Home Cover Behind The Beer: Dogfish Head Brewery’s Sam Calagione Discusses 90 Minute IPA

Behind The Beer: Dogfish Head Brewery’s Sam Calagione Discusses 90 Minute IPA

The father of craft beer talks about first brewing one of the world's original Imperial IPAs using a thrift store toy – and the challenges that came with making it a household name.

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Photo Courtesy of Dogfish Head Brewery

Before Sam Calagione was the father of craft beer, he was just another 20-something crammed into a New York City apartment with a bunch of roommates.  It was 1992 and the recent college graduate was working to create unique homebrews when, within just two years, he wrote the rallying cry for his newly-formed brewing company: “off-centered ales for off-centered people.”

Calagione wanted to steer away from the beer landscape at that time, a market dominated by less-flavorful, mass-produced light beers and more noticeably bitter, sessionable India Pale Ales, so when he opened Dogfish Head Brewery in a small Delaware beach town, he was committed to brewing outside of the Reinheistgebot, a 16th century German law stating the country’s beers can only be brewed with traditional ingredients of water, barley, yeast and hops.  This allowed Calagione to concentrate less on the technical approach to brewing and more on creating beers with more culinary-based ingredients.  But little did he know, he’d ultimately pioneer a craft beer explosion.

It all started when Calagione was watching a chef show on television in 1999.  Unsure of exactly what he’d brew that particular day, he gained inspiration from a soup the chef was cooking.  As the show continued, Calagione took note that the chef was adding cracked pepper to the soup pot in increments, while still letting it simmer for an hour, rather than adding it all in at once.  Intrigued, Calagione pondered how he could take this very same concept and apply it to the brewing process.  The idea needed a spark, however, and Calagione got that spark from an old thrift shop game.

“I went out to the Salvation Army store out here on the highway in Delaware and bought a 1980s, or 1970s, vibrating football game base,” Calagione remembered.  “Then, I rigged it up with a plastic bucket that I drove holes into and duct taped it to the football game, filled it with pelletized hops, and then would angle it on a step ladder over my boil kettle – my five-barrel boil kettle back then – so that the flow of hops I could regulate by angling the vibrating game with the goal of having a single hop pellet hitting the top of the beer for the whole hour and a half boil.”

Photo Courtesy of Dogfish Head Brewery

The first batch of that “vibrating football beer” turned out perfectly, which is rarely the case when brewing, so Calagione appropriately named it 90 Minute IPA, because of the hour and a half boil time.  What made the process of continual-hopping so special was that it created a pungently, aromatically hoppy beer without much of the lingering bitterness found in most IPAs at that time.  At 9.0 percent ABV and 90 IBUs, it was considered a behemoth of a beer, adding a whole new level of science to the IPA.

“The sort of molecular-level science that continual-hopping allows us to integrate into the production of that beer, what it does when you add tiny doses of hops to a beer over a giant period of time, you can get more volume by weight of hops into that beer but in a way that has less lingering bitterness than if you added that same big volume of hops in just one or two increments in the beginning and the end,” Calagione admitted.

As Dogfish Head continued to brew more batches of 90 Minute IPA, Calagione ran into a little problem, one that was certainly expected – the immediate toll the brewing process was taking on his thrift shop football game.  The steam from the lengthy boils was causing issues with the football game, which eventually lost its ability to vibrate, meaning Calagione and his team of brewers now had to add the hops by hand.  

Certain the other brewers were cursing his name during the tedious process of hand-pinching hops every few seconds, Calagione and his crew created a machine called “Sir-Hops-A-Lot,” a stainless steel silo that sat above the kettle with a four-by-four inch tray hooked up to a pneumatic valve and every minute the tray would go under the hopper and pelletized hops would be added.  Then it would slide over and drop the ingredient into the kettle.  From there, the continual hop mechanisms only got bigger to help meet the demand of 90 Minute IPA and the other Dogfish Head efforts.

But, at launch, 90 Minute IPA wasn’t the marketable, highly-revered beer it is today.

“I remember going to festivals and some brewers were like shaking their heads at me, or laughing at us,” Calagione said.  “I remember a few brewers called us ‘One-And-Done Brewing Company’  and [they’d be] saying, ‘Oh, Dogfish Head, your beers are so strong you’re never going to make it with your business model because people will only have one and then they’re going to be done drinking your beer.’”

It was just something not seen with well-distributed beer – an extremely high ABV effort packaged much differently than what the current trends were highlighting.

When it first hit shelves, 90 Minute IPA was only available in cork-finished 750mL champagne bottles, a larger amount than the trendy 22-ounce bottles at the time.  Hop-heads and craft beer lovers flocked to it because of the unique flavor and, despite what Calagione’s contemporaries said, 90 Minute gained steam and eventually made Delaware a beer destination.  Since a robust beer of this caliber was a rarity at the time, it presented a problem for Calagione.  Understanding it might’ve been a bit aggressive, drinking that much of a strong beer in one sitting, Dogfish Head scaled back to 12-ounce bottles when it purchased a new bottling line.  As its popularity continued to rise, drinkers began requesting lighter, similar tasting continually-hopped beers.

“A lot of people were like, ‘Hey, I love 90 Minute but I can only drink one or two a night, any chance you guys would do a more sessionable, a little lower ABV, version of a continually-hopped IPA?’  So, two or three years after 90 Minute came out, we did 60 Minute IPA,” said Calagione.

Photo Courtesy of Dogfish Head Brewery

Calagione took the innovative method of continual-hopping and built upon it with a slew of sister beers, including the holy grail-caliber 120 Minute IPA which, when released, was an unheard of 15-20 percent ABV.  These three beers (60 Minute, 90 Minute, and 120 Minute), all of which are ironically in the parameters of Reinheitsgebot, remain the staple of Dogfish Head’s lineup, even as it keeps with churning out more culinary-focused beer.

“It’s interesting that, as we grew up through today, the majority of dinner recipe beers brewed at Dogfish Head’s production facility are outside of the Reinheitsgebot – Sea Quench Ale, Slightly Mighty, Midas Touch, Punkin Ale,” Calagione said.  “But, volumetrically, 60 Minute plus 90 Minute, which are Reinheitsgebot beers in that they just have grains and water and yeast and hops, are the biggest volume of our portfolio.”

These days, with over 8,000 breweries in the United States, there’s a lot of people trying to mimic the flavor Calagione created with 90 Minute IPA almost two decades ago.  It was a beer that launched a whole new style, one that’s remained the focal point of the market for the last decade or so.  And, to the best of Calagione’s knowledge, he can take credit for the Imperial IPA style – just ask some of his brewing pals.

“I was told actually by Greg Koch, the founder of Stone Brewing, who did the research and called me to say, ‘Hey, [90 Minute IPA] is actually the first American beer label to have the term Imperial IPA on it.’”