Two years after the merger with Sam Adams, Dogfish’s Sam Calagione talks about off-centered ventures and adventures and the release of a new book
As a co-founder of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery — and as its primary spokesperson for 26 years — Sam Calagione is a figure who truly needs little introduction in a local magazine like Out & About. Whether you are talking to the governor of the state or the bartender at your local pub, everyone seems to have a “Sam story.”
Yet there always seems to be something new to talk about regarding Calagione and his “little brewery that could.” That’s because Dogfish never stops taking outlandish risks in its quest to make off-centered beer (or spirits), and Calagione has never lost his exuberance for brewing and talking about beer.
A little over two years ago — May 9, 2019, to be exact — there truly was “something new to talk about”: The Boston Beer Company, the famed home of Samuel Adams Boston Lager, had acquired Dogfish, Delaware’s first and most successful craft brewery, for $200 million.
It was the biggest story in the craft beer industry, and many questions and hot gossip ensued. But the primary concern was: How much would things change?
The answer to that question requires some perspective. In 1995, when Calagione started Dogfish, he was scrappy and fresh-faced, right out of college, intent on starting something new and exciting in a budding craft beer industry that totaled only about 600 players coast to coast.
Today, that number has multiplied to more than 8,700 craft breweries, among which Boston Beer is the second biggest in terms of overall beer sales. And Boston Beer’s second biggest non-institutional owners? As a result of the 2019 merger, Calagione and his wife and business partner, Mariah.
So, yes, things change.
Other changes since the merger include a vast reinvestment in brewing equipment and properties, including the addition of the company’s latest brewpub, Dogfish Head Miami, which, like its sister pubs, holds off-centered events like “Waffle Party Vinyl Brunch.”
But as Sam was quick to point out during an Out & About interview last month, not much has changed regarding the core principles at Dogfish: They are still making off-centered beers just as they were 26 years ago. If anything, Calagione says, the merger has created a learning opportunity on both sides. Two craft entities sharing their distinct “Sam-ness.”
The timing of the interview is good for another reason other than the two years to reflect on the merger: Calagione has a new retrospective book coming out soon called The Dogfish Head Book: 25 Years of Off-Centered Adventures, which he co-wrote with Mariah and longtime Dogfish co-worker Andrew Greeley.
So here’s Calagione speaking about the past, present and future adventures of Dogfish:
O&A: In 2019 when it was announced that Dogfish would be merging with Sam Adams, it had everybody talking. Huge news. Two years later, from your view viewpoint, how has this merger worked?
Calagione: It’s worked really well. Jim Koch — co-founder of Sam Adams, the Boston Beer Company — and I have been friends for over two decades.
I was the chairman of the board of the Brewers Association, which is the trade group that represents the vast majority of the now over-8000 American indie craft breweries. And as a fellow indie craft brewery owner, Jim Koch was on that board with me.
We became great friends; we did collaborative beers together. And we could just tell — Mariah and I — when we hung out with him and his co-workers, that it was just a really similar vibe to our company culture, meaning “people first, product second,” a love for innovation, and a love for pushing ideas outside the box, whether it was beer, spirits, or hotels or seltzers.
So we shared all of that, aligned our forces, and away we went!
Our collective company, Boston Beer, grew double digits last year. We’ve invested more and more in our Delaware properties since the merger, [creating] dozens more jobs in Delaware, [investing] millions of dollars in more expansion in our breweries, and, as of a month ago, even opened Dogfish Head Miami.
So, I’d say the ride has been intense and fun!
O&A: Both companies have been staunch supporters of the craft beer industry, but the personality of each is a little different. Also, the founders — you and Jim Koch — have two different personalities. Can you tell me a little bit more about that friendship with Jim Koch?
Calagione: Well, I think we’re complementary. And there are actually lots of leaders in our midst: David Burwick, our CEO [of Boston Beer Company]; Mariah Calagione, my co-founder, and now a very important leader as well at the Boston Beer Company. We all kind of have our unique and complementary superpowers. And I guess like you said, we are a little different than each other.
I started out of college as an English major and went from waiting tables to opening this culinary-centric, off-centered brewery, whereas Jim got his multiple degrees at Harvard and worked for a short time as a business consultant. So, yes, he comes from the more buttoned-up beer world, but he grew up in a family of brew-masters in Ohio and [became] a homebrewer.
We both essentially started with a homebrewers’ passion. And now we’re just kind of homebrewing on a much larger scale.
O&A: What are you most proud of when you look back on your career, you being a pioneer in the craft beer industry?
Calagione: Oh, well, that’s easy. We have a book coming out [The Dogfish Head Book: 25 Years of Off-Centered Adventures] – Mariah, myself, and Andrew Greeley. I want to give him mad props — [he] runs the Dogfish Hotel and is a fellow recovering English major. The three of us, with the help of our co-workers, wrote a book celebrating the first 25 years of Dogfish Head [focusing on] all the brand building, locations, different products that we released, our projects, and collaborations.
And, to your question, if there’s one thing, it’s that when Dogfish opened as the smallest commercial brewery here in the first state, there were no other breweries in America that were committed to making the majority of their beers incorporating culinary ingredients into their recipes — whether it was peaches from Fifer Orchards [in Camden-Wyoming, Del.] or coffee from a little roastery on Second Street in Lewes.
Right out of the gates, we were collaborating with other entrepreneurs inside and outside of Delaware from the food sector to do these culinary-inspired beers. And from the mid-‘90s, when we started doing that, through the early 2000s, we mostly got made fun of — or people would get mad at us for screwing with the tradition, the holy tradition, of sticking to classic beer styles that only have water, yeast, hops and barley.
But flashforward to today and look at the amazing diversity of breweries across the country that are making fruited sours and chocolate stouts and pastry stouts. It’s awesome to watch this creativity explode globally, and Dogfish is really proud of how early we decided to make that the centerpiece of our philosophy of brewing and our company’s mission.
O&A: Yeah, you guys were really like farm-to-table before farm-to-table became a thing. I mean, in the brewing sense.
Calagione: You’re totally right. It was just starting to go off in the culinary world [when Dogfish started]. In that era, they were called microbreweries, not craft breweries.
When I wrote my business plan right out of college, I wrote it in the New York City Public Library. I really studied the work of what Alice Waters, a chef on the West Coast, was doing, and James Beard, the famous food-educator from the from the East Coast. [They had] similar messages, which is: “America grows world-class agricultural goods. Let’s stop genuflecting to European culinary traditions. And let’s create our own creative culinary tradition in America.”
I took that philosophy and kind of brought it into the commercial brewing landscape.
O&A: When you got started, you attempted to sail across the Delaware Bay in a rowboat with a six-pack of your own beer to deliver to Cape May. Since then, you’ve done everything from honor the Grateful Dead with beer to actually going to tombs where there were dead people to reverse-engineer beers with the Ancient Ales series.
You’ve done all sorts of off-centered things. What do you feel was the most successfully off-centered thing you’ve accomplished so far?
Calagione: Oh, that’s a great question. The most successfully off-centered thing was to make it not absurd, but actually exciting for today’s beer consumers to learn of a new beer that has an ingredient that’s never been commercially brewed with before. Because in the early part of my career, there was just a lot of resistance and doubt and surprise.
For example, yesterday I was chatting with Dave Vitella, one of the founders of the great Surf Bagel, down in Lewes. Surf Bagel and our company [were led by] Bryan Selders, who runs brewing in our Rehoboth location. We’re brewing this fundraiser beer for the Delaware Brewers Guild and crushing up pumpernickel bagels into that beer as we made it, while Dave was taking brewing ingredients and making a custom Dogfish bagel out of it.
It’s just really heartwarming that, now in 2021, that’s just fun and exciting — and we don’t have to explain that we’re deconstructing what beer means and we’re playing outside of modern stylistic guidelines. It’s just part of this culture of experimentation.
And it’s also been great to watch other breweries and wineries and distilleries in our state thrive and not feel bound by the last generation’s militant definitions of whatever it is that they make.
O&A: You said you were an English major. When you were going to school, did you realize that you had a genius for marketing? Was there something that you had done in college or high school, because that’s a little bit of a jump. Not a lot of people go from studying English to starting their own business.
Calagione: Yeah, I would never consider myself a genius. Miles Davis or Jackson Pollock or a Hemingway would be some of my heroes that I think are geniuses.
I think what I’ve always had from that era that you mentioned, from junior high school on, was a love of storytelling and a love of rebelling. Sometimes, for worse, not better. I got kicked out of high school where I grew up in Massachusetts.
I used to love to tell stories and live stories. Sometimes the exciting stories would get me in trouble. But I was able to kind of funnel that passion more constructively into creating stories of beer: recipes that were stories and stories of events, like our Analog-A-Go-Go music and beer festival.
I was able to distill that passion for storytelling and rebellion and bring them in a healthier way to this industry where we can rebel against international conglomerates that essentially relied on one light- lager beer style to dominate the commercial landscape — and tell these awesome stories that really are acts of fiction. They’re pieces of fiction. When I write an email to my co-workers and say, “Hey, let’s do this beer with bagels,” it’s really up to my co-workers to take these ideas and turn them into works of nonfiction. So, our company’s success is about the people first and the products second.
O&A: That’s an important part — company culture. Everyone I ever talked to who works at Dogfish, they mention that. It seems to be a real core value to what you are doing.
Calagione: Yeah, well, hearing you say that I want to change my earlier answer. What you just said is actually the legacy, the thing I’m most proud of [from] our journey. In this book that we’re releasing in a month or two, it’s nice because Andrew took the time to weave in interviews with different co-workers that have been with us for a dozen-plus years to tell their story of their journey with Dogfish. Because it’s essentially a microcosm of our overall journey.
O&A: You [recently] announced the release of your songwriting collaboration with Nashville country music star Jimmie Allen, who was born in Milton, Del., the home of Dogfish. If you had just three words, what three words would you use to describe that experience? And why those words?
Calagione: Fun and fishing. Fun because I’ve gotten to know Jimmie through the years. He’s a big fan of 60-Minute and Slightly Mighty, our low-cal IPA. He grew up riding his bike through where our brewery is now. Over the years, we’ve had a blast. We go fishing together. We’ve done that a bunch of times.
I sent them some lyric ideas for the song. I sent them into my phone and sent him a recording of them. But as I’ve said, I love to tell stories and write, but I wouldn’t call myself a songwriter or a singer.
It was actually on a boat based in Delaware called The Prime Hook, which goes out of Indian River Inlet. He and I took this deep-sea boat out one day with a bunch of Hazy-O! beers. And we’re fishing with his father-in-law and a couple of our buddies. He went into the pilot house and sat there and just riffed on [the ideas] I’d sent him and expanded it not just to the chorus, but to the different verses. So being there on that day, catching fish together, having fun, is a day that I won’t soon forget.
We [released] a music video with this album, that’s [was] an official Record Store Day release. Essentially the video is a love poem to the to the beauty of coastal Delaware. We shot the sunrises of Delaware, and all the fun we were having on that boat that day, interwoven with scenes of Jimmie singing this song in a famous music hall in Nashville, Tenn.
O&A: This is nothing new. You’ve done tons of musical projects with different bands around the world. You’ve been a huge proponent of music, the arts, and Record Store Day. What value do you place on the arts in society, and do you see society placing the right amount of emphasis on the arts?
Calagione: Wow, that’s a great existential question. It reminds me… Mariah and I were lucky enough to go do some beer events in China a few years ago. And then three days later, we got to do some beer events in Cuba. So we got to visit two communist countries within, like, 10 days of each other.
China’s considered this massive first world power, and Cuba’s considered generally more of a third-world, economically-challenged, small island. And yet when we’re in China, frankly, the population just didn’t seem that happy. They didn’t seem that creative. They didn’t seem that open and free and warm. But obviously [they have a] massive, successful economy.
Then, when we were in Cuba, there was pretty much a lot of poverty. But everyone’s so happy. In Cuba, the elite of that society are the artists, the musicians, the dancers, and the bartenders. So I think they got their priorities right over there.
I know a lot of us who read this in Out & About can probably say that art — whether it’s the music form, the movie-TV form on Netflix, the cooking form, when we got takeout from our favorite restaurants, and the liquid form, when we brought our beers home — art is what got us through the pandemic.
It was such a stressful time. And it reminds us of what our priorities should be. It’s art that evokes the human spirit, but what also brings people together over an awesome meal, pairing great food with great beverages, while listening to great music. Art is existentially important, I think, to the journey we’re on.
— As mentioned in the interview, The Dogfish Head Book: 25 Years of Off-Centered Adventures is expected to be out in stores this summer. For more information about the book, the beer, and the brewery, go to dogfish.com