Serious Eats: Drinks
Behind the Scenes at 21st Amendment Brewery with Shaun O'Sullivan
Even though we know there are plenty of reasons for putting beer in cans instead of bottles, it can still be a little surprising to find our favorite craft beers encased in aluminum rather than glass. Especially when the can in question features a giant picture of a monkey in a spacesuit.
Despite the goofy packaging, the canned beer maestros at 21st Amendment Brewery took home two gold medals at this year's Great American Beer Festival. So, rest assured, they make good brew.
21st Amendment has operated as a San Francisco craft brewery and pub since 2000, but they expanded production four years ago, when they began canning their beer in large quantities. Growth has been steady: they have gone from putting out about 1000 barrels of beer in 2008 to 28000 barrels last year. Now, 21st Amendment beers are available in 16 states, and you can drink their Brew Free or Die IPA on Virgin America flights. We visited with founder/brewmaster Shaun O'Sullivan to learn a bit of the brewery's history, get his take on the next big trends in craft beer, and to see what's going on behind the scenes at the brewery's San Francisco brewing facility.
"I looove to talk," O'Sullivan told us when we visited 21st Amendment. He happily regaled us with details about the early years at 21st Amendment and their plans for the future.
On Getting Through the Early Years
21st Amendment opened in August of 2000, just in time for the US economy to slump. "There would be times when we'd get this crowd of people and the staff would be all excited to have customers in the place. They were pink slip parties. People had come in after losing their jobs," O'Sullivan told us, describing those early years.
That piece of bad timing, however, was accompanied by a bit of good luck. The same year that 21st Amendment opened up, Pac Bell Park (now named AT&T Park) hosted its first game as the home ballpark for the San Francisco Giants. O'Sullivan credits proximity to the ballpark as the thing that kept 21st Amendment in business during their early years.
Says O'Sullivan: "Everybody says, 'Man, you guys are smart, you're located two blocks from the ballpark!' But honestly, it's dumb luck. We were looking in a neighborhood in San Francisco that had a large enough space that could house a brewing facility where the rent wasn't crazy. Around the same time, the baseball vote came down."
These days, even though business has taken off, baseball still plays a major role in the pub's existence, with 21st Amendment setting up a makeshift biergarten alongside the building before every Giants' home game.
On Putting Beer in Cans
O'Sullivan credits Colorado's Oskar Blues Brewery with inspiring his desire to put beer in cans. 21st Amendment started the process with their watermelon wheat beer, which they canned on-site using a two-head filler. O'Sullivan says they were able to can 70 cases of beer an hour this way. But when they realized that they wanted to increase production, O'Sullivan and co-Founder Nico Freccia started looking to contract with a local brewery that could offer them greater capacity. They ultimately needed to look all the way to Minnesota to find a match.
As of four years ago, 21st Amendment started contracting with Cold Spring Brewing Company to brew and can their beers. Prior to working with 21st Amendment, the Minnesota brewery had been producing what O'Sullivan calls "industrial-strength lager," but when 21st Amendment came calling with their newfangled beers and fancy ingredients, Cold Spring's brewmaster Mike Kneip approached it with a can-do spirit. O'Sullivan puts on his best Midwestern accent describing their first phone call: "Oh yaaaah, we can do that!"
Though all of 21st Amendment's recipes are developed and tested at the San Francisco facility, 99.9% of their beer is now brewed in Cold Spring. "The phrase 'contract brewing' back in the day was a four-letter word, but we look at it as partner brewing," says O'Sullivan. "I am out there every month brewing the beer. We bring all our ingredients. It's as if I went to your house and cooked my lasagna recipe on your stove."
O'Sullivan does say that beer in cans took some getting used to for some of his customers. "There was a learning curve that the public had to pick up on," he told us. ""We ended up talking more about the package than the liquid in some markets. It seemed like back East they were more receptive because I think there are more can breweries back there. But people kinda push back on it sometimes. They're like, 'I don't like drinking beer out of a can.' Well, do you go to a bar and drink on draft? 'Cause that just comes out of a big can. We always say we have three different beer sizes. We have a 15.5-gallon keg, a 5-gallon keg and a 12-ounce keg."
On the Future of 21st Amendment
Even though 21st Amendment's production has increased exponentially in the last few years, O'Sullivan says they're still working on meeting demand. "We short distributors every month. So right now we just need to fill the pipeline more and grow the market and get into more places," he says.
You can also expect more unique beers to come down the pike. "We have this saying: Celebrating your right to be original. If you meet me and Nico, we're not normal people. If you hang out with me long enough, you're gonna be like, 'Man, I don't know about Shaun,'" O'Sullivan told us with a laugh. "So, it is kind of about doing different things and having fun with it. We will not make a German-style hefeweizen."
Right now, 21st Amendment has an oyster stout on tap at the pub, and they just finished brewing a cardamom saison. Cans of their Monk's Blood, a belgian strong ale that contains Mission figs, are on shelves now (though only for a limited time).
On the Future of Craft Brewing
What's next trend in craft beer? Here's O'Sullivan's guess:
Right now, people are just starting to pick up on the session ale. You know, when you look at where craft brewers started, it's guys kinda my age right now, in their late forties. And, back in the day, we were brewing big strong beers and big hoppy beers. And, then, just to keep yourself alive, you have to start drinking some lighter beers. [Laughs.] And so I think people want that. Like the Bitter American we just did. I think there will be more and more beers like that."
Want to join us on a little brewery tour? Check out the San Francisco brewery in the slideshow above.