Minutes after touching down in Madison and after a four-hour delay in Detroit, Sam Calagione, an icon of the American brewing scene, knew what he wanted: Something local and hoppy.
In its 22 years, Calagione’s Dogfish Head Craft Brewery has challenged notions of what beer could be, growing from a small outfit in coastal Delaware to the 14th-largest craft brewer in the country.
Dogfish Head is perhaps the national paragon of innovation and outside-the-box thinking in brewing. Its line of “Ancient Ales” is derived from archaeological finds, and some of the nation’s hottest beer trends have been present in Dogfish’s lineup for more than a decade.
Calagione remains intimately involved in Dogfish Head’s brewing operations, and this year he won the James Beard Award for beer, wine and spirits — a fitting honor for a brewery that has long taken a culinary approach to the trade.
Calagione was in Wisconsin last month on a goodwill tour to his local carriers, Frank Beer Distributors in Madison and Specialty Beverage of Wisconsin in New Berlin, and he kicked off his whirlwind tour with an interview at Cooper’s Tavern.
Before and after our conversation, Calagione was a gracious ambassador for his brewery, telling the Cooper’s servers, bartenders and hosts, as well as a few Frank reps, “Thanks for selling our beer.”
With nothing on tap that quite fit the bill of local and hoppy, due in part to the tertiary criteria that his afternoon pour also be distributed by Frank, Calagione settled on a New Glarus Spotted Cow Grand Cru before we settled into the “snug” booth at Cooper’s. “Now I feel like we’ve truly landed,” he said when the plate of cheese curds arrived.
Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Q. Is this your first time in Madison?
A. At least 10 years ago now, I’m good buddies with Joe Short from Short’s Brewing and we did a collaboration beer with them and Three Floyds that had this paw paw in it, a local fruit. We brewed it just for Great Taste of the Midwest.
I heard it was just one of the best festivals in the country and it proved to be just that. I fell in love with Madison when I was here. I’ve been bothering my daughter who’s a sophomore in high school, saying, “You really should go to this school.” I’d love it if she went here, if I could have an excuse to come more often.
Q. What brings you to Madison this time?
A. Basically just a big thank you to our distributors in the state. Both of our distributors (in Wisconsin) are up. We all know that craft, or just beer in general, is having a challenging moment in terms of national growth. And, gosh, Frank Distributing here is up about 10 percent year to date when craft beer is up just 2-3 percent and overall beer in America is down about 1 percent.
Our brewery’s just having a great year. We’re up 21 percent, Dogfish Head is, nationally, mostly based on the launch of 60 Minute IPA in cans and SeaQuench Ale, which is the fastest-growing beer in the history of our company, even including 60 Minute and 90 Minute and Flesh & Blood IPA, which is the second-fastest-growing beer in the history of our company. It’s really a wonderful moment so I’m just out here to say thank you to our distributors, our retailers and the sales people that do the hard work every day.
Q. Some of the bigger national breweries are having some trouble. You mentioned new products and new packaging formats. Is that how Dogfish has kept growing?
A. I think there’s so many different examples of what a successful business model is — almost as many as there are awesome diverse examples of great craft beers that you can put in your mouth. You don’t have to look far from where we’re sitting enjoying beers to an iconic brand like New Glarus, which I’m drinking right now, or not far down the road at Founders or Bell’s. Very different business models: Founders, very sessionable, a lower price point—an awesome business model, my hat’s off to them.
Our model is very different. We do work hard to think about staying on the high end and work hard at storytelling about what differentiates our beers that makes them a good value at that higher price.
For example, Flesh & Blood. We did, I believe, the first distributed fruit IPA in America with Aprihop starting in ’96. We used to get made fun of in the mid-’90s for putting fruit in IPAs, and we all see the success of the fruit IPA subcategory now, but Flesh & Blood is the only fruit IPA that can say it had 20 years of R&D, of us playing with the fruits, the rinds, its oil, its flesh, calibrated against different hop varieties, all of that. And you can really taste the difference if you drink Flesh & Blood vs. an IPA that just had a jug of extract added to it.
Q. How do you convince someone that innovation, that process refinement that you’ve done, is going to come through in the product before they’ve tried it?
A. Yeah, you can’t see it. As the marketplace got more crowded, I think we’ve for 22 years worked hard to kind of outpunch our weight to have a distinct, off-centered voice in terms of always talking about the innovation and the liquid first, and not the hype and the hyperbole of marketing first. And for us, a part of it, my wife’s awesome at her job—the social media, the marketing—but getting the packaging where every single package has an illustrated call-out to all these real, natural, whole ingredients that go into our beer, has made it really easy.
Q. Does Wisconsin have a reputation among out-of-state breweries that are looking to sell here? What’s your view on what we like?
A. Beer. (Laughs). In general, this is a beer lover’s market. I don’t know enough on the trend side other than to say it seems like a lot of German heritage is what I perceive as beers like hefes, pilsners, other lagers outpunching their weight here vs. national trends. Everyplace, IPA is going to be the fastest-growing and biggest beer style for many years to come and I’m guessing that’s still true in this market, too.
Q. One major force that’s increasingly shaping how people choose their beer is the drink-local factor. What does Dogfish Head do in markets like Wisconsin, or Washington, or Arizona, where Delaware is really far away?
A. Local is a component of every market in America right now. And every market is in some phase of transition when it comes to local. Markets that matured earlier in the craft beer renaissance are getting further away from prioritizing local to the level of excluding a lot of the national indie craft brands.
Q. Is there a borderline in your view between novelty, something that creates an amazing story, and a gimmick?
A. I think it’s gotta be the liquid first and the compelling differentiation of the story second. They both have to exist in such a competitive marketplace, but if the story’s so compelling and the liquid doesn’t equal the story, it deserves to fail.
Rest assured that if Frank Distributing is getting delivered a new beer from Dogfish, it’s something that we’ve thought through. And not only is the story as compelling as the liquid, but is the story well differentiated enough that we’re not stepping on some other brand’s crotch by copying what someone else has done. If you look at when we’ve come out with our fruit IPA, or our first coffee stout in ’95, or our first fruit-infused Berliner weisse, Festina Peche, almost 14 years ago, we’ve worked really hard to innovate and not follow.
Q. I briefly met you out on the floor of the Great American Beer Festival two years ago, one of what must have been about 5,000 beer bros who gave you a high-five. You looked like you were having the time of your life. What’s it like to be one of two or three national ambassadors of craft beer?
A. That’s kind of for others to figure out. I have dozens of heroes on that floor myself, of brewers who preceded me, like Nick Matt from F.X. Matt Brewing.
For me it’s just an intense moment of, there are few instances when you can thank so many people who are so psyched to make the beer that they love. And to be able to absorb that gratitude on behalf of your 300 co-workers is an amazingly powerful moment, and I never want to take that for granted. I’m always so thankful that I have the opportunity to stand there and thank everyone and give high-fives to everyone until I lose my voice.
‘You don’t have to look far from where we’re sitting enjoying beers to an iconic brand like New Glarus ... or not far down the road at Founders or Bell’s.’ Sam Calagione