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AUG/SEP 2005 | REGIONAL | WEST COAST

Post-Prohibition Brewpub Turns Five
21st Amendment Brewery & Restaurant Continues San Francisco Brewing Tradition

By Jay R. Brooks

It’s been 72 years since the 21st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution repealed Prohibition, allowing America’s brewers to get back to the business of making great beer. It’s worth noting, especially in light of the neo-prohibitionists today, that many breweries that were in existence when Prohibition began did not weather the 13 years between 1920 and repeal in 1933. In San Francisco, for example, there were approximately 32 breweries at the turn of the 20th century. By 1920, only 14 remained. After repeal, a dozen tried to reclaim their business, but only eight lasted more than the first year, and only three remained by the 1970s.

Today there are nine breweries and brewpubs in San Francisco proper. Only Anchor Brewery was around during Prohibition. The rest grew out of the microbrewery revolution that began in the early 1980s. At that time, both Shaun O’Sullivan and Nico Freccia lived in Los Angeles. Freccia was a struggling actor, bartender and restaurant manager. O’Sullivan was a paralegal at a large law firm. Both were homebrewers who dreamed of turning pro. Independent of one another, they both moved to the Bay Area in the early 1990s to pursue their goals because of the burgeoning beer community that was brewing in and around San Francisco.

Freccia first got work at some local restaurants as a waiter and bartender, eventually moving up to manager. At the same time, he wrote an article on spec for the Celebrator and managed to get it published. As things were just starting to take off in the San Francisco beer scene, Celebrator Publisher Tom Dalldorf invited Freccia to become the publication’s Bay Area correspondent. Freccia threw himself into the job and quickly familiarized himself with the local breweries and educated himself about San Francisco’s rich brewing heritage.

Meanwhile, across the Bay, Shaun O’Sullivan, freshly scrubbed émigré from the Southland, became assistant brewer at Triple Rock Brewery in Berkeley under John Paxman. In his new capacity as Celebrator correspondent, Freccia visited Triple Rock in early 1995 and met O’Sullivan. The two kept running into one another at local beer festivals and other beer events.

That summer, the pair both attended the two-week brewing course at UC-Davis. During laboratory week they became lab partners, solidifying their friendship and sealing their fate. That fall, they again found themselves drawn together by beer at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver. At that point they started talking about the future and their mutual desire to open their own brewpub. Since they couldn’t both be brewers, they decided that since O’Sullivan had the professional brewing experience, he would brew, and since Freccia had the restaurant experience, that side of the business would fall to him.

As their fifth anniversary approaches, they’ve experienced two years of steady double-digit growth.

For the next five years they pursued their goal in every choice they made and every job they did while they honed the business plan. Freccia managed the opening of a restaurant in Ghirardelli Square while O’Sullivan became head brewer of Steelhead Brewery’s new place at Fisherman’s Wharf, where he learned to install a brewery system from scratch. The two began scouring neighborhoods looking for the sweet spot before finally settling on their present location on Second Street in the South Park area of San Francisco. The June 1997 vote that approved the same area as the location for the new baseball stadium makes their decision look, in hindsight, more prophetic, since at that time the area was mostly a wasteland of abandoned buildings and few residences.

In December of 1997, construction began on the Giants’ new ballpark. Freccia and O’Sullivan signed a lease for their 1924-era facility in early January of the following year. It took two more long, tortured years to complete their financing and get the building ready to open. During that time the pair continued to operate the coffee shop that had been the previous tenant in order to stay afloat. Then finally, on a hot August day in 2000, their five years of planning, sweating and hard work paid off as the 21st Amendment Brewery & Restaurant opened its doors. Now it was smooth sailing, right? Hardly.

For the first nine months, business was quite good, and a reputation for great beer and food was quickly established. Then came the first of two tragic events. The dot-com boom overnight became the dot-com bust. “Our business dropped 30 percent in one week,” Freccia said.

Then, in September of 2001, an event occurred that had a devastating effect on almost all American businesses, but especially service businesses like restaurants, breweries and brewpubs. People were simply not going out after 9/11, Freccia and O’Sullivan observed, and the slide in business continued for almost another 10 months before leveling off. Freccia believes that between one-quarter and one-third of all San Francisco restaurants went out of business or morphed into small value-oriented places. Very few new eateries opened during the same period.

Freccia and O’Sullivan scrambled quickly to restructure the business and trim their overhead. After another year, things finally started to turn around, but one more year passed before the brewpub fully recovered.

As their fifth anniversary approaches, they’ve experienced two years of steady double-digit growth, and the area has blossomed once more. Residence in the area has tripled in the last two years, and the new UCSF research campus is helping fuel a revitalized local neighborhood economy. Freccia and O’Sullivan have finally started to relax.

To what do they attribute their success? Both feel that they have a way of working together that suits and serves them quite well, which includes an “artful way of compromising.” They each bring their unique skills to the partnership and use one another as a sounding board. Also, both have the same vision for the business and were able to keep their sense of humor through even the darkest times. That they’re still friends 10 years later says a lot about their working relationship and their friendship.

But this is a beer magazine, so let’s talk about the beer. Head Brewer O’Sullivan characterizes himself as a style brewer and tries to please his customers. He keeps four or five standard beers all the time plus three more seasonal and special brews. The standards generally include South Park Blonde, Amendment Pale Ale, Potrero ESB and 21A IPA. And through the summer there is the now-famous Watermelon Wheat, a beer made with 400 pounds of fresh watermelon in each batch. The terrific success of this beer surprised O’Sullivan, and it has become one of 21st Amendment’s most popular brews. Other recent specials include General Pippo’s Porter and Batch 300, a dry-hopped strong ale. Also rumored to be in the works is a California common in honor of San Francisco brewing tradition for the brewpub’s fifth anniversary.

So what does the future hold? With the recent departure of original head chef Eddie Blyden, who helped create the menu, the former chef of Black Diamond Brewpub in Walnut Creek, Lorenzo Kersevan, has joined the team. Expect to see some new menu items over the next several months as Kersevan puts his personal stamp on the brewpub’s cuisine. He’s already added some new appetizers, and more fresh, exciting new dishes are on the way. The neighborhood continues to evolve, and the goal of helping to revitalize the area back to its pre-Prohibition glory now seems attainable.

The week of August 8, 21st Amendment will celebrate its fifth anniversary with beer and food specials plus a new anniversary ale and more. Stop by and congratulate them on their well-deserved success and see a new San Francisco tradition in the making.

Jay R. Brooks is the blind tasting director of the Celebrator Beer News and a former beer buyer. He can be found these days wandering the streets of San Rafael, Calif., with his wife and two children.

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