Brewer Profile: 21st Amendment Brewery, Part 1

Part I:  Interview with the Chief Watermelon Officer

After one taste of Back in Black, 21st Amendment Brewery shattered my misguided notion that canned beer is bad beer.  Then, when I learned that Men’s Journal Magazine named Back in Black one of the BEST 25 BEERS on EARTH, it became my mission to learn more about the maker of this sublime brew.   To my surprise and delight, I landed an interview with Nico Freccia, the Co-Founder and CWO (Chief Watermelon Officer) of 21st Amendment Brewery.  We had a fun discussion that went something like this…


How did you earn the title of Chief Watermelon Officer?

We’ve been brewing a Watermelon Wheat beer at our pub for 10 years.   It’s an American style wheat beer that we ferment with 100% fresh watermelon.  It’s a crisp, refreshing, tart wheat beer with a kiss of fruit in the finish. 

When we first started distributing beer three years ago, we thought it would be the perfect beer to launch in a can.  So we renamed it Hell or High Watermelon Wheat Beer and released it along with Brew Free! Or Die IPA as part of our launch into broad distribution.

My business partner, Shaun O’Sullivan, and I like to have fun with whatever we do.  So instead of giving ourselves traditional stodgy titles like CEO or Brewmaster, we decided to call ourselves the Chief Watermelon Officer and Chief Hophead to help promote our beer. 

We also learned very quickly that wearing silly watermelon hats and costumes is a lot fun and gets attention. So we usually have a posse of five people walking around beer festivals wearing watermelon clothing while singing a watermelon song.

We’re now brewing a lot of different styles, so I may re-think my title.  But it was fun while it lasted.

21A crew at Oregon Brewers Fest.  Nico at left. Shaun at right.

What is your brewing philosophy?

The philosophy for our company and beer is about pushing the envelope and doing things differently.  We try to be trailblazers instead of followers. 

Take canned beer.  Two years ago, when we started distributing beer, cans were very new.  Only a dozen craft brewers were canning at the time.  When Shaun first approached me about canning beer, I thought it was the dumbest idea I had ever heard.  People’s perception was that canned beer equals crappy beer—cheap, light, industrial lager.  So we faced an uphill battle to educate consumers.  But once we researched the benefits, we realized canned beer was a no-brainer because it makes so much sense on so many levels. Today, there are about 100 craft brewers that can their beer.


How have you pushed the envelope with your beer?

Hell or High Watermelon Wheat Beer supports that notion.  It started out as a homebrew experiment before we opened the pub.  I always enjoyed fruit beer but found that I could only drink one due to the sweetness.   So I thought it would be fun to make a fruit beer that you could drink as a session beer.  Initially, I didn’t think watermelon would work due to the high water content.  But I found that the yeast worked very well with the watermelon sugar and we actually ended up with a beer that was drier than the wheat-only version.  So instead of being sweet, cloying, and sticky on your tongue, we had a light, refreshing beer.   

When we thought about what our next canned beer would be, we wanted to make a bold statement that would totally blow people’s minds. So we decided to brew a strong, dark Belgian style beer with a traditional Belgian abbey yeast—and put in a can! 

So Shaun and I travelled to Belgium and visited a number of breweries.  We found a local brewer and made a pilot batch of beer.  Aside from Belgian malts, we used a ton of Belgian candi sugar and cinnamon in the mash.  Then we added whole vanilla beans, dried black mission figs, and aged it in oak.  We came back to the States last year, brewed the beer and called it Monk’s Blood.  We released it in December '09 in limited quantities in a special 4-can pack and it sold out in 60 days.

Another example of pushing the envelope occurred three years ago when we had a massive world-wide hop shortage.  Hop prices went from $8 a pound to $25-$30, almost overnight.  Brewers couldn’t get hops unless they had contracts.  It became very difficult for small brewers to brew the styles of beer that they wanted to make.  We had the same problems.  But instead of whining about it, we responded by making the biggest, hoppiest, craziest, double IPA that we could think of and we called it Hop Crisis! which recently won a silver medal at the Great American Brew Fest. 

Back in Black is another example.  Black IPA (or Cascadian Dark Ale), is a style that is gaining traction but there really isn’t a definitive example of how the style should taste.  Very few brewers were making Black IPAs on a year-round basis.  We wanted to establish a benchmark of the style and make it year-round.   IPA lovers like Back in Black because it offers something new.  It doesn’t beat you over the head with hops.  It has hop aroma and bitterness but also adds something different in the malt character.

People who don’t like the scraping bitterness of IPAs enjoy Back in Black because the addition of roasted malts gives it a smoothness to character and flavor.

We're all about pushing the boundaries of style and turning people’s notions on their ears.  This is the beer business.  We’re not building rocket ships or making baby formula.  At the end of the day, if you can’t have fun, there's no point in doing it.


In Part II of the interview, Nico tells the story of how 21st Amendment made the jump from small brewpub to the big leagues of major distribution.  Stay tuned!


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3 comments:

Anonymous said...

21A rocks! Wish they would send us some monk's blood in ohio!

Sanjay said...

I agree. 21A rocks. In Part 2 of the interview, you'll learn more about Monk's Blood as well as the release of their first winter seasonal. I can't wait to try it myself.

Anonymous said...

Hi Sanjay,
My name is Jason I run the NW for the 21A. I would love to meet up with you and get you a sample or two of Fireside chat if you still live in Portland. Feel Free to email me
Jason@21st-Amendment.com

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