Dogfish Head’s Founder On His Failed Snail Beer And Taking Bold Risks

To say that the craft beer industry in the U.S. is booming is an extreme understatement. At last count, there were almost 9,000 breweries in the country. To put that in context, if you go back to the early ’90s there were less than 300. While it seems like a new brewpub, craft brewery, or beer bar opens every week in every major city in America these days, opening a new brewery in the mid-90s was a big deal.

Still being open decades later in an increasingly cutthroat industry? That’s a serious accomplishment.

Delaware’s Dogfish Head has managed exactly that since 1995. They’re currently celebrating their 26th year and to mark the occasion, founder and president Sam Calagione has co-written an eponymous book subtitled “26 Years of Off-Centered Adventures.” It’s a philosophy that the brewing legend takes very seriously.

“We were one of the smallest commercial breweries in America,” he says. “Brewing only twelve gallons of beer per batch to serve exclusively inside the walls of our restaurant in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. From day one, we’ve been committed to brewing the majority of our beers with high-quality culinary ingredients outside the Reinheistgebot [the Bavarian purity law that states you could only brew beer with water, hops, barley, and yeast].”

To this day, Calagione is well-known for the boundary-pushing, sometimes crazy-sounding ingredients in the beers brewed at Dogfish Head. But his brewery has grown exponentially — becoming one of the largest and most well-known craft breweries in the country, producing nearly 250,000 gallons of beer per week with distribution to all fifty states thanks to a partnership with Boston Brewing Co. [makers of Samuel Adams].

We talked to Calagione this week and he was kind enough to answer a few questions about his brewing story, some of the strangest beers he’s ever brewed, and what to expect from the brewery in the next twenty-six years.

Dogfish Head

Why did you want to start brewing at a time when it was far less popular than it is today?

I saw that small-scale commercial brewing was growing in a few geographic pockets in the US and that almost all first-generation brewers were focused on modern European beer styles. I thought there was a lot of white space I could explore between that and focusing on infusing beers with unexpected culinary ingredients as a way Dogfish Head could stand out in the competitive landscape.

What made you decide to write a book, what went into it?

The Dogfish Head Book: 26 Years of Off-Centered Adventures is actually one of many books I’ve had the pleasure of writing and/or contributing to. This particular book — which I was lucky enough to co-author alongside my wife and Dogfish Head co-founder, Mariah, and our longtime co-worker and Dogfish INNkeeper, Andrew — was meant to be a celebration of the brand’s 26-year history, as well as the many co-workers that have contributed to Dogfish Head’s collective story and successes.

We were inspired by The Beastie Boys Book, which provides a beautiful, visually stimulating look at the band’s historical journey. With that esthetic in mind, we spent countless hours not only carefully choosing the stories that would make it into The Dogfish Head Book, but also the images that would bring those stories to life.

What are some lessons beer fans can learn from this book?

The ideas that lead to specific beers and our unique brewing techniques, like how we converted a vintage vibrating football game into the continual-hopping device that allowed us to brew 60 Minute and 90 Minute IPAs. That invention of ours is now in a permanent collection at the Smithsonian, alongside things like the Wright Brothers’ plane and the Apollo rocket.

What did you consider the keys to your success over the years?

The biggest keys to success at Dogfish Head have been creating products and experiences that are consistent, of high quality, and offer strong points of differentiation within their competitive sets. I am a firm believer in the importance of these three success drivers, knowing that to be successful in business, you must satisfy all three standards.

Another huge key to success for Dogfish Head has been our co-workers. Through our off-centered, people-first, business-second culture, we’ve been able to cultivate an extremely talented, caring, and dedicated team of co-workers to help us grow and strengthen the brand. Without them, Dogfish Head would not be what it is today.

What’s your favorite beer you’ve ever brewed?

SeaQuench Ale. Beauty is the eye of the beer holder. Everyone’s palate is different, which is why we make such a wide array of beers. But the combo of flavors in SeaQuench from wheat and lime juice and sea salt hits all my pleasure buttons.

What’s the strangest beer you’ve ever made that you’re proud of?

We won a medal at the Great America Beer Fest for Choc Lobster. It was a dark beer brewed with cocoa nibs and lobsters caught off the jut of land that is Dogfish Head in Maine.

What was one beer that seemed like it would work in theory, but just didn’t once it was brewed?

Escar-Gose. It was a Gose brewed with snails and the snail’s arch-enemy: salt. Great name and idea but tasted pretty terrible.

Dogfish Head

What advice do you have for someone thinking of opening a brewery?

My advice to any business owner or entrepreneur is to focus on the three key success drivers: quality, consistency, and being well-differentiated. Products or experiences that are consistent, of high quality, and stand out from others in their competitive sets are much more likely to succeed than those meeting just one, or even two of those criteria. If your product satisfies those three key success drivers, I’d say go for it and don’t let others tell you that you can’t!

What are some things our readers would want to know about the book and Dogfish Head?

Dogfish Head is not just a brewery, but an off-centered destination. At Dogfish Head, we do so much more than just brew beer. We distill spirits, cook some downright delicious grub, host guests at our harbor-front hotel, and more. In addition to brewing off-centered ales, our brand is about creating experiences for all off-centered people to partake in and enjoy, and we encourage readers everywhere to come and check out our various East Coast locations for themselves!

There is no such thing as an aspiration that is too off-centered or out-of-reach. With The Dogfish Head Book, we hope to inspire readers to follow their own creative journeys, no matter how off-centered or out-of-reach they may seem. Yes, you may fail, but you will learn from those failures and they will prepare you for the challenges ahead.

Dogfish Head