Astral began transforming the PFD industry in 2002. Less than a decade later, we revolutionized the water shoe. We sat down with Astral’s Founder + CEO, Philip Curry, and Sales Manager, Bryan Owen to discuss how the popular Brewer™ and Brewess™ became the origins of Astral footwear.
Astral Why shoes?
PC Shoes, it turns out, honestly, are a lot like life jackets. When I started Astral, I really wanted to go from life jackets into another, bigger category. And for a while I thought it was going to be pants. I hired an apparel designer, and we worked hard on pants. But something about them just didn’t work. Maybe it wasn’t technical or performance enough, or we couldn’t figure out how to differentiate. Then a guy walked into our office around 2008. Kind of an interesting dude. He walked in and was like, ‘Hey, you know, I, uh, I’m a shoe designer. And I’ve been with Salomon for the last decade in France and I just got back to the States. All my kayaker friends say Astral’s the shit. And you know there haven’t been many recent things that have happened to river shoes in a while. And, you know, it’d be a good time to get into the shoe business.’ And I actually agreed with him. And I started to think maybe that is the next product. So when we started, I really wanted Astral footwear to be like working people’s style. Um, like…
Astral Like, not for paddlers?
PC Well to me, the outdoors was a lot of rich elite kind of shit. And I was really anti that. I really wanted to do cool things that met the performance quality and the materials story, and all that, but just didn’t have this elevated price tag in this elite sort of way. I really respect working people, you know. So like when we came out with the shoes, the Brewer™, Baker™, Porter™ and Rassler™, those were all meant to be occupations for working people. So the name of the very first shoe, the Brewer™ was also a fun play off of Reglan’s last night.
But the reason I got comfortable with shoes is because they were actually really similar to PFDs in that you’re taking fabric and foam and securing it around a bony part of the body. And we’ve been doing that for so long with life jackets. You take a lifejacket and tighten it around your rib cage. So I started to be like, okay, that’s kind of like a little rib cage down there. And we started to really think about it similarly…as fitting a functional, essential product to a bony part of the body. Shoes are just fabric, thread and foam. Same things that were in life jackets, you know? So it wasn’t that far of a reach.
Astral Apart from the rubber.
PC Yeah, the rubber and you know I was interested in that because it comes from trees. And that’s pretty cool! [laugher] So the rubber was kind of a mystery. And the molding. You know, life jackets are shaped by hand and shoes are shaped by molds. So obviously the molds were this exciting, new thing for us.
Astral And so, that’s where Reglan came in with that expertise?
PC Yes, definitely.
Astral So what design principles went into the Brewer™ to address the needs of water shoes?
PC Drying really quickly and having excellent grip. Those were the two driving principles. The original Brewer™ was featherlight. I don’t know if you remember picking those up, but people would pick them up and be like, ‘these are too light!’ And that was kind of the really neat first opinion on those shoes. They were at least half the weight of most of the competition. As an environmentally oriented product creator, the first measure of impact is weight. The weight of plastic, the weight of oil. So I was really proud that it had 50% less oil in it. That’s a good thing! And it doesn’t absorb water. There’s not a material in the Brewer™ that absorbs water. People loved that.
So the motive for entering footwear was to expand Astral’s influence, to give more people the opportunity to buy a great product that considered both performance and the environment. I felt like the market appreciates and needs that. And there wasn’t really a provider that could provide that. And so I wanted to create something that could expand beyond freaky creek boaters. We wanted to create a shoe that was super versatile and designed with a classic silhouette. A silhouette that was easy on the eye. It’s not freaky. It’s not going to turn heads. People aren’t going to be repulsed by it. It was really just meant to be a classic silhouette that is super versatile, perform well and dry fast as fuck. And then they’re going to be able to mow their yard, or go to work or, pretty much live out of these things.
Astral So it was taking principles of performance and design, inspired by Whitewater, and applying them to products that were going to be more versatile and accepted by a much wider community.
PC Exactly. If you create something specific to water, it can flow into all the other parts of your life.
BO Plus, the river community didn’t really have anything that didn’t look like a giant space boot. There was no level of style or function of a river shoe that you would actually wear in public. I remember you pointing that out and saying, ‘I’m going to make a river shoe that you can wear out in public.’ I had friends back home who would be like, ‘What kind of kayaking shoes are y’all making?’ I’d be like, these. And they’d say, ‘that’s not a kayaking shoe!’
I remember Yonton said that they were the most technical river shoe ever developed, but don’t even look it. They’re like an onion, you really have to peel back the layers to find the technology.
PC Which is an underlying design principle of Astral. There’s more there than you think. For example, the design intent for the Brewer™ was to build it without glue. I wanted to build a shoe without glue. Glue falls apart. Glue breaks down. It doesn’t work. It’s sticky and toxic. Reglan got really frustrated with me. He’s like, ‘we can’t do it without glue, we’re building shoes here. We got to use glue.’ And I’m like, OK, fine. So we did use a little bit of glue. Our glue use was probably 20%. All we were doing was gluing the rubber to the EVA. Everything else was stitched together and there was no other glue in it. The Brewer™ was briefed to be made without glue. And I think we did pretty good with that. And it was to use 50% less oil.
Astral Where was the oil coming from in the shoes?
PC In the plastic, the fabric, the foam. The EVA. Ethylene. Vinyl, acetate.
BO Which is so nice, for that lightness. You pick up a polyurethane shoe versus EVA, and it’s just like how can you swim, portage, hike or much less walk!?
PC Yeah! And the grip. As I mentioned, a large principle of our shoe design was built on grip. Performance-wise, it needed to dry super fast and grip super well. So when we began, we used Five Ten rubber. They were actually really happy when we approached them. Because they were like, ‘We know that you guys make really good jackets and we’d be stoked to partner with you.” By 2012, we finally got to market and I think it was around that exact time that we started to get some headwinds that things were changing at 5.10. Three months later they announced that Adidas bought them. So I began to learn a lot about rubber at that time. Like a lot, a lot, a lot! One of the important things I learned is that there’s three hubs of rubber production. There’s Akron, Ohio, there’s one somewhere in France, and the third one is in Busan, South Korea. That’s where most of the tech around rubber is, for car tires and just about any sort of advancements in rubber. I was living in Vietnam at the time, so I started to develop connections in Busan and began working with a company that specialized in compounding high grip rubber, and was the supplier of rubber to La Sportiva. And you know, both Sportiva and Five Ten are really strong in rock climbing. I knew that I was at a good starting spot and then basically built on their knowledge and tuned the compound for better grip properties while wet. Because rock climbing is dry, when you add water it really is a different element, and the dry grip rubber didn’t work as well. So it took a while. About a year of a lot of samples and testing to get it right. And we did that until we had good results in the lab. There’s some standardized tests that you can do in the lab to prove or measure the coefficient of friction, the grip of a rubber. And so we got into the lab to beat the benchmark set by 5.10. Then we built a mold and sent them out. Bryan, were you part of the testing process?
BO I wasn’t in the size, but I remember distributing them to all sorts of folks. Kayakers, rafters, some paddleboarders too. Everyone was shooting videos of the grip on dry rock and wet rock.
PC I mean we really validated it both in the lab and then through field surveys.
BO And we were non-marking. It would blow people’s minds. They’d be like ,’hold on, these look cooler, perform better and they’re non-marking!?’
PC That’s right.
Astral So when did the Brewer™ evolve to the 2.0?
PC When we released the original Brewer™ I hated it so badly that I had to re-engineer it. It had some stupid toe stuck way up in the air. You remember that?
BO Yeah. They would come out sometimes like a banana.
PC Like a cowboy boot! It was ridiculous.
Astral Like the bow of a kayak.
PC Which the principle is fine. It’s totally fine. But we tried it, and it was really high. So we built our first batch, and I mean, what an interesting can of worms that opens up! Like, that was me trying to figure out how to get shoes made. I mean, that’s it’s own story. You know, what’s it like to move your family to a foreign country to make shoes? That’s its own thing, a whole other story. But we had other imminent problems, like the stitching on the front end. Kayakers are in the rocks, and there was just a thin margin of bonding that was holding the upper to the midsole. And so we had a lot of shoes show up where the upper was detached from the midsole. So that was embarrassing. And those were the people that used them all summer. But thankfully the majority of people had reasonably good experiences and might still have those Brewers.
BO I think while you were probably so production focused, a lot of us were just really stoked to have something that different. They were being celebrated. I mean, the river community had a cool shoe that they were proud to wear.
PC Oh, that’s cool. That’s nice to hear. And so the 2.0 solved like 97% of the issues we were having.
BO And it was more comfortable.
PC For some people. If you’re measuring your width anything over a C and a half, the Brewer™ or Brewess™ doesn’t work. So we need to keep getting better.
Astral When did the Brewess™ come onto the scene?
PC We introduced the Brewer™ and Brewess™ together. And silly us for the name Brewess™. It could have just been the Brewer Women’s. I think we thought it’d be clever or funny, and that doesn’t bother me, but it’s just like the one thing that’s different from the rest of our line.
Astral So what’s next for the Brewer™ and Brewess™?
PC I think the Brewer™ needs to be more versatile, sizing-wise. And I think it deserves a new upper. Maybe with bluesign® materials, but still be super duper comfortable. Those would be improvements. But I think it’s a legacy product. I don’t think it’ll ever go away. It’ll be like Brewer 3.0.
Astral Awesome! We’ll look forward to that. Thanks for the trip back to the origins of Astral footwear. Much appreciated, fellas.
This conversation was edited for clarity.