After 25 years, Delaware’s Dogfish Head Craft Brewery has built something of an empire out of their off-centered beers and spirits. From their humble beginnings continuously hopping beer on a makeshift device called ‘Sir-Hops-A-Lot,’ to their recent merger with Boston Brewing — the Dogfish story reads like a comic book adventure.
Founder Sam Calagione is the writer and illustrator of that story.
“25 years… whoa!” Calagione pauses, surrounded by their large Milton brewery replete with a massive playground of silos, Dogfish-green lettered walls and their iconic steampunk treehouse. “Time flies when you are having fun!”
Calagione grew up in Western Massachusetts, on the Vermont border. “In a nutshell, I’m in Delaware because of the love of a good woman.”
“My wife Mariah was born and bred in Milford, Delaware. We ended up in the same high school in Massachusetts, and started dating at 16.” They went to separate colleges but would spend their summers in Rehoboth Beach renting houses with friends and working summer jobs. Sam worked as a waiter at the Front Page, a renowned music venue, and Mariah was a waitress at Camel’s Hump right down the road.
“So we got to know the area. And I fell in love with the beauty of coastal Delaware from those summers.”
Those beaches would connect the dots from Calagione’s childhood passion for writing and comic books to his later passion for beer. “Right after college, I just started home brewing and thought — maybe I can focus on using my love of creative writing to write recipes for beers, and stories about beers and create our own ads, instead of writing comic books,” Calagione explains.
“So I applied my love of art and writing to our work of building the brand, and the story of our brand, at Dogfish.”
“We could get in a car and be in Philly in two hours, be in Baltimore or D.C. in two hours, and in less than three and a half hours, be in Manhattan.”
Calagione wanted to open a brewery in a state that didn’t have one yet. “All the New England states close to where I grew up already had craft breweries — and Delaware was the closest one that didn’t. And I loved the beaches. So I decided, let’s open Dogfish Head in Coastal Delaware.”
And thus began a 25-year journey that would have Sam and Mariah guide Dogfish into one of the largest and most-renowned craft breweries in the country. Calagione believes that Delaware’s location unexpectedly proved to be an asset. “It sounds crazy to say something on the coast is central. But when you think of where we are right now — we could get in a car and be in Philly in two hours, be in Baltimore or D.C. in two hours, and in less than three and a
half hours, be in Manhattan. So it’s actually a great hub to distribute a high-end product from because you have the proximity to all these awesome cities,” Calagione says.
“That and you get to live at the beach in a low-stress, beautiful, natural environment.”
One of the highlights for Calagione is that Dogfish was the first brewery to focus on using culinary ingredients in beer, instead of just focusing on traditional styles. “Now you see thousands of craft breweries making beers with fruits and herbs and spices commercially. We’re really proud to have pioneered that on a commercial level nationally. It’s proven to be a sustainable and growing niche within our industry.”
One early beer that used culinary ingredients was Festina Peche, a collaboration with Fifer Orchards in Camden, Delaware. “We used these overly ripe peaches that we got from Fifer’s and it was just something else. And that was over 20 years ago.” Dogfish recently collaborated again with Fifer Orchards and Dewey Beer Company on a beer called Have a Donut. “We tried to put Fifer’s famous apple cider donuts into liquid form. It was a beer/cider hybrid that added Tanzanian cinnamon and real vanilla.”
Staying off-centered, Dogfish has forced itself to continually innovate. “I believe we were among the first brews in the country to bottle and distribute sour beers, back when people thought we were crazy. And now sour beers are one of the fastest-growing beer styles in America.” Dogfish Head is currently the number one sour-producing brewery in America. They recently collaborated with Rodenbach, Europe’s biggest and most well-known sour brewery, on a beer called Vibrant P’Ocean that is currently distributed throughout the Delmarva area.
Calagione shares that scaling to a national brand has always been the biggest challenge, addressing their 2019 merger with Boston Beer Company (famous for their Samual Adams beers). As a brand, Dogfish used to have about one-tenth of one percent market share in America. With the merger, they are about two percent market share. “We’re still tiny and we’re still up against the same Goliath we always were,” Calagione says.
“There are four international conglomerates that control over 80 percent of America’s beer market. And over eight thousand of us indie craft breweries that collectively share under 15 percent market share. So we kind of all have each other’s back. And it’s a very collaborative community.”
More big changes are on the way for Dogfish in 2020. They are currently installing a new canning line into their Rehoboth facilities to do limited release, specialty batches from their beach location. “These will be special beers that you have to go directly to Dogfish Rehoboth to buy — releases of throwback favorites like Shelter Pale Ale, crowd favorites that were developed at the brewpub, and we even have one coming out for the launching of the USS Delaware, the nuclear sub. To celebrate that cool moment in Delaware.”
Calagione is also doing a major expansion of the distillery in Milton. It’s a three million dollar project that will put Dogfish spirits in a more prominent light. “This will allow us to roll out more cocktails and packaged cocktails and regular spirits like our award-winning whiskey in further geographies. Right now, our beers are distributed in 47 states. Spirits are only in five states. So now we’ll be able to grow our distillery as well.”
Calagione has always made sure to balance family and fun while guiding a successful brand. “We have a place up off of Boothbay Harbor, Maine, where we spend most of our vacations. When you’re on a paddle board going by a seal on a rock, you know, you’re in a really special place.” His favorite activities always involve being outdoors — bicycling in the morning or paddleboarding towards Rehoboth on the canal, which he does year-round. “Being out in nature on a bike or paddle board in either coastal Delaware or coastal Maine are my favorite things in the world to do.”
When asked about the key to having a successful marriage and family while still managing a constantly-evolving company, he says “I would say Mariah and I recognize each other’s complementary strengths and give each other the latitude to lead where we’re strong, and support where the other of us is stronger.”