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Innovators Series: Sam Calagione

Innovators Series: Sam Calagione

At Dogfish Head Craft Brewery in Milton, Delaware, sunlight glistens through a window of the tasting room, spotlighting three decrepit, stainless steel vessels – remnants of the tiny, ten-gallon rack system that Sam Calagione used in 1995 when he opened the “first brewpub in the first state.” Along with Sir Hops-A-Lot, the system lingers as a soft reminder of Sam’s entrepreneurial spirit, one that began “in the naiveté of youth,” he explained.

As a legend among American craft brewers, Dogfish Head Founder and President Sam Calagione sets the bar for innovative ways of doing business. From day one, his off-centered mantra helped gain him the following of a rock star, the allegorical bad boy with enormous self-confidence – the ultimate connector, savvy with the media and oozing with appreciation for his off-centered fan base. He is their David among the Goliaths in a world of corporate globalization.

Following Sam’s lead, Justin Williams, the “off-centered storyteller” of Dogfish Head, needs no wizardry when it comes to evangelizing about “off-centered ales for off-centered people.” Everything about Dogfish Head Craft Brewery echoes the sui generis, the unique, un-forged standard. He said of his boss, “He’s the real deal.”

In 1933, the 21st Amendment repealed Prohibition on the Federal level, but left the details regarding regulation in the hands of each state. Delaware had never passed legislation to legalize brewpubs. For Dogfish Head to arrive, this needed to change.

Innovators Series: Sam Calagione - Dogfish Head Logo

The Accidental Lobbyist
At the age of 24, Calagione recognized “the marketing cachet and curiosity factor” inherent in being crowned Delaware’s first brewpub. That distinction was critical to his success.

Others had failed, but the cocksure Calagione lobbied state senators and representatives for his cause. With the guidance of an experienced Wilmington attorney, he drafted a bill and presented persuasive arguments to Delaware legislators, emphasizing the brewpub’s economic significance. Four days before Dogfish Head Brewings & Eats was to open in Rehoboth Beach, the law that legalized commercial brewing passed by an overwhelming majority, delivering front-page headlines that served as grass-roots marketing, bringing locals out of the woodwork and into his pub.

This is the foundation upon which Dogfish Head was built and keeps building. Calagione has no interest in doing what has already been done. He focuses on pushing the limits, discovering what lies outside the box. “The challenge is that there’s no context for the beer world to hold us up to,” he said. “We’re forging our own path and going where no one has gone.”

Since those early days, Dogfish Head has grown from brewing three times per day to crafting over 170,000 barrels in 2012, with current construction underway to triple that figure.  Meanwhile, at the Rehoboth Brewpub, distiller Allison Schrader valiantly cranks out 38 cases of Rhum, Jin, DNA, and flavored Vodka each week on a piece of equipment that looks vaguely like the Mercury space capsule of the early 1960’s. “Frankenstill,” as it is affectionately called, was designed from the remnants of a grain silo, re-engineered the Dogfish Head way … and it works.

Calagione has received a number of awards, including Delaware Small Business Person of the Year, Young Entrepreneur of the Year by the Small Business Administration, and Game Changer 2010 by the Huffington Post. In 2005, Dogfish Head made the Inc. 500 list of the Fastest Growing Private Companies in America, due to its three-year sales growth of 391 percent. These days, Dogfish Head works toward a controlled annual growth of 20 percent, but even that keeps the company on the fast track. Chief Operating Officer Nick Benz said “We’re like a jet ski with 180 people on it.”

A Beer for All Reasons
All this success sprang from Sam’s crazy idea of pushing the boundaries on all fronts. From the beginning, he slathered his menu with off-centered beers: Chicory Stout, made with organic Mexican coffee, St. John’s wort and licorice root; Raison D’Etre, crafted with raisins, beet sugar and Belgian-style yeast; or Liquor de Malt, brewed with gourmet corn, but delivered in a kitschy brown paper bag.

As Dogfish Head grew, Sam and company designed more great beers. Additions of blackberries, blueberries, Muscat grapes, saffron, juniper berries, maple syrup, saffron, papaya, melon, or `ulu were the norm. They stimulated the curious palates of Dogfish fans. For American lager drinkers, the soft and mild Shelter Pale Ale bridged the gap on the way. Wine enthusiasts got caught up in Midas Touch or Raison D’Etre. Noble Rot, brewed with botrytis-infected voignier, walked the hard line between beer and wine. They even chewed corn to craft authentic Chicha.

Urkontinent, released in the Fall of 2011, sprang from continental tech-geeks who suggested a list of wild-ass ingredients, plucked from every corner of the earth: rooibos tea, wattleseed, amaranth, myrica gale and honey.

Festina Lente may well have been the first American sour, originally designed and released in 2000-2001. To Calagione, “Belgians were synonymous with a world class beverage,” but the unsophisticated American beer market just didn’t understand. The beer was repeatedly returned because it was “sour.” But he just kept educating.

Innovators Series: Sam Calagione - Dogfish Head Steampunk

Classic DFH: the Analog Steampunk figurative tap handle.

The DJ Success Formula
As a music geek, it didn’t seem like an off-centered idea to engage Sony Legacy as a partner in his brewing endeavors. Calagione consulted with music experts to arrive at a taste that would reflect the musicians he admired: jazz greats, hip-hop artists, masters of alternative.

Celebrating the 40th anniversary of Miles Davis’s improvisational Bitches Brew album, Dogfish Head blended three threads of imperial stout with honey beer and gesho root for its own masterful Bitches Brew. The mouthfeel is so good you’d think you were licking velvet. Flavors of brown sugar, black chocolate, molasses, fruitcake, and honey-brushed bread all merge on the palate. Truly bitchin’!

Hellhound on My Ale celebrated Mississippi bluesman Robert Johnson with highly hopped heat, feathered in lemon as a secondary tribute to Johnson’s mentor, “Blind” Lemon Jefferson. Faithfull Ale was brewed with black currants and delicate hopping, to honor the 20th anniversary of Pearl Jam.

Calagione’s recent collaboration with Dan the Automator of Deltron 3030 resulted in a nearly 360-degree experience with the production batch of Positive Contact. Fuji apples and slow roasted farro form the base, with a light hand of cayenne pepper and cilantro that adds spice to the finish. Packaging with vintage vinyl adds an extra spin, accompanied by DIY recipes from chefs Sean Paxton, David Chang, Mario Batali, Joe Beef and James Shyabout.

Innovators Series: Sam Calagione - dogfish-head-brews

For some brewers, label art may be an afterthought, but Calagione uses labels to raise expectations about the drinking experience, while preserving a down-to-earth nonchalance.

Every Which Way but Loose
Calagione generates ideas “by looking in all worlds except the beer world.” From the outside, it simply looks like play. His inspiration for Pangaea, with its global scope, grew out of a dinosaur DVD during father-son quality time. He developed the process for continuously-hopped ales using a vibrating hockey table that he knighted “Sir Hops-A-Lot.” Randall the Enamel Animal, “the original organoleptic hop transducer module,” was born from the desire to beat West Coasters at their own hop-centric game. He sees opportunity everywhere, and channels it to his off-centered maxim.

The Dogfish Head 360˚ Experience combines a brewery tour with a stay in the Brewmaster’s Suite in the Inn at Canal Square in Lewes, Delaware. The suite is equipped with Dogfish Head soap and shampoo, a library of beer books and cold Dogfish selections in the fridge. There’s a kayak tour in search of dolphins included in the package as well as a visit to the Dogfish Head Brewpub in Rehoboth Beach.

Sam’s wife Mariah works the business too – Sam, fronting the big ideas of what Dogfish Head will do next, and Mariah looking at the practical side. According to storyteller Williams, “There’s a little yin-and-yang between them. The two of them are really generous and fair, and they give their employees leeway to develop into the best they can be.” Such is their formula for success.

Quick Sip Clips was a Team Calagione idea that set the standard for educating beer fashionistas about Dogfish Head’s over-the-top beers. When Williams lobbied for employment through a non-traditional video rather than a resume, they immediately clicked. Not long after, Williams was brew crew director of the short videos that “resonate with beer drinkers” within the span of one to two minutes.

The Dogfish Head culture provides opportunity for employees, along with better-than-average benefits and some pretty snappy perks. Every Friday, work stops at Beer:30 – 4:30 p.m. in the corporate world – so co-workers can play together. They may taste each other’s homebrew or team up with other departments for a competitive game of Dogfish bocce. They can even win trips. The culture stays healthy and “Sam is always here for that,” said Williams.


Which came first? Off-centered brews or off-centered people?

The Academic Innovator
Sam does it all. In fact, recognition by The James Beard Foundation earned him a nomination for Outstanding Wine & Spirits Professional last year. He is the author of Brewing Up a Business: Adventures in Entrepreneurship and Extreme Brewing. He co-authored He Said Beer, She Said Wine with Marnie Old and co-authored Great American Craft Beer: A Guide to the Nation’s Finest Beers and Breweries with Andy Crouch. In 2011, he contributed a piece on American Brewing to the Royal Society of Brewery History in the United Kingdom. He has spoken at Harvard, the Penn Museum and the University of Delaware Hospitality School.

And he’s modeled Levi’s.
Calagione, a self-confessed film geek and Dogfish Head Craft Brewery were prominently featured in Anat Baron’s 2009 movie, Beer Wars. That was followed by six episodes of Brew Masters on the Discovery Channel in 2010, filmed from the ancient ruins of Cairo, the exotic landscape of New Zealand and within the hallowed walls of Sony Records.

Bio-molecular archaeologist Patrick McGovern of the University of Pennsylvania Museum, whom Sam dubs as “Dr. Pat,” accompanies him in his worldly excursions. “A monogamous relationship between ancient history and modern brewing” creates a synergy that drives them.

When McGovern analyzed residue from 2,700-year-old drinking vessels within the burial crypt of an ancient king, he challenged a group of brewers to prove whether it was possible to make a balanced “Phrygian grog” of honey, grapes and barley malt, without hops. Calagione thought saffron, the most expensive spice in the world, might be the golden ingredient, and Midas Touch was born.

Then came Chateau Jiahu, developed from 9,000-year-old discoveries in China; Theobroma, inspired by evidence of Honduran chocolate within the Mayan civilization; Ta Henket, fermented with wild yeast cultured in Cairo; and the December 2012 release, Birra Etrusca honoring the 2,800-year-old Etruscan tombs in Italy. Calagione comments, “Dr. Pat brought more validity to the brews we’re making by vetting physical data for the recipes.”
And then there’s the Off Centered Film Fest, a three day collaborative event held by Dogfish Head and the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Austin, Texas. The festival spotlights films, comedians, and a competition in which 50 hardcore film lovers enter signature shorts that celebrate the fundamentals of film.   

Innovators Series: Sam Calagione - steampunk-tree-house

The Supercalifuturistic Tree House, created by the Steampunk artists of Oakland, California.

With Hammer and Chisel
For some brewers, label art may be an afterthought, but Calagione uses labels to raise expectations about the drinking experience, while preserving a down-to-earth nonchalance. As the designer of the original Dogfish Head logo, Sam has also given birth to labels for Noble Rot, Namaste, Festina Lente and Raison D’Etre plus 60 Minute and 90 Minute IPA. He uses label art to promote local artists, too.

Dogfish Head rotates label artists to showcase those the company admires. Tara McPherson, based in New York City, is the crème de la crème of idealized innocence and hard-knocks wisdom. She designed labels for Fort and Chateau Jiahu, the Uber Tap handle, and a series of 2012 seasonal prints for Dogfish.

California-based Marq Spusta designed the zany art for Theobroma, Tweason’ale, and the Dogfish beer pimp on the Damn poster. Jon Lanqford, artist and musician, is a limited-release specialist who created original art for Immort Ale, Burton Baton, Olde School Barleywine and Raison D’Extra. The team of David Larned and Sarah Lamb turned out the Red & White and Black & Blue labels, and past brewer Bryan Selders is the brainchild behind the Pangaea label and the covers for the Pain Relievaz albums.

Sam’s role as an Advocate of the Arts is even bigger, though. When Sean Orlando and the 5-Ton Crane Arts Group were looking for a home for their retro-futuristic Steampunk Tree House – a functional, off-centered piece that grew out of the steampunk movement of Oakland, California – Sam stepped up. He agreed to purchase it for $1, but with the caveat that he pay for the transport of the artwork and the engineer-artists to complete the re-assembly in Delaware. The bottom line ran $82,000, but in his eyes? Priceless.

Rustic Collaborations
Calagione has a penchant for forming alliances that demand global attention. With Italian brewers Teo Musso of Birrificio Le Baladin and Leonardo Di Vincenzo of Birra Del Borgo, he opened his warm-up act with Birra Etrusca. The three brewers released different versions using the same recipe, but applied a unique process to each: Baladin with wood; Dogfish Head with bronze; and del Borgo with terra cotta.

That’s just the beginning. Fusing forces with Chef Mario Batali, Joe Bastianich and Italy’s incomparable food emporium Eataly NYC, they opened La Birreria, a rooftop brewpub on 5th Avenue with views that take your breath away. La Birreria features the rustic cooking of Batali (in perfect alignment with the Dogfish Head philosophy), paired with beer collaborations and signature brews that reflect Italian/American fusion, pushing the boundaries of what it means to be world class. Another La Birreria Brewpub is on the docket for the Rome location, at the largest Eataly store in the world.

If you can’t find Brooklyn Brine Hop Pickles at Eataly, a jaunt to the DFH tasting room in Delaware is a must. Made with 60 Minute IPA, these highly hopped, beer-infused pickles, fermented with caramelized onions, deliver an addictive punch to a foodie’s palate.
Rhizing Bines, an imperial IPA collaboration between Dogfish Head and Sierra Nevada, is scheduled for a 2013 release. “We should be competitors; but here we are, getting together, combining two proprietary hop techniques,” said Calagione. He has been friends with Ken Grossman and his son Brian for a long time, and this fusion beer will spotlight the best of both worlds. On the hot side, Calagione’s process of continuous hopping merges with the cold side of Grossman’s giant torpedo system.

Good Vibrations
Many mornings, as the mist settles on the surface of the Lewes-Rehoboth Canal, a lone kayaker sets out from the Dogfish Canoe and Kayak Launch at Canalfront Park. It is Calagione, taking his 45-minute respite as he rows through the protected wetlands. Plans for an additional boat launch in Rehoboth are in the works “to show people who love Dogfish all the people responsible for Dogfish,” he explained. “They also see how beautiful coastal Delaware is. We think there’s as much branding experience for coastal Delaware as there is for New Jersey and the Hamptons,” said this legend of Dogfish Head.

Calagione supports the Center for Inland Bays, the Center for Marine Science, the YMCA and Nature Conservancy. He has also been recognized for Environmental Stewardship and as an Outstanding Employer of Special Needs Workers.

If the world wasn’t ready for the innovative spirit of Sam Calagione, Sam made it ready. He has used the advantages of a hyper-connected network to perfect the mold of “off-centered stuff for off-centered people.” With outside-the-box thinking, he has transformed “dogged determination” into “Dogfish Determination.” Who would have thought the Dogfish Head 360° Experience could be so rich?