It’s hard to fully appreciate just how much the craft beer industry has grown over the past decade or so unless you know what it was like to stop by a store around ten years ago on the hunt for some microbrews.
More often than not, it was an experience tantamount to walking into a Blockbuster at 8 P.M. on a Friday during the chain’s heyday: you’d stride through the door with a list of preferences in mind, spend way too long scouring the aisles failing to find what you wanted, and ultimately settle for the alcoholic equivalent of one of The Land Before Time sequels.
It was around that time that I initially set out on my personal craft beer expedition with the help of the variety packs of Sam Adams and Magic Hat I split with my college buddies when we were feeling fancy. However, I can credit one man with kicking that journey into high gear: Sam Calagione.
It’s been over 25 years since Calagione opened up the tiny operation he dubbed “Dogfish Head Brewing & Eats” in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware on his way to becoming one of the most influential and innovative figures in the history of craft beer. As a result, I was stoked to recently get the chance to pop open a few brews that spent the last 15 years chilling in the brewery’s vault while chatting with a visionary who led the vanguard of the craft revolution.
Calagione can trace the start of his own beer journey to his time growing up in Massachusetts, where he initially expanded his horizons with the help of the various bottles he pilfered from his father’s collection:
“I have to give my dad credit. He was kind of ahead of his time. He would go to this combination VHS/beer store that we had in our little hippie town of Greenfield. His go-tos were Moosehead, Anchor Steam, and Sam Adams lager, which I would routinely steal from his stash.”
Despite being kicked out of high school his senior year for what he describes as an “accumulation of offenses,” he was permitted to head down to Pennsylvania at the tail-end of the 1980s to pursue a degree at Muhlenberg College:
“I’ve always loved storytelling and creative writing. I’ve also always loved rebelling against the status quo. It was really during college that I started to kind of channel my rebellious nature towards wanting to do something creative in an industry that was dominated by giants.
I went to Muhlenberg as an English major. I graduated in 1992, Literally the next day, I drove to New York City and I started taking some classes in the MFA program at Columbia. I’m sitting in these big classes where Ginsburg went and Kerouak went, and I was like, ‘Holy shit, these are world-class writers.'”
As a result, Calagione began to take some alternative carer paths into consideration and eventually embarked down the one that brought him to where he is today thanks to a serendipitous job opportunity:
“I was waiting tables and bartending to earn my rent. I just happened to walk in and put an application in at this awesome first-generation craft beer bar in Morningside Heights. That’s when I got to try Chimay Red and Sierra Nevada’s Celebration, which just blew my mind. Within months, I started writing a business plan and home brewing in my apartment.
I thought, ‘Alright, I’m good at really short stories. What if I try to write really short stories in recipe form or a description that we can put on a board in a brewery and try and tell compelling stories in a condensed space?’ So, the opportunity to brew unique beers was simultaneously driven by my love of storytelling and partying .”
Calagione took advantage of the resources available at the New York Public Library and spent much of his free time scouring its shelves and archives to figure out the best way to break into the industry:
“There were already these other great breweries like Sierra Nevada and Sam Adams. I knew I didn’t want to try to compete with them. I was trying to find a niche and a compelling story to differentiate us.
I really started studying the work of Alice Waters and James Beard, these culinary pioneers who basically said, ‘America has world-class agriculture. Let’s stop genuflecting to Italian food and French food and create our own culinary tradition.’ I thought we could maybe be the first commercial brewery in America committed to brewing the majority of our recipes using culinary ingredients in addition to water, yeast, hops, and barley.
That was what I wrote on the second page of my business plan (the first page was a quote from Emerson). That really gave us the raison d’être that’s sustained us for the past 26 years.”
Like most people who make the snap decision to move to New York City, Calagione was on the hunt for a place to call home. He eventually found one after a college friend connected him with a couple of NYU grads looking for a roommate as they pursued a career in comedy.
The aspiring comedians in question were Joe Lo Truglio and Ken Marino, who honed their talents as members of the comedy collective known as “The State” before going on to star in projects including Wet Hot American Summer, Party Down, and Brooklyn 99:
“I moved into the apartment right around when the first season of The State was greenlit. Joe, Ken, Thomas Lennon, and all those guys would rehearse in our third-floor walk-up in Chelsea. I’d be home brewing in the kitchen and they’d be rehearsing sketches in the living room.
The first beer I ever made was this tart cherry beer. I had a tasting party in the apartment. I don’t know why, but Ricki Lake was there that night along with the members of The State and my wife, Mariah. We all tried the beer, which turned out awesome. I stood on the coffee table and said, ‘This is what I’m gonna do with my life. I’m gonna open a little brewery!’
My next two batches of homebrew sucked. I’ve blocked them from my memory. My fourth brew was the first-ever Punkin Ale. That’s why I remember: I had two shitty ones where I started doubting myself, and then my fourth one convinced me I could do it.”
Calagione eventually set his sights on Delaware, which wasn’t home to a single commercial brewery until he officially set up shop there in 1995:
“I thought there would be some really good marketing cache in opening a brewery in a state that didn’t have one yet. I moved to Delaware in 1994. My dad put in a little money. my orthodontist put in some money, and I got a couple of matching loans. That’s what we started Dogfish with.
I knew I wanted to open a brewery inside a restaurant with an open kitchen so I could show the culinary ingredients coming out in one direction on plates to go to the tables as food. Then I could have those same culinary ingredients—brown sugar, apricots, maple syrup—coming out of that same kitchen in pans and buckets to show that beer is just liquid food.
I wanted to make it clear Dogfish Head was going to approach the brewer’s art with sort of the chef’s limitless palette of potential ingredients.”
At the time, the United States was home to less than 1,000 of the “microbreweries” that were slowly but surely changing American’s idea of what beer could be. However, no one was really prepared for the “off-centered” ales that Dogfish Head unleashed upon an unsuspecting beer world:
“Most people didn’t know what an IPA was. Sierra Pale Ale was like the dream beer for hoppiness back then. The landscape was a lot of ambers, porters, lagers, and stouts.
When we opened, I would start bringing my beers to places like Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Manhattan. I knew New York City would be a great place to showcase these really exotic beers because I could help the media tell the story by making the recipes themselves so unique that they were a de facto marketing campaign.
Back in that era, I would go to beer festivals and people would get mad at me or yell at me or laugh at me. They didn’t understand why I would brew Raison D’Etre, a Belgian beer with raisins or beet sugars, or make a stout with maple syrup and vanilla beans. They’d say, ‘Why are you putting maple syrup in beer? That’s disrespectful.'”
Dogfish Head spent the first four years of operation on the constant brink of bankruptcy, but that all changed when the brewery suddenly found itself thrust into the spotlight around the turn of the new millennium:
“Michael Jackson, the legendary beer writer, really helped when he covered us and said, ‘What Dogfish is doing is actually the most traditional form of brewing because every culture defined beer just by what grew under the land they lived on.’
People wrote about Midas Touch. Raison D’Etre was named Malt Advocate‘s Beer Of The Year. That national attention really coincided with the change in Dogfish’s growth trajectory. Mariah and I didn’t know if we were going to go out of business for the first few years. Then we started getting all this recognition, and I think we grew double-digits for 15 years in a row.”
It was around the same time that IPAs began to enter the national zeitgeist thanks in no small part to the contributions of Dogfish Head, which made waves with the revolutionary “continual hopping” process that spawned 90 Minute and 60 Minute (the latter of which would become the brewery’s flagship):
“There was an era when distributors would try to order a full truckload of beer and wanted 75-80% of it to be 60 Minute. We refused to do it. We said, ‘Any truck that leaves our brewery can’t have more than 50% of 60 Minute.’
We would take photographs to see what percentage of the truck was green because we didn’t wanna turn into the 60 Minute Brewing Company; we wanted to celebrate the whole breadth of our portfolio.”
Calagione estimates he’s brewed upwards of 2,000 different beers since he constructed the 12-gallon system he used to experiment during the early days of Dogfish Head. While he’s produced some unforgettable brews, he admits there are a couple in particular he’d prefer to forget about entirely:
“We did a snail-infused gose. We were going to just use the shells, but we said, ‘Fuck it, let’s use the snail meat.; We loved the concept. It was called ‘Escargoza’. It tastes like pond water.
We also had a big account approach us and say, ‘Hey, we’ll buy 500 kegs if you make us a custom green beer for St. Patrick’s Day.’ We made this golden ale and colored it with spirulina, which is blue-green algae. It’s basically pond scum. So maybe there’s a theme to our failures.”
Earlier this year, I got the chance to chat with the co-founder of Firestone Walker to get his thoughts on how the craft beer has evolved since the brewery opened a year after Dogfish Head did the same. Calagione was also kind enough to deploy his more than 25 years of experience to break down the current state of the industry, including his stance on the trend-chasing that’s become all the rage:
“When you make products, there are really two routes.
You can go the pioneering route, and that probably leads to more failures but a better opportunity to find true white space.
You can also go the follower route, which can be very rewarding if you’re an efficient company and great at execution, but I doubt it’s as cathartic because you’re on a journey just for growth and success. It’s just a different journey than ours.”
He also addressed the “Is There A Craft Beer Bubble?” debate, saying what we’re really seeing is “economic Darwinism” that allows consumers to use their wallets to decide who is actually fit to survive:
“I feel like the pandemic accelerated this bifurcation that had already happened pre-COVID. There used to be a time when you could almost aspire to be a brewery of any size and find a model that worked. Now, there are really just two options.
Most newcomers are only able to adopt the hyperlocal approach and sell directly to consumers out of a taproom. You’ve also got maybe 100 craft brands out there that rely on national or regional three-tier distribution, but there’s just less space for the bigger guys than there was 10 years ago (for better or worse).”
So what does the future hold for Dogfish Head? The brewery recently released a line of canned cocktails (it started distilling various liquors 20 years ago) as well as the absolutely delightful Lemon Quest, a non-alcoholic, wheat-based brew that is everything you want on a hot summer day.
However, Calagione is primarily focused on continuing to do what brought him here in the first place:
“You’re gonna keep seeing limitless experimentation from Dogfish. As far as the craft beer industry as a whole is concerned, I think it’s gonna just keep splintering and fragmenting further and further into this beautiful mosaic of sub-styles of any style we can imagine today
It’ll just be this great tapestry of color and flavor from coast to coast, and we’re excited to be part of that.”
Parts of this interview have been edited for clarity.