A chat with Dogfish Head’s Sam Calagione

Posted on September 22nd, 2009

Dogfish Head President and Founder Sam Calagione

Dogfish Head President and Founder Sam Calagione

We’ve mentioned the Dogfish Head Craft Brewery and their many fine beers many times on our blog, and there is a reason for it. Dogfish is hands down one of the most original and innovative brewers today in America, or anywhere else in the world for that matter. Since the company’s meager beginnings in 1995 as the smallest commercial brewery in the world, they have consistently pushed the boundaries of what beer is and how it is made. This includes developing new methods of continually hopping beer to give it unique hop flavors to crafting beers based on the residues found in an 8th century BCE Turkish king’s tomb. Since their founding they have grown to become the 22nd biggest brewer in America, with a reputation that far exceeds that.

The man behind all of this is Sam Calagione, who founded the company when he was just 25. Last week I got the chance to sit down and talk to him at the Milton, Delaware company headquarters about the company’s past, present and future.

Calagione’s office is a disheveled cubicle filled with trinkets and mementos from various events in the brewery’s history, like the annual two day “Intergalactic Bocce Ball Tournament” which was taking place the day after I was there. The private competition features friends and brewers from all over the country and is regarded as a “holy day” amongst the Dogfish Head staff. Along with Easter and Christmas, it’s the only time the brewery shuts down. It’s not all cut throat competition during the tournament though, Calagione tells me they also launch cases of light lager from a homemade trebuchet into a oversized toilet. The contest, along with everything else Dogfish head does, seems to be dealt with in an earnest, but casual manner. “We don’t take ourselves very seriously but we take our beer very seriously,” said Calagione.

"Robot Sam" hard at work in his office

"Robot Sam" hard at work in his office

It’s this same approach towards beer and business that led to Dogfish Head’s newest offering, and their first collaboration. Life & Limb, a beer brewed by Calagione together with Sierra Nevada’s Ken Grossman was born out of a casual conversation over beers together while the two of them were in Boston earlier this year for a brewers conference. “I have gotten to know Ken through our years on The Brewers Association Board and at numerous beer events throughout the country. As a brewer myself, it is inspiring to see a person like Ken drive a beer-centric brewery so far and so wide while sticking to his original ideals and integrating his family into the company,” he said.

Like most of Dogfish Head’s beers, Life & Limb defies any easy categorization, but one thing’s certain- it’s a collaboration through and through. At 10% ABV, it’s quite strong and was brewed with maple syrup from Calagione’s farm in Massachusetts and barley grown by Grossman at the Sierra Nevada brewery in Chico, California. The yeast is a blend of the two breweries’ house yeast strains.

A companion beer will also be released around the same time this November, know as “Limb & Life.” This brew is made from a second running of the Life & Limb mash tun, a technique known as partigyle brewing, which will yield a similar, but still distinct brew which will be much less alcoholic at 5%.

Life & Limb

Life & Limb, a collaborative brew by Dogfish Head and Sierra Nevada

This first collaboration for both breweries is something Calagione’s clearly exciting about, telling we me hopes it will lead to exciting things for both Sierra Nevada and Dogfish Head. That’s not to say that Calagione’s company hasn’t been experiencing plenty of growth before this project with Sierra Nevada. Currently the brewery is in the midst of a major construction project to expand the office space for the staff and brewing capacity. They are already brewing at their limit, and not able to meet demand with their current facility. Calagione told me this is part of the reason so many of their brews are available on a seasonal or rotational basis. “If we wanted to make one beer available year round, we’d have to switch out one of the styles already made year round,” Calagione told me.

When I asked how he decides what beers will be available year round versus seasonally, Calagione told me it’s simply the beers he wants to have around year round. “We don’t do focus groups or market research, we just make the beers we want to drink,” he said. The closest thing he told me they have to something like that is their brewpub on the Rehoboth Beach boardwalk.

The brewpub is actually how Dogfish Head first began back in 1995, and continues to feature the newest and most experimental brews Calagione and his team develops. After the interview I drove down to the restaurant where I was able to try Chicha, their newest brew, which was recently featured in a New York Times article, is based on a traditional Peruvian corn beer which involves the brewers chewing purple maize from Peru and spitting it into the brew kettle. Calagione explained to me that the natural enzymes found in human spit help break down the sugar in the corn for brewing and assured me that because it’s added to the brew before boiling, it’s perfectly safe. The beer is light and tasty with a pleasant strawberry flavor from the berries that are also added to the beer.

With so many things happening right now for Dogfish Head, and their history of innovation it’s hard to know where they will go next, but whatever they do and whatever beer they make, it’s sure to be unique, tasteful and off-center, just like Sam Calagione himself.