There’s symbolism in the fact that when I call him, Sam Calagione is driving to his apartment in Boston’s Seaport.
Less than a mile away are the corporate offices for Boston Beer Co., which merged with Calagione’s Dogfish Head in May 2019. Drive down a nearby on-ramp and Calagione could meet up with the Mass Pike westbound for more or less of a straight shot to Greenfield, his hometown. Calagione and his wife and business partner, Mariah, spend about 25 percent of their time in Boston and the rest in coastal Delaware, where Dogfish is headquartered.
Boston represents for Calagione a kind of crossroads, one where he can look back on what’s now 25 years of Dogfish Head, and ahead to helping run the second-largest craft brewery in the country. We recently asked Calagione to reflect on all of it.
Dogfish Head turned 25 in June. How did you celebrate?
“It’s bittersweet, in this moment of COVID, but the good news is we were down in coastal Delaware, among family and a couple of socially distant coworkers at our pub in Rehoboth. I took the paddle board out into the Atlantic and thought back through the last 25 years. It was still a poignant day.”
In November, you all are releasing a book (The Dogfish Head Book: 25 Years of Off-Centered Adventures). Looking back, is there a memory that sticks out?
“One of the things I loved was following the brand chronologically when myself, Mariah, and Andrew Greeley, my co-authors, went through certain beers. The funnest part was going through labels of beers that didn’t make it. We did a beer called “Verdi, Verdi Good.” We were getting requests from bars, ‘Oh, St. Patrick’s Day is coming up, can you make us a green beer?’ And we would not use food coloring because we only brew with all-natural culinary ingredients. So we brewed a beer with Spirulina, essentially blue-green algae. And it made the beer naturally green, but the beer tasted like pond scum, and no one would drink it.
“Epic creative failures like that, frankly we’re as proud of those on our journey as successes like SeaQuench Ale and 60 Minute.”
Speaking of SeaQuench Ale, how do you think that beer got to be the best-selling sour beer in America?
“Its unique DNA has really helped it. It’s a beer that’s really three classic German, refreshing beer styles mashed up in one liquid. We brew a Kolsch, then we brew a Berliner Weisse with black limes and lime juice, then we brew a Gose with sea salt. We mash them all up and there’s an awesome complexity from these German beer threads, but then the fact that it’s only 10 IBUs, it’s not a bitter beer.
“It can appeal to a margarita drinker, a minerally Pinot Grigio drinker, and a beer geek. So it’s got a much broader capability of moving outside the craft beer audience.”
You helped define a category with your 60, 90, and 120 Minute IPAs. Where do you think they fit into today’s current landscape?
“It’s kind of ironic that we’re a brewery founded on not traditional beer styles, and 60-Minute is our No. 1 volume beer (Calagione notes that the low-cal IPA Slighty Mighty is on track to overtake it as the company’s best-selling beer), and obviously 90-Minute is an important part of our portfolio, too.
“We did our first continually hopped IPA in 1999; when I converted a vibrating football game into a continual hopping machine. . . . I think what makes those beers successful is that we did invent a unique process in the brewing world that leads to a really unique liquid. When you dose a beer with tiny volumes of hops continuously, instead of the traditional method where you add one volume early for bitterness and one volume late for aroma, you get a beer that’s hoppy in flavor, but has almost no lingering bitterness.
“The fact is IPAs are probably going to be the biggest volume beer style for craft for years to come, and the fact that only 15 percent or 16 percent of Americans drink craft beer means most new entrants to craft start with IPAs. And so 60 Minute is perfectly positioned to be the go-to entry-level IPA, since it’s intensely hoppy without being crushingly better.”
Is there a Dogfish beer that means the most to you over the years?
“By volume I’ve never in my career drank as much of one style as SeaQuench Ale. It just hits all the buttons for me; I find it very thirst-quenching, refreshing, compatible with food, especially seafood. And spicy food since it’s low in alcohol, it tamps down the spice. That’s my go-to.”
In 2008 the New Yorker basically labeled you the king of extreme beer. Did you embrace that then and do you embrace it now?
“I think the term extreme beer is relevant to the moment that you say it. When Sierra Nevada’s pale ale came out in the ’80s, it was an extreme beer. What I feel some folks miss is they immediately connote extreme beer to extremely strong in alcohol. And we’ve never believed in that. In 1995 one of our beers was Chicory Stout, based on New Orleans-style coffee. And that was a 5 percent ABV beer that was a core beer for us for a lot of years. Extreme just means to me extremely creative.”
How have things changed for you and for Dogfish since the merger?
“What hasn’t changed is we run our own brand out of Delaware, we run our own innovation. But what has changed is instead of us being a company of 300, we’re now a company of over 1,800.
“We chose to do this merger because we share similar complementary values, like people first and product second. And then complementary portfolios: Dogfish Head No. 1 sour beer in America, No. 1 low-cal IPA. Boston Beer No. 1 cider in America, No. 1 tea, No. 1 craft lager, No. 2 seltzer. So our portfolios were super complementary, and it’s proven to be true.”
How has the pandemic impacted Dogfish?
“Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth. We had a plan for 2020 for certain things and got punched in the mouth. But it’s not like we fell on the floor and gave up. We pivoted. One of the first things we did was convert our distillery so the majority of the production was for hand sanitizer. Our No. 1 customer is the state of Delaware. We took all the profits from the sales and started a grant program for Delaware hospitality workers.
“Day to day the biggest adjustment is that we shut our hospitality locations. Remember that we were a restaurant since the day we were a brewery. So that was really hard. A bunch of our coworkers that worked in our restaurants and our beer-themed hotel we moved over to work in packaging. Everyone’s been awesome in terms of pivoting along with us.”
How are you making out in the Seaport? It’s a constantly changing neighborhood even for Bostonians, I’m wondering how you’re finding it.
“We love living in the Seaport and can walk to our offices in the Design Center in less than 20 minutes in one direction, and to the Sam Adams Brewpub in Faneuil Hall 20 minutes in the opposite direction. Plus it’s just a three-minute walk to Trillium and Trader Joe’s, which go hand-in-hand on grocery day.”
Have you gotten to explore the Boston beer scene at all, and what do you think of it?
“We’ve been putting on the Extreme Beer Fest for over a decade. And I get to work with the Alstrom Brothers and collaborate with them, and I get to work with other breweries and have made a lot of relationships through that.
“But also just kind of stream of consciousness, some brands that I have huge respect for in this town. I walk to work every day by our good friends Harpoon. Last time I was in town I had a great dinner with Will [Meyers], the brewmaster from Cambridge Brewing Co. We’re good friends with guys down the road from here Trillium, have great respect for guys from Tree House, Night Shift. But also some of the earlier-gen guys who I think have just done an amazing job of staying relevant. I think of Berkshire Brewing out in Western Mass. I don’t think they get enough credit for all the awesome work they’ve done for over 25 years.”
What are some of your go-to spots when you return home to Western Mass., beer-wise or otherwise?
“The Book Mill in Montague with the sweet little record store next to it and rushing waterfall in the back. They have the best motto ever: “Books you don’t need in a place you can’t find.”
Moes Tavern in Lee. Mass MoCA. The farm at Northfield Mount Hermon in Gill. It’s the high school I went to and met my wife, Mariah, at. Our kids Sammy and Grier went there as well. Jake runs the on-campus farm and we make the bestest maple syrup, ice cream, and apple cider there.”
What’s the next big thing in beer?
“Man your guess is as good as mine. If you look at the volume growth of IPAs, it’s gotten so fragmented, between session and juicy and other variants. I still think there’s going to be a ton of innovation in the IPA style. You see a lot of fruited sours. Those are trends, not fads. From a brewer’s perspective, a lot of us love to drink pilsners. I’d love to see the pilsner continue to grow.
“The one thing that the seltzer explosion shares with fruited sour growth is that they’re lower in alcohol, lower in calories. We as craft brewers need to be more bold to jump outside the hazy IPA juggernaut. It’s cool that we do them, we have for years. But maybe start with something that’s lower in calories, lower in ABV, that we’ve never done before.”