Sam Calagione, CEO and founder of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery, has been nominated for a James Beard Foundation Award every year since 2011. Chefs, winemakers and brewers alike will tell you it’s a career-changing honor just to be nominated for the prestigious culinary recognition. Last week, Sam took home the coveted award for Outstanding Wine, Spirits or Beer Professional, joining a shortlist of only two other brewers who have won the top honor. But excelling in the epicurean space for uncommon reasons is nothing new for Sam.
“When Dogfish Head debuted, very few and far between thought adding culinary ingredients to beer was cool,” says Sam. “Today, Dogfish Head is brewing unique beers that use simple, pure and unadulterated fruit. We released an India Pale Ale (IPA) last year called Flesh & Blood that is made with real citrus, including lemon flesh, blood orange juice, and orange and lemon peel. Our ability to harness these flavors through the brewing process and into cans is what we pride ourselves on. It sets us apart in the craft brewing industry.”
Sam’s interest in brewing stemmed from a childhood steeped in culinary tradition. His mom’s uncle and dad’s grandmother had “competing but friendly grocery businesses in Massachusetts” and each made their own sausage. “One made their own bootleg wine but I won’t say which one,” Sam confesses. “So I earned my love of good food and drink through my DNA.”
After graduating with an English degree from Muhlenberg College, Sam got his first taste of the beer business while waiting tables in Manhattan. He bought a home-brewing kit and threw in overly ripe cherries to the mix which, to his surprise, turned out beautifully.
Dogfish Head Brewings & Eats opened soon after in 1995 in the resort beach community of Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. The name Dogfish comes from a jut of land off the Maine coast on Southport Island, where Sam spent many summers during his childhood. Not only was Dogfish Head Delaware’s first brewpub, it was the smallest commercial brewery in America.
“We were a part of the second wave of small breweries that came after brewhouses like Sierra Nevada and Samuel Adams,” explains Sam. “We focused on the cuisine while they focused on England’s pale ales and German lagers.”
Since its debut, the brewery has prided itself on creating “off-centered” beers crafted with non-traditional culinary ingredients from around the world. Through innovative experiments with flavors, Dogfish Head established a unique identity in the craft beer market and its popularity grew. Sam remembers a distinct time when he knew the brewery was going to be a success. “Around 2000, we came out with 90 Minute Imperial IPA and Midas Touch (a 2700 year old recipe brewed with saffron and honey) at the same time. Both beers took off and brought Dogfish a lot of national media attention.”
In addition to the brewery (and a scratch-made spirits line crafted within a state-of-the-art distillery), another part of the empire is the Dogfish Inn, a basecamp to explore the brewery and surrounding area. “The Inn was a natural next step for us,” says Sam. “Drinking Dogfish Head is an experience and a lifestyle…It isn’t about sitting inside, crammed against a bunch of other visitors but about exploring the world around you. Seizing the opportunities for adventure is still where I get a lot of my inspiration and I want our visitors and fans to feel that, too.”
Whether or not his brewery sustains its current pace of growth, Sam strongly believes the growth of indie craft beer will continue and has some tips for new brewers.
“Regardless of what scale a brewery aspires to, there are three things the brewery must be equally as passionate about in order to succeed: quality, consistency and differentiation. It’s not enough anymore to just make crazy beers if you can’t maintain quality and reliability. For small brewers, it is critical to have world-class quality control. Investing in the right laboratory equipment, investing in world-class packaging and equipment that sustains predictable shelf life and quality for your beer.” Sam is taking his own advice – the brewery just unveiled redesigned packaging that highlights the specific ingredients and unique brewing processes involved in creating each beer.
This summer, Dogfish Head will unveil its latest pub in downtown Rehoboth Beach. The new Brewings & Eats will have more dining space, a world-class stage with national and regional musical acts and a-state-of-the-art R&D distillery and brewery. To learn how to visit the brewery and read more about its beers, visit https://www.dogfish.com/.