Throw a rock in California and you’re likely to hit a brewery. But it wasn’t always this way. Back in 2000, a paralegal and a journalist (who both happened to be huge beer fans) teamed up to change what they saw as a lack of beer culture on the West Coast.
23 years later, co-founders Nico Freccia & Shaun O’Sullivan are still at the helm of 21st Amendment Brewery – a brewery that creates fruit-forward favorites like Hell or High Watermelon and Brew Free! Or Die Blood Orange.
Outside of their home market of California, Pennsylvania is 21A’s largest territory. As such, Nico and Shaun were happy to share insights of their journey to find the identity of 21A, how single serves factor into this year’s strategy and what makes a beer taste just like a tropical island.
Heady Times (HT): Congrats on 23 years in beer! There’s an obvious focus on fruit-forward beers at the center of 21A’s portfolio – how did you find your niche as a brewery?
Shaun O’Sullivan (SO): I think it’s important to find out what you’re really good at and lean into that.
Nico Freccia (NF): Hell or High Watermelon was a beer that I first made as a homebrew in my basement in San Francisco in 1998. I enjoyed an occasional fruit beer, but you couldn’t usually have more than one because they tended to be too sweet. I thought watermelon might add a nice hint of fruit without being overwhelming, so I brewed an American wheat beer with a secondary fermentation with lots of fresh watermelon.
SO: And it turned out great! Kicking back with a few Hell or High Watermelons, we realized that fruit and beer was something we knew how to do well, so we really zeroed in on that moving forward.
HT: Outside of California, Pennsylvania is your largest market. You’ve done that with a dominant focus on your core, including the Brew Free! Or Die family. What’s new for Brew Free! in 2023?
NF: We launched Brew Free! Or Die Hazy IPA less than a year ago, so we’re excited about building momentum behind that brand. Our Brew Free! Or Die Cold IPA launched late last year and did really well this winter. And we’re morphing our Brew Free! Or Die Tropical IPA into a new version: Brew Free! Or Die Juicy IPA.
Our other year-round beers that are key to our success in PA are our hoppy pilsner Coaster Pils, our Mexicanstyle lager El Sully and our Hop Pack Variety.
HT: Speaking of your new Cold IPA & Juicy IPA, as rotating releases, how were these beers brewed to complement each other?
SO: Brew Free! Or Die Tropical IPA was designed to be a really drinkable, refreshing beer for the summer months with hints of tropical fruit that are reminiscent of a warm vacation on a tropical island. This year we are morphing that tropical essence into Brew Free! Or Die Juicy IPA. We’re really leaning into fruit and doing what we do best by adding a more prominent pineapple flavor to the profile. We feel that this is the perfect refreshing summertime quencher.
Cold IPA is a pretty new style that blends the best elements of a cold brewed lager with a well-hopped IPA. This beer is perfect for enjoying before and after activities because it’s thirst quenching, refreshing and really flavorful, but it doesn’t slow you down.
HT: We can’t wait to try it! What large format and single serve opportunities lie ahead for 21A this year?
NF: We’re really leaning into 19.2 oz. cans this year. This package format is big on the West Coast and it’s the number one convenience store package right now. So we’re taking what works here in California and really focusing on expanding large formats and single serve options in all our markets.
HT: We got an early look at a package refresh for Blood Orange and Hell or High Watermelon. Can you tell us a bit about the changes?
NF: For Brew Free! Or Die Blood Orange, we wanted to accentuate some of the stylistic features on the package to make them pop and make the fruit more prominent. We made some subtle changes to the Hell or High Watermelon package this year as well. We changed the color scheme slightly to make it lighter and brighter, and we changed the font colors to make them pop on the box. We really wanted to accentuate the elements of light, bright and refreshing that cue the customer to what’s inside the package.
HT: We love a good scoop – can you let us in on a few surprises that retailers can get pumped about for 2023?
SO: We’re doing some really fun, new things this year. We’re resurrecting our limited-edition series, which has been dormant since Covid. This spring we’re relaunching a fan favorite, Watermelon Funk, a sour watermelon ale. And we’re following that up with a pumpkin release, Pumpkin Haze IPA, which is a unique take on a hybrid between a hazy IPA and a pumpkin beer. It was one of the fastest-selling beers we have ever made at our San Fran pub last year. We have a bunch of stuff up our sleeves in the beer adjacent space as well that we’re hoping to release later this year and into 2024.
We’re also looking forward to launching a brand-new double IPA this year, but I’m not going to say any more about that because it’s super top secret, and what fun would beer be without a few surprises?
Fruit-Forward to Their Core 21st Amendment’s core lineup puts their expertise at creating delicious
fruit-forward beer front and center.