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.

Beeriety Travelogue: The Road to Delaware [pt. 2]

Posted on July 29th, 2009

Last weekend several members of team Beeriety went down to Delaware to investigate the Dogfish Head Brewery. Dogfish Head is one of the most popular craft breweries in America, having built a reputation for unconventional and experimental beers of all sorts and sizes. They are probably best known for intensely hoppy beers such as the 60 Minute, 90 Minute and 120 Minute IPAs, but they also specialize in modern recreations of historical beers, such as the Midas Touch, a beer based on the residue of an alcoholic beverage found in the tomb of King Midas in Turkey dating back to 8th century BCE.

None of us knew quite what to expect when we made the long trek from Boston to Delaware, but we were all pleased by what we found at the brewery in Milton.  You’re allowed to get quite an intimate look at the brewing facilities and learn quite a bit of the company’s history. Besides brash innovation and experimentation one of the qualities which Dogfish Head is known for is it’s rapid growth and expansion. Even amidst the current economic downturn around the country, the brewery has steadily grown in size, at the staggering rate of 40% per year in the last few years. When we pulled up to the brewery the first thing we noticed was the evidence of construction. Clearly Dogfish Head’s “Off-centered ales for off-centered people” has come a long way from its early days.

Dogfish Head brewerys Sir Hops Alot

Dogfish Head brewery's Sir Hops Alot

The tour begins with a look at Dogfish Head’s humble beginnings. When Sam Calagione opened the brewery in 1995 it was the smallest commercial brewery in America. On display is the very first brewing setup he used to make beer, which looks almost antiquated in it’s simplicity and small size. In the beginning  it took Calagione and a co-worker 10 hours to bottle just 100 cases of beer, today they are the country’s 21st largest brewery, producing  almost 2.5 million gallons of beer a year. Also on view is “Sir Hops A Lot” a device designed by  Calagione to allow for continuous hopping of beer during the brewing process, which makes his famous 60 Minute IPA and other continuously hopped beers possible.

In addition to the innovation Calagione has brought to new beers which defy categorization, he’s also innovated new brewing processes. Besides “Sir Hops A Lot” Calagione has also built “Randall the Enamel Animal,” which is described as a organoleptic hop transducer module (whatever that means). Basically beer leaving a keg passes through Randall, a cylinder full of hops and a filter, re-hopping the beer once more before it reaches your glass.

Dogfish Head brewerys fermentation tanks

Dogfish Head brewery's fermentation tanks

The tour continues with a look at the many barrels and bright tanks which produce the beer which has become so loved by so many beer drinkers, including  a wooden barrel made from palo santo (holy wood in Spanish), a rare type of wood from Paraguay which is so dense it sinks in water, making it the perfect vessel to contain fermenting beer. The barrel is fifteen feet high and ten feet in diameter, and holds nine thousand gallons.

After getting to explore most of the brewing facilities we were provided with four beer samples, Shelter Pale Ale, Midas Touch, Raison d’etre and Indian Brown Ale. Three samples is the maximum the state allows. Our tour guide implored us to contact Delaware state representatives to plead for a more samples, but in the meantime we were happy to try the beer we were provided with.

Dogfish Head brews & eats at Rohobeth Beach

Dogfish Head brews & eats at Rohobeth Beach

After the brewery tour we headed 20 minutes south to Reboboth Beach, home to Dogfish Head Brewings and Eats, a popular brewpub near the boadwalk which, in addition to quality pub food and Dogfish Head brews also serves Dogfish Head vodka, rum and gin produced at the brewpub’s micro-distillery. When we arrived on Saturday night the place was crowded and lively, with The Neon Swing, a swing band playing in back. The brewpub usually offers a few beers not typically available in stores. By the time we got there that night several of these special brews had already been tapped, but what we did try was delightful, and probably the freshest Dogfish Head any of us had ever had.

While we were there we also got to meet a reader, Vinnie, who spotted our offer to buy someone a round at the restaurant on Twitter. We were happy to meet him and and his wife, and happy to buy him a round.

All and all it was a great trip, and certainly worth the trip if you’re some place near by. Free tours are offered daily, check Dogfish.com for more information. To see more photos from the Dogfish Head brewery tour and our trip to Delaware check out the Beeriety trip to Delaware flickr set…

Beeriety Travelogue: The Road to Delaware [pt. 1]

Posted on July 27th, 2009

Iron Hill Beer SnobsAs a Delaware native, I’ve long been proud of local craft-brew heroes Dogfish Head. So when the Beeriety team expressed an interest in touring their facilities, I called my parents and said I’d be home for the weekend – with a team of beer-experts in tow!

On Friday afternoon, Carleton, Ryan, Chris, and I left Boston behind us and hit the road for my home-town of Dover. We got into Delaware just before 10:00pm and decided to stop off in Newark for some food and a few beers at my favorite college haunts, Iron Hill Brewery. Iron Hill is a small, Delaware-based Brewpub chain with locations in DE, PA and recently NJ, known for their award-winning beers and their innovative cuisine (cheesesteak egg rolls? Yeah, they have that.)

Iron Hill Brewery Flight

The house flight at Iron Hill Brewery

Each of the guys got a flight, which consisted of 4 oz. pour of all EIGHT of their current taps, plus an additional pour of their cask-conditioned Pig-Iron Porter. [As the driver, I limited myself to one pint of their delicious Vienna Red Lager. Safety first.] The list consisted of their year-round brews and several seasonals, including a German Pilsner, a Hefeweizen and a Belgian Witbier brewed with coriander and orange-peel. Our waitress was knowledgeable and helpful, taking special care to explain the characteristics of each different beer-type (often offering comparisons to more well-known brews), what to look for when sampling each one, and a suggested-order for tasting specific beers. All in all, Iron Hill provided us with an excellent jump-start to a very beer-filled weekend!

Stay tuned for Carleton’s take on DFH’s Brewery and Brewpub!