When it first opened in 1995, Dogfish Head Craft Brewery was the smallest commercial brewery in the United States. Now, thanks to its line of quirky, small-batch beers, the company pulls in a cult-like following. We got in touch with Sam Calagione, Dogfish Head’s founder, president, and a 2013 nominee for our Outstanding Wine, Beer, or Spirits Professional award. Read on for his thoughts on collaborations between chefs and brewers, the ancient ale he cultivated with a molecular archeologist, and a beer that was like “tongue-kissing Mother Nature.”
JBF: We’ve read that you strive to create beers so unique that they can’t be judged by ordinary standards. Can you tell us a bit more about the philosophy behind Dogfish Head?
Sam Calagione: We brew beers that are beyond stylistic borders and far outside the modern tradition of using just barley, water, yeast, and hops. We consider the entire culinary landscape for potential ingredients. Some of our best-selling beers are made with ingredients like saffron, chicory, raisins, coffee, maple syrup, grape must, buckwheat honey, and brown sugar. Our raison d’être is off-centered ales for off-centered people.
JBF: What’s your current favorite brew among Dogfish Head’s collection and why?
SC: Sixty-One. It’s our best-selling 60-Minute IPA, plus one ingredient: just when the yeast is most active, we dose hundreds of gallons of the California Syrah grape must into the beer, which makes it dry, complex, fruity, and the most beautiful shade of red. I painted the bottle label myself using beer, wine, and chocolate mixed in with the watercolor paint—because I like beer and wine a lot more than I like plain old water.
JBF: We’ve noticed that chefs and brewers are collaborating more, and that culinary ingredients are increasingly used in the brewing process. Do you agree?
SC: Definitely. We have focused on food-centric beers since we opened as America’s smallest commercial brewery in 1995. We intentionally opened our brewery in a restaurant, because our beers are designed to be paired with food and are brewed with culinary ingredients. I think craft beer is just part of the bigger locavore movement. Beer is food. And the work that people like James Beard and Alice Waters have done to celebrate American ingredients (and an American approach to cooking that is not derivative of continental traditions) is what we try to do with beer every day at Dogfish Head.
JBF: Can you tell us about a few bars or restaurants that you think have interesting beer selections?
SC: I love Joe Beef and Dieu de Ciel up in Montreal, The Monk’s Kettle in San Francisco, and Birreria in New York City. Although I am biased on that last one, because Dogfish Head and two Italian craft brewers work with Joe Bastianich and Mario Batali to oversee the brewery and beer recipes at Birreria in both New York City and Rome.
JBF: We recently enjoyed your Ta Henket Ancient Ale, which was poured at a Beard House dinner. We're told the beer was inspired by Egyptian hieroglyphics. Can you tell us a bit more about how that came about?
SC: Dogfish does a whole line of ancient ales. I travel around the world with a molecular archeologist to analyze organic residue found on the surface of drinking vessel chards found in tombs and dig sites. These beers are like liquid time capsules and prove that our ancestors were as creative and resourceful as the greatest modern chefs. I’ve done brews in Sweden, Etrusca, China, Turkey, and elsewhere. We went to Cairo for Ta Hanket and captured the yeast from the dusty air of a date farm in the shadow of the pyramids. We sourced authentic Egyptian ingredients like dom palm fruit and za’atar to make this beer. It tastes like no other beer out there.
JBF: We hear that your headquarters include a tree house that doubles as a boardroom. How do you think your work environment is unique from other breweries?
SC: We take beer very seriously, but we don't take ourselves too seriously. Besides our 12-person tree house, complete with a woodstove, we also have two full-sized bocce courts, our S.S. Dogfish boat, and we even have an in-house, beer geek hip-hop band called the Pain Relievaz. We don’t have employees; we have co-workers. I may be the president and founder, but nobody works for me. We all work for Dogfish. And when we do it well together, creatively and respectfully, Dogfish works for us.
JBF: Do you remember the very first beer you tasted and what you thought about it?
SC: I snuck a few bottles of my dad’s Moosehead from the basement fridge in the middle of the night when I was about 14 years old. It tasted like tongue-kissing Mother Nature, and I was beer-smitten from then on.