Sam Calagione reflects on the growth of his business and the craft beer industry
It’s been 20 years since a native of Western Massachusetts decided to take his beer brewing business plan to coastal Delaware. Once established in Rehoboth Beach, the oddly named brewpub—Dogfish Head Brewings & Eats—soon became a juggernaut, with a brewery following in Milton and Dogfish Ale House restaurants popping up in Gaithersburg, Md., and Fairfax and Falls Church, Va.
While Dogfish Head hit a snag recently when the proposed expansion of its downtown Rehoboth brewpub was denied approval by city council, the brand continues to grow by leaps and bounds in the craft brew industry. At the helm all the while, Sam Calagione, that same Western Massachusetts native, has become the ruggedly handsome poster boy for craft beer.
Calagione recently sat in front of a roaring fire outside the hotel in Lewes named after his beer company, relaxing between marketing trips to Los Angeles and Chicago. Sipping from a bottle of Namaste, a Belgian-style white ale with hints of orange and lemongrass, he spent an hour with Out & About discussing his humble homebrew beginnings, his favorite Dogfish and non-Dogfish beers, and the upcoming weeklong celebration of the 20th anniversary of a brewery that put Delaware on the craft beer map.
What was your first experience with good craft beer?
After college at Muhlenberg, I moved to New York City to take some writing courses at Columbia. At nights I worked as a waiter at a place in Manhattan called Nacho Mama’s Burritos. It doesn’t sound like a good craft beer place, but they had a solid list, for the time. Chimay Red and Sierra Nevada’s Celebration were my two “epiphany” beers—they got me interested enough to look into making my own.
When did you brew your first beer, and was it any good?
I home brewed in my tiny New York apartment in late 1993. There was one brewing store in Manhattan called Little Shop of Hops, where I got my kit. On the way home, I purchased some overly ripe cherries from a little bodega, and mashed them into the brew. It was actually really good for a first effort, even though my next two beers sucked. After sharing the first batch with a lot of people, I decided to write up a business plan.
Did your degree in English help with writing a business plan?
Well, my big joke is there’s no better work of fiction than a business plan. But in all seriousness, a business plan, aside from the numbers, needs good story telling. You have to be able to imagine your dream and put in on paper so that you can get the money you need to get started.
Why did you choose Delaware over somewhere in New England?
Actually, my wife Mariah graduated from Brown University, and we were considering staying there in Providence. I wrote up my plan with the assumption that we would open in Rhode Island, but I couldn’t get approved or get the money. Once a commercial brewery opened up soon after that in Rhode Island, I decided to look at states without a commercial brewery, and Delaware popped up on the list.
Your tagline for Dogfish Head is “off-centered ales for off-centered people,” and your beers certainly reflect that. Why did you decide to go that route?
In the early ‘90s, I did a lot of research on the artisanal food movement that was coming about, and I wanted to focus on not only pairing food with beer, but using food in beer, and thus going with something off-centered. Not everyone was accepting of apricots and chicory in their beer at first. They thought we were weirdos, actually, but now you see it everywhere. I’m kind of proud of that fact.
Of all the beers you’ve brewed, which one is your favorite?
I usually say it’s the one I’m drinking, and actually, the Namaste is one of my favorites during the summer months, along with the 61 Minute IPA. In the fall or winter, it’s the Indian Brown Ale, which was really the first darker, or black, IPA in America. You see a lot of them now, and we’ve had to defend our trademark on that beer, in the amount of $230,000, which is $10,000 more than it cost to open the brewpub when we started. Despite the IPAs being such a big part of what we do, the Indian Brown is a great, if underrated, beer.
When was the last time you drank a Bud Light or Miller Lite?
Well, I’m not a beer snob; I’m a beer geek. Those light lagers are world-class beers for that category, and their consistency is impeccable. After a hockey game or at a friend’s house, I’ve had those beers, even recently. But I try to avoid them because I’m just such a big supporter of the craft movement. We still maintain a very small share of the market, so it’s important that we are all very supportive of each other.
Do you still brew?
Not at the brewery in Milton. That equipment is so big and so advanced; I wouldn’t know where to begin. But yeah, I do brew once or twice a month at the pub. Just small batches that are in research and development, so that we can taste test them and see what needs to be tweaked or if they’re worth brewing on a larger scale.
If you could do a Dogfish Head beer dinner with three people, living or dead, who would you invite?
This is actually a hot tub question I’ve pondered with my kids, so I have an answer. Dorothy Parker, because I think she’d keep the conversation going in interesting directions, and then Ernest Hemingway and Andy Warhol. I figure Hemingway would spit out my beer and make a gin and tonic, then punch Parker in the face for what she would be saying, and Warhol would be there to document the whole thing.
Do you ever worry about overexposure or Dogfish Head getting too big?
I used to write letters about our mantra, saying we couldn’t get over 20,000 barrels, and then 50,000, and then 100,000, and Xerox them and hand them out to staff during meetings back in the day. Then I realized we could maintain our culture and style as long as we keep being experimental and remember our roots. That’s why a couple years ago, instead of choosing to open another plant in New England or in the south, we decided to put $55 million into the Milton brewery. We’re a Delaware company and we love making our beer in Lewes and Milton. No matter how big we get, that will always be the case.
Dogfish Head Celebration June 22-27
The 20th anniversary celebration of Dogfish Head, which opened its Rehoboth Beach doors in June of 1995, begins June 22 with a week of special events at the brew pub in downtown Rehoboth and the brewery in Milton.
Things start off with Mini Growler Monday at the pub, where 50 limited edition growlers will be available for sale. Each 64-ounce jug will be signed by Calagione, who will also be on hand for the release, beginning at 2 p.m.
Up at the brewery, it’s Mini Monday, where visitors can make a miniature version of their own beer by using the Dogfish Head randall. Invented by Calagione, a randall is an organoleptic hop transducer with a double-chamber filter that connects to the tap of your favorite beer.
Visitors are welcome to bring in their own ingredients—cherries, hops, coffee, mint, orange peel—to add to their favorite Dogfish Head beer on tap. The process allows each user to act as his or her own brewmaster.
Calagione also will be a guest bartender at the pub on Tuesday from 5-7 p.m., and at the brewery on Wednesday from 4-6 p.m. If you share a birthday with Dogfish on June 23, show your ID and you’ll receive a gift.
Throwback Thursday will be a celebration of the ‘90s. At the pub and brewery, several vintage brews will be on tap, and visitors are urged to dress in ‘90s garb. Join the Dogfish Head crew for an extended happy hour at Beer:30 on Friday at 3:30 p.m. at the brewery, followed by live music at the pub at 10 p.m. (Band TBA).
The week before, from June 11-13, Dogfish Head brings back its annual Analog-A-Gogo festival, a “sensory experience to end all sensory experiences,” featuring handcrafted cask beer, live music, and homemade goods.
Three concerts cap off the week at the brewpub, featuring some heavy hitters in the music world: Country rock band Tall Tales and the Silver Lining play on Thursday; indie rock band Built to Spill performs Friday, and Philly-based, indie-folk rockers Hop Along wrap things up on Saturday. All shows start at 10 p.m. No tickets are required.
On Saturday, June 13, at the brewery from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., a celebration of all things sensory will include 10 Dogfish Head craft ales on cask, wherein barrel-conditioned, unpasteurized beer is pushed from the cask to the tap via nitrogen or carbon dioxide. The result is a slightly warmer beer, but with a much fuller flavor. (Geeks really love it.)
“This is our big annual party, and since it’s our 20th anniversary this year, we really wanted to amplify things by putting another layer into it,” Calagione says. “The day at the brewery is going to be such a great time, but I’m super psyched for the music lineup we have scheduled at the brewpub.”
As for a 20th anniversary ale, he said he and his team are still in the r&d process, but that it will be a big and heavy dark beer set for release in the fall. Dogfish Head also plans to release a revamped version of last year’s “Pennsylvania Tuxedo,” in collaboration with Woolrich Clothing, an outdoor apparel manufacturer.
“I’ll be heading up to Woolrich in Pennsylvania later this year, where 55 co-workers at the company will go through the forest picking spruce tips for the beer,” says Calagione. “After freezing and thawing them, we add them to an Imperial IPA we’ll be making, and they bring a sort of hop-like herbaceous quality to the beer.”
Calagione says both the collaboration Pennsylvania Tuxedo (which refers to an outfit of black and red flannel coats and pants worn by hunters), and the 20th anniversary ale (to be named later) will possess a fairly high ABV, flavor profiles appropriate for “fall drinking weather,” and will be available both by the bottle locally and on draft at Dogfish Head Brewings & Eats in downtown Rehoboth Beach.