Bottoms Up

Beer and wine in the Bay Area and beyond

A chat with Sam Calagione of Dogfish fame in 2005

By William Brand
Tuesday, April 22nd, 2008 at 9:24 pm in Uncategorized.

Sam Calagione at the GABF, photo by Gregrory DaurerNote: This What’s On Tap column was published in June, 2005…

Photo: Sam Calagione at the Great American Beer Fest

Credit: Gregory Daurer/Denver, CO.

Talk about a fish in the wrong water: Sam Calagione and Dogfish Head Craft Brewery belong out here on our coast, not buried in Delaware on the chaste Atlantic seaboard.

Even Sam’s motto: “Off-centered ales for off-centered people” – begs for a California location. His 120 Minute IPA – Amarillo and Cascade hop pellets fed into the brew kettle in a continuous stream throughout the boil – would fit right in at our annual Double India Pale Ale fest at the Bistro in Hayward.

The good news is that Sam’s coming to town tonight (Wednesday, June 22) with an armload of hard-to-find in the west, Dogfish Head brews, including 120 Minute IPA, 90 Minute IPA, Raison D’Etre and Immort Ale. He’ll be at the Toronado, 547 Haight St. in San Francisco, starting around 6:30 p.m., pouring beer with proprietor David Keene and signing copies of his first book: `Brewing Up A Business: Adventures in Entrepreneurship from the Founder of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery.” Buy the book, get a gold-rimmed Dogfish Head beer goblet to go with it.

A 120 Minute IPA, do I hear a yawn?

True, craft brewers around here have produced their share of IPAs with 120 International Bitterness Units (By comparison a Bud’s barely 12 IBU.), but Dogfish Head’s 120 IPA’s mouth-dropping 20 percent alcohol by volume is truly over the top.

Anyway, this is an academic exercise. Sam grew up in Massachusetts. His family has a summer home in Boothbay, ME and Dogfish Head is a nearby promontory. A Boothbay local told me it looks like a dolphin’s head and was a place where swarms of dogfish sharks could be found.

He learned about good beer tending bar in New York City and started home-brewing beer in college. He says he got interested in pumping up the alcohol in his brews, playing with different sugars and other substances that would give his yeast food to work on.

As he explains it, he used his skills honed as an English major to write a business plan for a brewpub and brewery – then started raising money from everyone he knew, his orthodontist, his father. With $200,000 cash, he assembled a 12-gallon brewplant and in 1995, he opened his 150-seat brew-restaurant in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware.

At that moment, Sam says, it was the smallest commercial brewery in America; it was also Delaware’s first brewpub. It was no more than three small kegs on top of propane burners, he said. Their first brew was Shelter Pale Ale, but Sam widened his repertoire rapidly.

I know it sounds snobbish, but there’s a lot of bland, ordinary craft beer on the East Coast (as well as some excellent brews). Dogfish made an immediate splash. Today, there’s a separate brewery down the road in Milton, Del. and plans for a second brewpub in Milton. Sam also put in a distillery, where the company makes rum, gin and vodka.

From day one, the emphasis has been on unusual beers.

“We have no aspirations of appealing to the status quo,” Sam says. “Big brewers are in a completely different industry than we are. They’re in a commodity industry. We’re about entertainment. Our goal is to entertain our beer-lovers’ taste buds.

Big brewers try to appeal to as many people as possible, so they make their beer as generic as they can. We’re trying to appeal to a much smaller group of people, who want to be excited. We make exciting, distracting beers.

“Our best-seller is 60-Minute IPA, then Raison d’Etre, then 90-Minute Imperial IPA. Those are our top three, but we don’t have a flagship.

“We’re more a varietal brewer, like a winemaker,” he said.

Big, hoppy beers are far from unusual here on the West Coast. But some Dogfish beers are beyond extreme. Fermentables in Raison D’Etre, for example, include beet sugar and green raisins. The yeast is Belgian and Sam says it’s as complex as a fine, red wine.
Others are even further over the edge: Chicory Stout has roasted chicory, organic Mexican coffee, St. John’s Wort and licorice root, hopped with Cascade and English Fuggles.

Immort Ale, 11 percent ABV, is not for the timid. Dogfish says, it is “vast in character.” It’s brewed with peat-smoked barley, juniper berries, vanilla and maple syrup,fermented with English and Belgian yeasts, aged on oak. The Immort Ale tonight has been aged two years, Sam says.
Dogfish Head’s also been in a “world’s strongest beer” competition with Jim Koch of Sam Adams fame. Right now Sam Adams Utopias with it’s stunning 25 percent alcohol by volume is the champ.

Dogfish Head WorldWide Stout, brewed with six different yeasts during a seven-month fermentation, trails at 18 percent ABV.

However, Sam says, “ours is the strongest beer in the world in regular production.”

The last word in beer nearly always goes to Dogfish Head.

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