Interview: Shaun O’Sullivan (21st Amendment Brewery)

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Brewmaster San Francisco

Image of Nico Freccia and Shaun O'Sullivan courtesy of 21st Amendment Brewery

Shaun O’Sullivan was working for a prestigious downtown L.A. law firm, criss-crossing the country traveling nothing but First Class, but he decided that life wasn’t for him. As he says, “I traded my suits for boots and was saved by beer.” The home brewer turned pro at Berkeley’s Triple Rock Brewery, where he initially assisted Sean Donnelly. He rose through the ranks before partnering with Nico Freccia on 21st Amendment Brewery in San Francisco. We recently spoke by phone, where O’Sullivan discussed his background and approach.

How did you become so interested in beer?

I was living in West LA and one of my buddies at the law firm, Doug Walker, was a home brewer. He invited me over one day to home brew. I thought, “This is kind of fun.”

Any other formative beer memories?

There was a place that was close to me. Father’s Office. At that point it had sawdust on the floor and a pinball machine. They had these incredible beers, I think they had all five Anchor beers.

There was this steel and glass establishment across the street from the law firm, and they had Red Hook ESB in bottles. I thought, “This is amazing.”

Then traveling to the Bay Area and going on the Anchor Brewing tour the day after Thanksgiving, and that was in the day they would release the Christmas ale. Anchor has had a big influence on me. I’ve been in that brewery maybe 60 times, and every time you see those big copper kettles and the whole tasting room, it blows my mind. If you want to romance the brewing industry, go to Anchor.

What was the first beer you ever brewed?

Probably an ESB. It was probably what my buddy Doug Walker was brewing. I used to do stouts. I used to have this little stove when I was living in Brentwood. My first batches weren’t that great, and bottling was a real pain, so I quickly went from bottling to kegging.

How did it turn out?

At the time, it tasted fantastic. If I were to try it today, it probably wasn’t so good. We didn’t have controls for fermentation temperatures, and we were overzealous with cleanliness.

Where did you go to college, and what was your major?

I grew up in L.A. and attended UCLA. I went in as a Poli Sci major and left as a psychology major.

What was your path before co-founding 21st Amendment Brewery?

My last quarter at UCLA, I did an internship at CNN in DC, worked on the Larry King Show and Crossfire. Then I worked for CNN back in L.A. That lasted for three months. I called up a buddy of mine who was a next-door neighbor at UCLA. He said he was eating lobster and getting paid $18 an hour. I worked at big corporate law firm for seven years. They would fly me back and forth across the country. They flied me first class and paid well, but I looked around and saw all the lawyers were pretty miserable. I had taken up home brewing the last year I was down there…and also considered becoming a chef. I tried out at Chez Panisse, and they had actually offered me a job, but I didn’t take it.

When I was 30, I traded my suits for boots and was saved by beer. I moved up here and decided I didn’t want to get into cooking. I walked into Triple Rock Brewery and asked to brew. Sandy Savage, who was the brewmaster, came in at 6 o’clock the next morning, brewed all day and completely ate it up. This is a kid working in a law firm, mucking up the mash tun and doing all this physical labor. At the end of the day, we went mountain biking in the East Bay Hills.

Sean Donnelly was assistant brewmaster. Anything he’d do at the brewery, he’d call me and I’d come down and volunteer. I did that for nine months. Nine months later, the two brewers – Sean and Sandy – were leaving. John Paxman, who was one of the original brewers at Buffalo Bill’s down in Hayward, became the brewer and was looking for an assistant brewer. That was where it all started. I did it for two and a half years while working a part time job at big shipping company in downtown Oakland.

Do you have a first beer memory?

Drinking Hamm’s beer at a high school party. That was probably my first beer when I was 17. Hamm’s, out of a can.

I used to collect beer cans, and I left home and had them in my house when I was growing up. When I started canning my beer, I received this big box. My parents found them in the attic. They said, “Hey, it’s full circle now.”

Would you say that you have any brewing mentors?

Sean Donnelly. John Paxman. Really it was the Martin brothers, Reed and John, who hired me. I basically went up to Reed Martin, who’s in charge of the brewery aspect, and I basically just went to them and said I’ve been doing this nine months for free. You should hire me, and they did. It was invaluable in terms of the responsibility that was handed to me. I learned all aspects of running a small brewpub brewery, from sourcing raw materials, dealing with logistics in terms of kegs, deliveries and whatnot, recipe formulation, everything, soup to nuts, from brewhouse to cellaring and filtering. Sean Donnelly was the assistant when I was coming in all the time. He said, “People know Triple Rock and this is going to be good for you.” It was a good thing to have on the resume, in terms of getting me where I am now.

How did 21st Amendment come about?

I was at Triple Rock two-and-a-half years, worked for about six weeks at the old 20 Tank Brewery in San Francisco, which was actually owned by the Martin borthers as well. The brewers were leaving, and I was brought in to find their replacements…I took the job because I got to build a brewery from the beginning. I got the job at Steelhead because Terry used to work at Triple Rock. The whole 21st Amendment idea came about when I met my partner, Nico Freccia. I didn’t know him down in Los Angeles, but he moved up here the same time that I did, ’94 or ’95. He moved up here and became the Bay Area correspondent for The Celebrator. He came in one day to write an article on Triple Rock. I gave him a tour of the brewery and didn’t think anything of it.

I took brewing courses at Davis on brewing science and microbiology. He went out there to take a course and was writing about it. He and I were lab partners. I invited him out to Triple Rock one day to brew with me. I said what are you going to do for the rest of your life? Nico was trying to be an actor in Los Angeles, so he had a lot of experience managing restaurants, waiting tables in restaurants. A brewpub is basically a restaurant with a hook. He brought that part to it. We started to talk to each other to decide if we were on the same page. We started writing a business plan, started to put financials together. We wanted to open a brewpub in San Francisco, in a part of the city that was coming around where the rents were cheaper. We started looking in the South of Market area since there wasn’t a lot going on there. We found a space, and about the same time, the ballpark vote was coming through…It was just dumb luck that came about.

What do you think distinguishes 21st Amendment beer from other breweries?

We like to have fun with what we do there. The main thing right now that’s more relevant is that we’re packaging big beers in cans. We have black IPA that arrives today. We have this watermelon wheat beer. We are a neighborhood establishment with great food. You can’t survive in SF without good food, but we’re not over the top about it. Sometimes we’re really style specific, but we like to have fun, adding watermelon and other crazy ingredients to beers. In the last three years, we started canning our beer with the little two-head filler, a whopping 17 cases per hour.

Monk’s Blood is a dark Belgian strong beer brewed with Belgian candy sugar, dried Mission figs, vanilla beans and oak as well. Really super complex beer. When people poured it for the first time, they said, “We can’t believe this is in a can.” The whole point was to show people this is just a vessel.

Who are some other brewers you look up to and how come?

Fritz Maytag for what he did, how he basically resurrected the entire craft beer movment to what it was before to Prohibition. He saved an entire style of beer, steam beer, that disappeared. Ken Grossman for what he’s done at Sierra Nevada. I remember getting a tour with Tom Woodbeck, who I went to school with at Davis. He worked at Sierra. I saw Ken Grossman walking down with a toolset, he was going to go fix something.

What are some beers that you typically enjoy drinking?

Hops are kind of like heroin, I think, at least out here in Northern California. You just can’t get enough of it. I love IPAs. In a lot of ways it’s a benchmark for a brewery. You’ve got to make a great IPA.

What’s the latest beer you’ve been developing and what’s your approach been?

Back in Black, a black IPA, around 6.8% alcohol. I kind of heard people starting to do this and thought it was a neat idea. It essentially has all the hop bitterness of an IPA, but Weyermann Carafa Type 2 Malt just gives this slight toasty-roasty flavor that complements the hop bitterness.

How do you feel about collaborating with another brewery?

I love collaboration. Collaboration’s what got us into this business in the first place. We just did a collaboration with Stone and Firestone Walker: El Camino (un)Real, a dark Belgian black beer. We’re all basically connected by El Camino Real, which is the Mission trail, so we ended up adding legal indigenous ingredients like chia – which is a grass seed – fennel, red peppercorn, Belgian candy sugar, and dried Mission figs. That was an incredible experience to see that beer in bottles and on draught.

If you could only drink one more glass of beer, what would be in it?

My last glass of beer? Any imperial stout because it’s just a big, black dark and strong.

Would you eat anything with it?

A big thick steak. Side of oysters. That’s like last meal.

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Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

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