Elevating the Can

It all started in 2008 when 21st Amendment Brewery co-founder Shaun O’Sullivan returned from the Great American Beer Festival with what seemed like a crazy idea: start putting the brewery’s popular beers in cans.

Once the team, which includes co-founder Nico Freccia (pictured right) and president Dave Wilson, got over the initial shock of the idea, they realized it could be an opportunity to take canned beer to the next level.

“We were struck by lightning,” Wilson says. “We knew our next move was to distribute to the masses. We have to put this in cans.”

The co-founders had come a long way from brewing in their garages, opening a successful pub in San Francisco’s South Park neighborhood in 2000 and starting the canning operation, which was run out of a facility at Cold Spring, Minnesota, in 2008. But capacity issues at the facility — they went from making 1,000 barrels a year there to 57,000 — caused the team to think about another dream: brew and can the beer themselves.

Which brings us to today and 21st Amendment’s one-year-old facility in San Leandro. The brewery, located next to Drake’s Brewing Company, is 95,000 square feet of some of the most advanced brewing and canning equipment in the world. The facility and grounds are big enough to host the some 5,000 people who come to the annual AugustFest event, where on August 27, I was able to sample some of the beers and tour the facility. You’ve seen the beer in stores; varieties include Brew Free! or Die IPA, Hell or High Watermelon wheat beer, Back in Black IPA, and specialties like Monk’s Blood or Marooned on Hog Island made with real Hog Island Oyster Company shells.

“We always wanted our own place to brew,” Wilson says of the former Kellogg plant where Eggo’s and Pop Tarts were made. “There is limited real estate of this size and the people of San Leandro made it really hard to not come here.”

The facility hit the ground producing 80,000 barrels and the team hopes to make 100,000 this year with plans to get to 300,000 once more equipment is brought in. The brewing tanks already in place are so large that to install them they had to take the roof off the building and get FAA clearance to operate the large crane that would situate the tanks.

“When I saw them redirecting Oakland Airport traffic around us, I knew we had made it,” Wilson laughs.

Beyond the great brews and their portability, one reason the cans are so popular might be the distinctive graphics found on the labels. Using the 21st Amendment (which in 1933, repealed the 18th amendment and ended Prohibition) as a logical starting point, the team decided to mix American iconography with the light-hearted spirit of the brewery. This led to images of Abraham Lincoln breaking free of Mount Rushmore much to the shock of George Washington or the Statue of Liberty sitting on the Golden Gate Bridge, dipping her toes in the bay.

“The graphics team tried to put the personality of the brewery in the labels,” Wilson says. “Brew Free or Die really captures the spirit of the brewery.”

And that spirit might be best summed up in this quote from Wilson. “You can’t take yourself too seriously,” he says. “If you can’t have fun in this business, you are doing something wrong.”

The tasting room in San Leandro is open six days a week. 2010 Williams Street, San Leandro, 510.595.2111, 21st-amendment.com