By Lew Bryson
Twenty-two years in, Sam (and the brewery team, as he’ll tell you) has won a James Beard award, and just put $4 million into renovating that original brewpub. We contacted him while he was on vacation with his family in Maine (trivia bonus: Maine is where you’ll find the actual Dogfish Head, a point on an island in the Sheepscot River estuary) and asked him some questions that were on our minds.
Draught Lines (D.L.) Congratulations on the James Beard award! Is it for making great beer, or making very different beer, or talking about and representing great beer?
Sam Calagione (S.C.) Thanks! It was a proud moment for our whole team. It’s a general award for outstanding beer, wine or spirits expert. It’s not super specific. But I got some nice comments from previous winners, like Mario Batali and Marc Vetri. We had a nice talk about our long-time overlap with the culinary world. Not just culinary ingredients in our beers, like raisins and pumpkin, but culinary techniques; the continuous hopping in 60 Minute IPA is a soup-making technique. In the mid-’90s we were sometimes vilified for putting raisins and maple syrup in beer, but this has been validation for our somewhat quixotic mission for the past 23 years.
D.L. You and Dogfish Head have been ground-breaking and influential for years. Why is that? What about your approach to brewing and beer gives the brewery such an outsized influence in the industry?
S.C. Beer lovers and brewers can tell that we’re very passionate about innovative, unique beers. They can sense that. Our whole business is about being a creative brewery first, and a commercial brewery second. That drives us more than concentrating on just a few beers’ growth for growth’s sake. I think that comes from my wife Mariah and me always showing our co-workers that it’s passion first and profit second, and then hiring people who get that. You do need profits to reinvest and create that innovation. We love to innovate with products, and we really love to share that with people. Mariah is the digital voice, getting the word and idea out. I’m more the analog, actually making the stuff.
D. L. Your SeaQuench Ale (a tart, slightly sour, lime-infused, low alcohol beer with a dash of sea salt) has gotten some really good press from USA Today and Men’s Health magazine. Both articles say it tastes great, and I concur, but there’s more to it.
S.C. Yeah, they picked up on the fact that this beer really hydrates you the way sports drinks do. We worked on SeaQuench for two years. It was kind of like a science experiment and we have proof that the sea salt not only enhances the taste, it also infuses minerals – calcium, chloride, magnesium, potassium and sodium – known to help sate thirst and replace lost electrolytes.
D. L. So was it just a science experiment?
S.C. Sometimes I geek out on the science of making beer, but I brewed SeaQuench because I wanted a beer that would be the ultimate partner for sipping, while hanging out at the beach with friends all afternoon long, and ending that day using the beer as an accompaniment for an epic seafood feast.
S.C. We love all our beers equally; they’re all our children. We’d never kill our children… but we may send them away to military school for a while! Our 61 Minute, with Syrah grape, was away for a while, but it will be back in a mixed pack this winter – IPAs for the Holidays: 60, 61 and 90 Minute and Indian Brown Ale. It’s our first national mixed pack.
The brands we innovated almost two decades ago, 60 and 90 Minute, are still great beers today. Our other innovations, Flesh & Blood and SeaQuench, are the fastest growing brands in our history. They’ve got unique positions and pedigrees. We did the first fruited IPA, Aprihop, in 1996; we did the first nationally distributed fruited sour, Festina Peche, over a decade ago. So they have the lineage.
D.L. Even with pumpkin beers falling off for the first time, your Punkin Ale stays popular. What makes this beer special?
S.C.The Punkin Chunkin competition still goes on, but I haven’t been in years. That’s the first event Dogfish Head ever won an award in. Yeah, a 23-year-old kid homebrews a beer and kicks the ass of the old ladies who had pies in the cooking competition! We’ve been brewing Punkin Ale since 1995; the only pumpkin beer older is Buffalo Bill’s. It’s our largest volume seasonal beer. We saw too many pumpkin beers on the market in 2016, and some brewers are deciding not to brew one this year. But we use real pumpkin, brown sugar and real spices; it stands out and resonates with people. We’re not planning on large growth this year, and we’re hearing that retailers will be carrying less pumpkin beers, but they will be carrying Punkin, so that’s exciting. We believe in it. It’s shipping in late August.
D.L. Let’s talk about the Dogfish Dash runners’ road race to raise money for The Nature Conservancy.
S.C. Mariah really deserves the credit, and Mark Carter, they run the benevolence arm of the brewery. Mariah is on the Delaware chapter of the Nature Conservancy. We’ve raised over half a million dollars for our state chapter. Mark runs the event; he always has, and does a great job. There will be cans of SeaQuench greeting people at the finish line, sometime around 9 AM!
D.L. You have a new beer series called Alternate Takes; could you tell us more about that?
S.C. Just a fun, draught-only, one-off program, also a proving ground for new ideas. Mark Safarik, our Brewmaster, leads that program with the brewers. They just did AT #5, a nice, soft sour with raspberries and blueberries. We all liked that so much we’re thinking about getting a new, small bottling line to bottle our wild-fermented beers. I think folks will see more of that from us in 2018.
D.L. “Alternate Takes” is just one of the music references in your beers, and music has always been a big part of the brand’s identity. Can you tell us more about how that works and why it’s so?
S.C. When we opened, we opened in a restaurant to show how culinary ingredients can be woven into beer, from the same kitchen. But we also had a little stage to celebrate musicians who create original music. Even though we’re at the beach, where most of the bands are cover bands, we wanted original music. We spent more money on our new stage than we did on our original brewing system!
D.L. Some brewers outgrow their roots; you’ve recently put a lot of time and money into renovating your original brewpub. Why?
S.C. We spent about $4 million to renovate it, and added the place next to us. However, it seats no more people than the original brewpub. If this were a public company, I’d probably be fired for that. But the old pub was cramped, out of date, bad sightlines to the stage, old equipment. So we wanted a better experience for the customers coming in the front door, and our colleagues coming in the back door. The old kitchen was cramped, and 110 degrees all day in the summer. It’s a much better space now.
We’ve also recently added some employees who are a shout-out to Philly. Our old buddy Bryan Selders is back at Dogfish Head, at our Rehoboth campus, brewing there. We also have Jennie Hatton-Baver (who helped steer Philly Beer Week for years) full-time at Dogfish Head. We always thought of ourselves as a Philly-area brewery, but now we’re proving it on payroll as well.
D.L. Where are things headed in the future? How do you stay relevant and interesting when craft beer fans seem more interested in the small, the new and the intensely local?
S.C. I think local is always going to be a component of craft, but I see on the national stage, a focus on quality, consistency and a well-differentiated brand, regardless of scale. Bars commit taps to local brewers, but we’re seeing a return to retailers, distributors and consumers focusing more on brands that are creative, but deliver on quality and consistency. We are maniacally focused on quality, consistency and being well-differentiated. That’s what’s worked for us.