ranging from country to Cher; and watching his favorite TV shows, “Antiques Roadshow” and “Jeopardy,” the latter of which he qualified to compete on.
“Generally, he just wanted a happy, simple life that involved good family, friends, food and beer,” Brady Grover says. “He was really simple that way, which is unique because the rest of him was deep and complicated.”
Soroko is survived by his mother, JoAnn Carlson of Upland, and father, David Soroko of Santa Monica. There is no official cause of death at this time.
To pay for funeral expenses, Brady Grover set up a GoFundMe campaign that reached its goal in less than three days. As of Friday, the campaign had raised $6,085. Donations can be made at gofundme.com/f/nate-the-islander-soroko and any remaining funds will be given to Carlson.
There will be two celebrations of life for Soroko: one in Upland and the other in San Diego, where a July 31 service is tentatively planned to be held at Modern Times’ barrel-aging facility in Point Loma. More details to be provided on an upcoming Facebook event page.
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