This Key Attribute, Calagione Says, Drives Dogfish Head Since 1995

This is a continuing series highlighting the oldest craft brewery in each state with members of the organization that helped build the brand. Brewer Magazine will share business and personal insights each Monday to help learn how these veterans of the industry have grown.

Sam Calagione, Founder & Brewer, Dogfish Head Brewery — Rehoboth Beach, Delaware

Date the Brewery Opened – June 23, 1995
What beers were tapped on opening day? – On our opening day, we served Shelter Pale Ale brewed with locally grown barley, Chicory Stout brewed with organic Mexican coffee and chicory, and Boothbay Barleywine (which became Immort Ale two years later) brewed with vanilla beans, peat-smoked barley, maple syrup and juniper berries.

BREWER: Why did the brewery open in the first place?
CALAGIONE: I wanted to open the first commercial brewery in America committed to brewing the majority of our beers utilizing culinary ingredients outside the Reinheitsgebot, the German purity law that states beer can only be brewed with water, hops, barley and yeast. I had my first-ever craft beer while working at a burrito shop in NYC during grad school. That was the moment when I realized just how flavorful and special craft beer can be. I quickly started reading about craft beer, craft brewing and decided to try my hand at homebrewing. My first beer, what I called Cherry Brew, turned out pretty decently … at least according to all my pals who came by the apartment to test it out! It was that evening that I decided I wanted to put my skills and creative energy into beer, and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since.

BREWER: What was your biggest “Year 1” struggle?
CALAGIONE: One of the biggest struggles we faced when opening Dogfish Head happened as we were unveiling the sign on our Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, location back in 1995. As we unveiled our Dogfish Head Brewings & Eats logo, thanks to a passerby, we learned it was actually still illegal to brew beer in Delaware … a law that had not been changed since Prohibition. That didn’t stop us though! I was able to work with the Delaware Legislature to rewrite the law that now allows us and so many other breweries to brew beer in the great First State. Definitely a moment I’ll never forget!

BREWER: Go ahead, pat yourself on the back; what was one of the key “good ideas” that were had early on which help drive growth or sustainability to the brewery?
CALAGIONE: When we opened our doors, there were no pastry stouts or imperial IPAs — in fact, IPAs were not even a Top 10 beer style when we released 90 Minute IPA in 1999. My friend Greg from Stone shared that 90 Minute was the one of the first beer labels to have the word Imperial in front of IPA, so we’re proud of that. We are also proud that our continual hopping contraption built from the guts of a vibrating football machine, a perforated bucket and a boatload of duct tape is now in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian Museum. And as I mentioned above, I think another one of the biggest key ideas that helped Dogfish Head become the brand it is today is our commitment to brewing beers with culinary ingredients outside the Reinheitsgebot. We don’t take that sentiment lightly either … we take this notion to the extreme, throwing all sorts of high-quality culinary ingredients in our brews to see what combination leads to the most goodness and distinction! This, I think, is one thing that really put Dogfish Head on the map, and I believe it’s still what makes our beers so special today.

BREWER: OK, now admit a defeat; what was a decision or a circumstance that hurt the brewery? How did you solve that issue or find your way through it?
CALAGIONE: We were last to the canning game. At one point, I took money I was saving for a canning line and used it to release a line of beer-infused foods, like pickles, to complement our culinary-ingredient infused beers. They tasted great but didn’t sell well at grocery stores. I should have bought that canning line then, instead of waiting until four years later. 

BREWER: What excites you in your brand (be it liquid, equipment, strategies, or something else) this year and how did you decide to pursue this avenue?
CALAGIONE: My favorite time of day is being outside in the bounty of Mother Nature, where our ingredients grow, on a paddleboard or mountain bike, dreaming up a new beer, cocktail recipe or event concept, and then working with my talented coworkers to turn these works of fiction into works of non-fiction and share them with the world. I think what excites me most about Dogfish Head — even nearly 30 years later — is relentless passion for innovation, our love for coloring outside the proverbial lines. We are committed to exploring goodness through our beers, spirits, RTD cocktails, seafood, burgers, pizzas and hospitality experiences, and we aren’t afraid to experiment in batches both small and large in our constant pursuit of better. Not all our experiments turn out to be volume-plays destined for coast-to-coast distribution, but they are all invaluable experiments and opportunities for our coworkers to push the limits of what craft beverages and a craft beverage brand can be.

BREWER: Being a veteran company in the craft beer industry, what “words of wisdom” do you like to share when a new brewery owner approaches?
CALAGIONE: Whenever asked for advice about opening a craft brewery, I always share the same words. To be successful, you need three things — first, to create a product that is high in quality. Next, you need to make sure that product and its quality can be replicated consistently. And lastly, you need to ensure your products and brand are well-differentiated from your competitors.

Photo courtesy Dogfish Head

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