21st Amendment’s Shaun O’ Sullivan Talks About the Making of "Down to Earth" and 21st Amendment’s Nearly Completed Brewery

21st Amendment Brewmaster Shaun O’Sullivan
(21st Amendment Brewery photo)

The Session IPA has become all the rage in just a couple short years.  One of first beers that helped create this wave was 21st Amendment’s “Bitter American”, a hoppy brew with only 4.4% abv, which quickly became popular when it was released in 2011.   Now, 21st Amendment has released “Down to Earth” with much fanfare just a couple weeks ago.  I caught up with 21st Amendment’s Brewmaster Shaun O’Sullivan to ask a few questions about “Down to Earth”  and also talk about the new 21st Amendment Brewery near completion in San Leandro.  Here’s what he had to say.

Does “Down to Earth” replaces “Bitter American” in your line-up?
Yes it does. We first brewed Bitter American at our small San Francisco brewpub in 2006 and then canned and distributed it in Spring 2011. At the time it was labeled as a “session ale” but it was always an easy drinking IPA. Back then the style “session IPA” was not part of the craft-brewing world.  When we were designing the Bitter American package we were thinking “Who is the bitterest American?” and after lots of discussion and beers we decided it was Ham the space chimp who was the first American in space back in 1961 as part of the early US space program. Here was a chimpanzee that was plucked from the wilds of Africa and trained to push buttons, strapped to a rocket and hurled into space. Not fun for little Ham and the imagery seemed appropriate for Bitter American with Ham floating in space above the Earth. After a number of years we decided to go back and look at the package and make a couple of adjustments, one being labeling the beer exactly what it is, a “session IPA.” Once we went down that path we thought it would be fun to play with the package design and continue the story of Ham. The new name turned into “Down to Earth” and we brought Ham back home from space to a sunny beach, relaxed and stretched out in his hammock made from his space capsule’s parachute. Down to Earth is, as its predecessor, 4.4% ABV and easy drinking.

Did you modify the Bitter American recipe or start over from scratch?  Can you describe the development process?

The recipe changed but not by much. In “Bitter American” as with “Down to Earth” we use Golden Promise pale malt from Simpson’s Malting out of the UK. Golden Promise gives this lighter beer a supportive malt backbone. Golden Promise malt is used in English session beers to maintain body and still keep the beer lower in alcohol, which can be a challenge as you’re brewing with less malt when there’s the possibility for a thin watery beer. This pale malt provides body, without a lot of sweetness, which I prefer as it avoids the competition between malt and hop flavor and bitterness in your mouth.
For “Down to Earth” I left the upfront bittering hops the same and changed the late or flavor hops as well as the dry hops.  Craft beer drinker’s tastes have evolved and so have mine. I saw “Down to Earth” as an opportunity to mix it up and look into newer hop varieties.  In “Down to Earth” I added a lot more late kettle additions with Cascade and Mosaic hops giving the beer a more chewy citrus flavor and then dry hopped it with Centennial and Mosaic hops adding pine, citrus, mango and tropical aromas.
Mosaic is a relatively new hop and Centennial is an older craft beer workhorse hop.  The combination is great with the marriage of new style and old school hops.
How’s the new brewery going?

What’s exiting about opening our new brewery in San Leandro is that we have the opportunity to really stretch our creative wings and put out more beers and in interesting packages. We are installing a 100 barrel German brewhouse, manufactured in Hudson, Wisconsin. Both my business partner Nico Freccia and I have always had the dream of bringing the beer home to the Bay Area. We’ve been brewing with our partner brewery in Cold Springs, MN since 2008 and that’s been great for us and we’ll continue to brew with them. With the new new brewery we’ll be able to make new beers and delve into different package sizes as well as variety packs. Our San Leandro brewery will be a destination location with a tasting room, outdoor seating and the ability to see and enjoy the entire process from brewhouse to the state of the art canning line. In addition, it’ll allow us to open up new markets. We recently launched in Chicago and we’ll soon be distributing this Summer to Southern California. It’s a great time to be involved in craft beer.

Rambling Recommendations 4.17.2105: St. Archers, 21st Amendment’s Down to Earth and a Ninkasi-Devil’s Backbone Collaboration

Time again for more ramblings on some new beers I recently tried.

First up, Saint Archer Pale Ale.  San Diego’s Saint Archer Brewery has been making a might big push to invade on Northern California turf.  They must have spent a pretty penny with their large display at this year’s SF Beer Week opening gala and their beer has been showing up all over Northern California. You see more and more breweries riding the big craft brewing wave with pretty aggressive expansion plans and Saint Archer is definitely one of those. Yes, I feel a little NorCal vs.SoCal animosity at play when some big time interloper from San Diego starts muscling into the Bay Area, but figured it was time to finally break down and actually try one of their beers. The Pale Ale seemed to be the best place to start. All I can say is “Wow! That’s a mighty good Pale Ale.”    It’s almost IPA-like, but its solid, neutral malt foundation still balances the generous additions of hops.  The hops do all the heavy lifting in the flavor department with some pineyness, fresh flavors of grapefruit peel with a little wet washcloth dankness to bring it all together. Complex, yet drinkable, it’s beers like this give me plenty of faith for the future of Pale Ales.

Next is Down to Earth which 21st Amendment launched to a some fanfare. Unable to resist the temptation of brewing a Session IPA, 21st Amendment apparently replaced a long time favorite of mine, Bitter American, with Down to Earth as the session beer in their line-up.  (At least I can no longer find Bitter American listed on the 21st Amendment website.)  It seems the monkey trapped up in a spaceship on the Bitter American label art has landed on some peaceful island and is shown happily relaxing in a hammock on the can of Down to Earth.   I wouldn’t say the progression of Bitter American has the same dramatic improvement as the monkey’s wel being, but Down to Earth has an awful lot going for it. For starters, there were lots of great tropical aromas when I opened the can. It’s got a grassy undertone and flavors of mango and grapefruit peel that threaten to overwhelm the malt, but don’t quite do so. I’m going to miss Bitter American if it’s gone for good. As for “Down to Earth”, let’s just say I’m a fan.

Finally, we come to “The Devil Went Down to Oregon”, quite possibly the greatest beer named after a horrendously overplayed country song from the 80’s.  It’s a collaboration brew between Oregon’s Ninkasi Brewing and Virginia’s Devil’s Backbone Brewing Companies.  Collaboration beers often become the product of a couple excited brewers running amok at the brew kettle to create a “can you top this” beer. This is no different.  According to the press release, this beer is brewed in the Roggenbier style, a old, largely forgotten German style brewed with West Coast ingredients.  On the bottle, it says “Imperial Dark Rye Ale”.  Whatever it is, all the different flavors find a way to play nice and it all really comes together.   The malt is creamy, with a little sweetness, some nuttiness and pepperiness, with deep earthy, chocolate flavors with a grassy hop finish.  I’m not sure what’s more impressive, how it tastes or how all those ingredients harmonize together.