A Conversation With Sam Calagione, Founder of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery

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SamCalagione_sized.jpgSam Calagione is—yes, there's no avoiding the term—a rock star of the beer world. His brewery, Dogfish Head, has become famous for its "off-centered stuff for off-centered people," ranging from its basic 60-Minute India Pale Ale to Palo Santo Marron, a strong brown ale aged in rare Paraguayan Palo Santo wood, and Chateau Jiahu, inspired by the remains of a 9,000-year-old Chinese beverage of fermented rice, honey, and fruit.

As the famous beer writer Michael Jackson (not that Michael Jackson) once wrote, Calagione "fights his own battles, on behalf of people with individual tastes and against the tyranny of timidity, conformity, and the lowest common denominator"—and by doing so he has helped shape the American craft beer industry. Here, Calagione discusses the importance of good glassware, Louis Pasteur, and how music helps his yeast get in the mood.

What do you say when people ask, "What do you do?"

I'm very proud to say or write on any vocational inquiry document that I am a brewer. My title is "president and founder" but I am a brewer first and a businessman second, and I think Dogfish's commitment to making a wide array of quality off-centered ales brings me more pride then growing from the smallest brewery in the country to where we are today.

What new idea or innovation is having the most significant impact on how people think about beer?

It sounds strange but I would say the recession has been the biggest factor in bringing people around to high-quality craft beer. I guess we are an anomaly as an industry where the highest priced products represent the growth spot in a challenging economy. But craft beer is an affordable luxury. I think wine lovers and foodies are beginning to realize beer can be as diverse, complex, and food-friendly as world-class wine at a fraction of the price.

What's something that most people just don't understand about your job?

I'm not constantly drinking beer. But I am constantly thinking about beer. My wife reminds me to stop occasionally at the dinner table. But seven minutes later I have to remind her to stop posting on the Dogfish Facebook page at the dinner table.

What's an emerging trend that you think will shake up the beer world?

Glassware and temperature. The majority of what we think we are tasting we are actually smelling, so a balloon-shaped glass, whether it's a sniffer or red wine glass, is best for almost all beers, as it captures more of the aromatics. With temperature, the perception as dictated by the largest breweries is that beer is best served ice-cold. But of course anything you drink ice-cold is going to numb and retard your taste buds and nothing is good about that if you care about enjoying what you are ingesting.

What's a beer trend that you wish would go away?

See ice-cold beer! Above. Also, that session beers and extreme beers cannot peacefully coexist on the same shelf or within a brewer's portfolio. Beauty is in the eye of the beer holder. Our palates are all different and preferences are subjective.

What's an idea you became fascinated with but that ended up taking you off track?

That's kind of a hard one to answer because we pretty much go off track every single day. Some of our off-track meanderings stick (distilled spirits, beer shampoo bars) and some don't (BYOL night at our brewpub). That was a promotion where folks who brought a log for our wood stove got a great discount on a beer. Problem was, we had our own stack of wood sitting out back and quickly realized folks were simply bringing us our own wood!

Who are three people you'd put in a beer Hall of Fame?

Michael Jackson. Not the one-gloved superfreak but the Johnny Appleseed for the exploration of boundaryless beers. His curiosity was as infectious as a Belgian lambic is infected.

Louis Pasteur. Before knowing what yeast was or did it was recognized as the ghost in the machine. Pure alchemy. Then Louis came along and brought us out of the Dark Ages, allowing brewers to understand and harness the power of these amazing single-celled fungi. Fun guys.

Jack McAuliffe. Dude who started New Albion brewery in Cali before Ken Grossman opened Sierra Nevada. His brewery didn't make it, but he was a pioneer who proved the model of a tiny start-up microbrewery could work. In a sweet karmic shout-out that illustrates how altruistic and mutually supportive the craft brewing industry is, last year Sierra invited Jack to collaborate on a beer as part of their 30th anniversary.

What other field or occupation did you consider going into?

Fiction writer or English teacher. But then again there is no greater example of a work of fiction then a business plan. As an entrepreneur you write it, then you spend your life trying to turn it into a work of non-fiction.

How do you feel about beer rating websites like Ratebeer.com and Beer Advocate?

I like them. In that they offer an immediate forum for beer lovers to share their joys and discovery. With the good comes the bad and at times there is more hate than love shared, but then someone chimes in to remind everyone how awesome it is to have so many different beers available to love/hate compared to the monochromatic beer landscape we lived in just three decades ago.

What song's been stuck in your head lately?

Robert Johnson's "Hellhound on my Trail." I held my iPod up to the tank that held the eponymous beer we are making with our friends at Sony to get the yeast all sexed up to happily multiply.


Image: Courtesy of Dogfish Head

Read more installments of "Nine and a Half Questions."

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Daniel Fromson, a former associate editor at The Atlantic, is a writer based in Washington, D.C. He writes regularly for The Washington Post. His work has also appeared in Harper's Magazine, New York, and Slate.

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