21st Amendment On the Art of Naming Beer

Drink Features 21st Amendment Brewery
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21st Amendment On the Art of Naming Beer

A brewery’s beer names can tell their story and if it’s done well, the package labels can go beyond any marketing gimmicks to touch on broader themes or historical context. 21st Amendment Brewery, which was founded in 2000 as a San Francisco brewpub, is able to embody that depth of character with their names and labels. Their beer names grab attention and roll off the tongue, yet they take a second to click: leaving a lasting impression.

Names like Hell or High Watermelon and Brew Free or Die are beery twists on familiar slogans. They’re also a bit too long and a little too abstract when it comes to actually conveying the flavors inside those 12 oz. cans. It’s the way that founders Nico Freccia and Shaun O’Sullivan wanted it.

For the first eight years of operations, their beer had simple names: Watermelon Wheat and 21A IPA, but when they decided to start canning, everything changed. We talked with co-founder Nico Freccia about WHAT

Paste: There’s a lot of talk today about with beer names, especially with your names, which have always stood out from the pack.

Nico Freccia: It has changed a lot in the last five to eight years. When we started packaging our beer eight years ago, the naming was one of the first things we thought about.

To go back to the beginning, we decided to launch packaged beers in cans. Shaun [O’Sullivan] had been to the Great American Beer Fest in 2005 and breweries had started canning. We were talking about how we might grow the business and we didn’t want to build another brewpub. He said, “I have an idea: we can take some of these beers that are super popular — our watermelon beer, our IPA — and sell that on the general market in cans.”
I thought, “Shaun, that’s the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard.” There were a couple small breweries on the West Coast and California doing it, but nobody in the Bay Area. We thought it might differentiate us.

The second thing was cans provide this opportunity to tell a better story. You have more real estate on a can, and then we [added] this cardboard wrap for six-packs…those are like little billboards.

We have 360 degrees of surface on the can and then we have this box. That really drove our decision to do something that was very graphical. At the same time, there was a naming culture in American craft breweries that, in the mid-2000s, tended to be very straight forward: basically Brewery Name then the style. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, right? We thought, let’s do something different and more iconic.

The whole American history/government element was part of people’s perception of 21st Amendment, so how do we capture that and keep our spirit as innovators who like to have fun? That’s where we came up with taking iconic American images like Mount Rushmore and putting our own wry twist on it: like Lincoln breaking free while the others look on disapprovingly, or having the Statute of Liberty making the trek across the country and cooling her feet in San Francisco Bay. It was the same thing with naming culture. Can we find some great recognizable American phrases that are historic and capture the spirit of America, but with a twist to make them fun and unique?

These were long, difficult to pronounce mouthfuls. At first we thought we couldn’t do that: it’s too long to remember. The more we thought about it, maybe that’s the point. We’ll force people to think differently. It worked for us because we had a bigger package.

You see that, eight years later, fanciful names are the norm not the exception.

Coming up with iconic names helped them be different enough that we didn’t have to worry about trademark issues. We love the Watermelon Wheat name but it’s merely descriptive terms. If you really want to protect a name, come up with a really unique name that doesn’t exist and you can protect it easier.

Paste: How hard is it to come up with a really unique name since there are so many breweries today?

Nico Freccia: I’ve heard a lot of hand wringing about how it’s impossible to come up with names because they’re all taken. I don’t buy that. I could make up 10 fake names today. Do they fit your brand or the beer? That’s the challenge.

We just did the El Camino (Un)Real collaboration with Stone and Firestone Walker. The El Camino in California is the original highway that connected all of the original California Missions. Camino Real is an obvious name because it’s literally the beginning, middle and end of the beer. It’s this fun, psychedelic and reimagined version of a beer so it’s kind of unreal. Calling it El Camino U(n)real was kind of a no brainer. But it’s got a great story. The name itself, I guarantee, isn’t going to be out there. To me, that’s how you come up with them.

Paste: Has the growth in the industry impacted your process?

Nico Freccia: We’re pretty thorough before we put anything on a label. Putting something on tap at the brewpub for two weeks isn’t a big deal. The thing that gets to me is when people put a name on a label and they don’t even do a Google search much less a USPTO search. Then they get in trouble and complain because somebody calls them or sends a cease & desist letter. Really?

We do our homework but I’m not worried about it. I make up words all the time. Me and my kid make up names for things around the house.

We’ve had times where we picked a name and we got a call from another brewer. We’ve called people up too. We’ve even had people call and say we’re doing a beer with this art and it’s got some similarities.

Paste: How do you think your naming has evolved over the last eight years? Has it taken on a new life?

Nico Freccia: We still have fun, but we give ourselves permission to step outside of the box. In some situations, we’ve gone too far and needed to pull it back. El Sully is probably our newest main line beer that’s maybe off. It’s still an inventive name. It’s tongue in cheek, chastising Shaun O’Sullivan’s name, so the spirit is the same.

Blah Blah Blah IPA is a beer we’ve been doing on draft and in our variety pack (and soon in six-packs). It comes out of this explosion of IPAs: black IPA, red, white, Belgian, rye, avocado, mango blah blah blah. It’s not a classic American phrase like Brew Free or Die, but we’re poking fun at the industry and at ourselves for doing another IPA.