Home Cover INTERVIEW: Sam Calagione Discusses New Book Celebrating 25 Years Of Dogfish Head

INTERVIEW: Sam Calagione Discusses New Book Celebrating 25 Years Of Dogfish Head

The off-centered founder of Delaware’s trailblazing brewery shares some notable memories, details about a new canning system and what he’d like to accomplish in the next 25 years.

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Photo Courtesy of Dogfish Head Brewery

If you’re a craft beer enthusiast who waits in line for limited releases, trades hyper-local efforts with friends and keeps track of new breweries, you largely have Sam Calagione to thank. 25 years ago when Calagione started Dogfish Head Brewery – the country’s smallest brewery at the time – in a Delaware beach town, beer was mostly mass-produced, with little individuality and even less flavor.  But with his passion for focusing on culinary-based ingredients, Calagione became an industry trailblazer and grew one of the country’s most recognizable names in beer.

What started with 12-gallon batches to share with the community morphed into so much more, as Calagione and the Dogfish Head team continued to create their off-centered brand of beer, the likes of which wasn’t done back in 1995 – and it continues to be replicated even today.  Over the years, he introduced the world to the Imperial IPA with his thrifty 90 Minute IPA, created a Porter featuring Maine lobster and even helped concoct a Gose that develops Kodak Super 8 film, thanks to its acidity.  As more so-called experts scratched their heads at Dogfish Head’s robust and unique offerings, beer lovers took notice and it led to a lot of special memories for Calagione, his wife Mariah and his cohort, Andrew Greeley – so much so, the three decided to create a book.

Available for pre-sale on Amazon and other distributors until its Sept. 1 release, The Dogfish Head Book: 25 Years of Off-Centered Adventures takes a look back at how the small brewpub turned into a behemoth brand, sharing the memories behind some of your favorite beer.  Words and photos collide for a sleek page-turner that’s as full of art and thought as SeaQuench Ale or World Wide Stout.  We got the chance to speak with Calagione about the book and he shared some notable memories, as well as details of a new limited release canning system and what his brewing future holds.

Dirtfork: You’ve had books before but you’re now focusing on the last 25 years of Dogfish Head. Why, at this stage, did you decide to take a look back? It’s an important milestone but why not do that at 15 years or 20 years — why now?

Sam Calagione: Well, this just seemed to be a more momentous moment — a quarter century. It just seemed like a milestone worth really taking some time and celebrating and the book is looking at what I’m most proud of in the 25-year history of Dogfish. Accomplishment wise, I could probably summarize it with three things.  The first is a commitment to collaboration over competition. This year, we’ve done collaborations with the Grateful Dead on Hazy Ripple IPA and with Rodenbach Brewery from Belgium on Vibrant P’Ocean.  Another thing would be that for 25 years we’ve stuck to our original mission, which is to brew the majority of our beers using culinary ingredients instead of just following traditional brewing style guidelines. And it was true that the majority of our beers were brewed with culinary ingredients when we opened in 1995, as the smallest brewery in America, and it’s still true today as the majority of beers we brew incorporate culinary ingredients, so I’m proud of that.  Lastly, and most importantly, what we’re most proud of is how much we’ve been able to give back to the communities that give Dogfish its sustenance.  So, those are the milestones I’m most proud of and they’re the ones we really celebrate in this book. We basically take at least one beer from every single year we’ve been open and — both in graphics and in writing — we kind of celebrate the story of that beer.

Dirtfork: How significant was it for you to incorporate photos with the stories – was it important to make sure you captured the essence with photos and words?

Calagione: I mean, my previous books that I published with Wiley are more traditional books where they just have a few pages of photos in the middle and the rest is text. With this, Dogfish is very proud that we’re a very artful and storyful brand, so we wanted the design history of Dogfish to be as big a part of this story as the written history.  I got to see the Beastie Boys live show last year, in Philadelphia, with the two surviving members, that became part of a documentary.  And it was actually the Beastie Boys book that was the design inspiration for our Dogfish Head 25 Anniversary book.

Dirtfork: That’s very cool. You mentioned culinary-focused ingredients, when it comes to that brewing style, was anyone else doing it when you first started?

Calagione: Not that I can think of — no one was focused on it. I can think of Anchor Brewing Company in San Francisco once a year releasing something called Christmas Ale that would have pine needles or juniper needles in it.  Other than that, I can’t think of anyone that was focused on it.  So, in my business plan, I wrote that Dogfish Head would be the first commercial brewery committed to having the majority of our beers brewed with culinary ingredients outside of the Reinheitsgebot and while other breweries made one-off beers that had other ingredients in them, we were the first brewery in America to focus on beers with culinary ingredients.

Photo Courtesy of Dogfish Head Brewery

Dirtfork: What kind of stories can readers expect in the book? I saw a recent Dogfish Head Instagram post about you sneaking away on your honeymoon in Paris to a brewpub to learn, or help, with the brewing process. Do you highlight those stories?

Calagione: Yeah, we celebrate both the successes we had but we even talk about some of our failures.  We did a beer with blue-green algae because we wanted to brew a beer for St. Patrick’s Day but instead of using artificial food coloring, like a lot of breweries use to make green beer, we said, ‘Oh we want to use a culinary ingredient’ and the only culinary ingredient I could find that turned the beer green, that was an all-natural ingredient, was blue-green algae. So, we used algae to make this blue-green beer, which made the beer green but it also made it taste like pond scum. It was not very popular (laughs). We tell stories about us creating successful recipes that we’re known for, like 60 Minute IPA, and the unique continual-hopping device that we invented allowing us to make that, using a vibrating football game and how the football game is now in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian. So, we’ll tell a story about a success like that – or SeaQuench Ale and our development of that with sea salt and black limes and how that’s now the best selling sour beer in America – but then we’ll also tell stories of our fun failures, like Verdi Verdi Good, the blue-green algae beer.

Dirtfork: Well, as one of thousands of Americans who have had a bad experience with dyed-green beer on St. Patrick’s Day, while it sounds like it might not have tasted well, it’s certainly appreciated that you tried a different way around it.

Calagione: We’ll have to revisit that recipe (laughs). I think we can figure out there’s something better-tasting than algae to make a beer green.

Dirtfork: Anyway, what is one of your favorite memories from the last 25 years?

Calagione: The book is actually a co-authored book between myself, my wife Mariah and Andrew Greeley who runs Dogfish Inn, our harbor front hotel in Lewes.  And, I have to say, as I’m right now reading the final edits of the book, because we’re just finishing editing this week, I think I’m most proud of how it’s not just the co-author’s voice that’s captured in the book, but it’s the voice of many long-time coworkers who have been equally responsible for the success of our journey and Andrew, one of the three co-authors, is the one who spent the most time interviewing our longest tenured coworkers to make sure their stories are captured as part of the Dogfish Head story.  So, that’s the part of the book I’m most proud of.

Photo Courtesy of Dogfish Head Brewery

Dirtfork: Was it difficult to write a book with two other people and make sure you all convey the same stories?  If five people were at an event, there’s usually five different stories and it doesn’t all match up. Was there any way of getting together and figuring out a communal story to make sure it was all accurate?

Calagione: I would say we were conscious of that, so we said, ‘Look, let’s make sure we decide up front what the tone of our shared voice within the book will be.’  We modeled the voice that we share in this book as if we were talking — we basically wanted it to sound like we were sitting around the campfire in the back area of our hotel and enjoying beers, with beer lovers, and just verbally telling them the history of Dogfish Head.  So, the tone has a very informal voice to it.  It’s fun, and it’s self-deprecating, and it takes a passion for brewing very seriously, but it’s clear we don’t take ourselves too seriously. We are telling our off-centered stories.

Dirtfork: And those stories have long been conveyed through Dogfish Head’s social media and even on Brew Masters, the series on Discovery Channel.  Do you have any hopes of doing something like that again — maybe on another platform – and continuing to tell the stories of how you brew beer and how Dogfish Head brews unique beer.

Calagione: We didn’t just do the series on Discovery, but we also did a really fun series called That’s Odd, Let’s Drink It on the Complex First We Feast network, which is also the home of shows like Hot Ones — the wing eating show.  Yeah, we make a lot of our own content ourselves, and we enjoy doing that and we think it’s a really viable way of storytelling, so the short answer is yeah, we’re always exploring opportunities to widen our audience through those videos, including potentially bringing back a version of the show.

Dirtfork: Was Brew Masters something that was just a little ahead of the curve?  I feel like now, with how much the beer landscape has grown and evolved since then, people would flock to it more, since people now drive two hours just to get a limited release.

Calagione: I think you’re right.  That show came out really before craft beer was in the mainstream.  It was a niche, proudly geeky, subculture.  You know I’m biased but, we’ve been told that show, when it ran, did accelerate the sales of craft beer in America.  They were already accelerating but there was a bit of an inflection point when the story of an independent craft brewery was on national television and, soon after that, sales really accelerated in an explosion of indy craft breweries across America.  I love so many of the independent craft breweries in America, I especially love those that really follow their own muse, and don’t really copy what other breweries are doing, but find their own unique way to do something creative.  And there’s a lot more of that kind of creativity going on today than when we were making that show, whatever eight or nine years ago — whatever it was.

Dirtfork: Dogfish Head has recently been highlighting different breweries. How important is it to spotlight breweries people might not be aware of, but love Dogfish Head, and just kind of say, ‘Listen, there is other delicious beer and while we want you to continue drinking ours, there are other options available?’

Calagione: At Dogfish, we say that we’re proudly beer geeks and not beer snobs and we don’t only drink our own beer or think only certain beer styles are exciting.  We love to celebrate the journeys of other craft brewers, alongside celebrating our own journey, and regardless of scale. One year we’ll do a collaboration with Sierra Nevada Brewing Company and then the next year, like this year, we’re doing one with Rodenbach from Belgium, we’re doing one with The Bruery from California. The breweries we love to do projects with, and celebrate the stories of, come in all shapes and sizes but they’re within the indy community that Dogfish is proud to be a part of.

Dirtfork: For the brewery’s 20th Anniversary you made Higher Math. Do you have any specialty brews coming up, even lining up with the book release — something like that?

Calagione: We talked about that.  Instead of doing a birthday beer, we took the resources and bought a beautiful little state-of-the-art canning line and built a room at our original brewpub in Rehoboth, which just has a little five barrel brewing system, and decided to build a canning line but produce beers in 16-ounce four-packs that people can only get if they take the time to come and visit us at the beach. So, we’re using that little canning line at Rehoboth, our original site, to do not just new beers, like we have a super-hoppy, hazy beer called Covered In Nugs — that was the first release in cans – but then we’re also using it to re-release throwback beers. Like our anniversary week we, for the first time in over two decades, released a canned version of Shelter Pale Ale, which was our original packaged beer.

Dirtfork: So these cans will be on-site limited releases, making it a little more of a destination and a little more for those people who enjoy that collector aspect of beer, giving them something to chew on, for lack of a better term?

Calagione: Exactly.  So we invite beer lovers, who are reading your story, to come and visit us in Rehoboth because not only will you be able to try beers on tap that will never make it out of that facility, and they’re just small one-time only batches, but you’ll be able to go there and get canned beers that are only available to-go from that brewery.

Dirtfork: Piggybacking off of the canned beer, has there ever been any pressure or any idea to change and conform, because obviously the trend nowadays is four-packs of 16-ounce cans, as bottles have been pushed aside a little. Was there ever any talk to re-tool to cans?

Calagione: Well, no — no pressure.  I will say, we do some beers, like our local Truth Serum, in a 16-ounce can and we distribute that one to some degree.  But the 16-ounce four-pack is super popular in the northeast, as you said, kind of Virginia up to Maine, but out west, in middle America — you’re right, cans nationally are eclipsing the growth of bottle sales but the right size package of can does vary from region to region.  So nationally, still, the 12-ounce can is still the volume package nationally but in the northeast it is more in the four-pack 16-ounce can.

Photo Courtesy of Dogfish Head Brewery

Dirtfork: Now that 25 years have passed, what do you hope to accomplish in the next 25 years?  Is there still something on your docket you really want to do?

Calagione: That’s a great existential question! I want to do a beer with my son the day he turns 21.  He’s 20 now and enjoying homebrewing. I want to brew a commercial beer with him when he’s 21.

Dirtfork: That’s a good Field of Dreams kind of moment right there, I like it.

Calagione: Exactly.  Then I want to brew one with my daughter, Grier– she’s only 17 – when she’s 21 — four years from now.  I say in the next five years that’s something I’m really excited about.  And then, we’re just excited to push the envelope on experimentation while still selling a more limited number of our off-centered beers nationally.  I want to make sure we keep using our facilities to push the envelope further on experimental brewing, as we have for the first 25 years.

This interview was edited and condensed for length and clarity.