The question must be asked of the governor, because it was asked of everyone interviewed for this story:
What is your favorite Dogfish Head brew?
“Ordinarily, I’d say the 90 Minute IPA,” says Jack Markell, who is, at this moment, mixing with several others in the back of the crowded dining room at Dogfish Head Brewings & Eats. “It’s just a great tasting ale that’s really alive. But I have to say”—he regards a snifter of Dogfish Head’s latest creation—”I really like this one, too.”
The governor is expansive this afternoon, laughing and joking, partly because it’s his nature, and partly because, truth be told, drinking beer at lunchtime isn’t usually official state business.
But today is different. Dogfish Head has done something special: It has united local government officials, educators, historians, farmers and others in the creation of an all-Delaware beer, and that collaboration needs to be celebrated.
Yet this all-Delaware beer is an even bigger deal than most might realize, because it was made in a way that is unique in all of modern commercial brewing—it was brewed with a wild yeast. Though that native wild yeast makes Delaware Native Ale a source of hometown pride, it also makes it a kind of statement.
Dogfish Head, one of the most successful craft breweries in the country, is known for making statements, if only by virtue of its status in the beer world. That position is born of its compulsion to test crazy ideas, of a tempered promiscuity for partnering with kindred spirits on interesting projects, and of an evangelist’s enthusiasm for promoting beer as something more interesting and satisfying than the industrial products we’ve been conditioned to accept as, well, beer.
Says brewery founder and owner Sam Calagione, the statement Delaware Native Ale makes is this: “With the meltdown on Wall Street and the implosion in Detroit, this is just a bunch of people saying, ‘Let’s do something.’” In the current economic and political climate, an idea so basic seems revolutionary.
So the governor, standing on a low riser in the brewpub, reads a proclamation declaring Kloeckera apiculata the state’s honorary yeast, then he and Calagione, a quiet revolutionary in the brewing industry, link arms like a couple of grown up frat brothers at a reunion and quaff a bit of Delaware Native Ale as the crowd applauds.
Because bold statements aside, everyone thinks the beer tastes really good.
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Here’s the back story:
Sam is tired of the lack of cooperation in solving the nation’s financial crisis and creating the Main Street businesses the government claims will save our economy. So Sam, head of a Main Street business—albeit of a different stripe—decides to pull together local entities on Delaware Native Ale. Dogfish Head could procure three of the four main ingredients—water, barley and hops—locally, but there was no known native brewing yeast, so it had to find one.
Before Dogfish Head, no modern commercial brewery, as far as anyone knows, had ever made a beer with wild yeast, according to quality tech Katrinka Housley, who manages the 30-plus varieties used at Dogfish Head. Of the ingredients in beer, yeast, the white haze you see on grapes and other plants, is the X factor in the flavor. Of the hundreds of known yeasts, a fraction of all varieties, a few dozen well understood types are common in beer making.
Irish ale yeast softens Irish stout. Thames Valley ale yeast is often used in bitter-style British brews. So if one wants to make a beer that tastes like Delaware, he needs an indigenous yeast. Inspired by a recent adventure in collecting a wild yeast in Egypt, Sam decides he’s going to try to harvest one here.
He emails his idea to Markell, who thinks it sounds cool, so he kicks it over to DEDO secretary Alan Levin, who also thinks it’s pretty neat, then he sends it to Secretary of Agriculture Ed Kee, who likes the idea, too, so he reaches out to his colleague Tom Evans at the UD Agricultural Extension, a big Dogfish aficionado, who tells associate Nancy Gregory, who thinks the project sounds fun, so she helps collect yeasts from peach skins at Bobby Fifer’s orchard in Wyoming, then isolates a few strains that are likely to produce a good flavor while Jason Beale and his colleagues at historic Abbott’s Mill grind the barley—which is the first time Abbott’s has actually milled anything in nearly five decades, and everyone there thinks that’s super cool—as the Delaware Biotechnology Institute identifies the ordained yeast by its DNA (as in Delaware Native Ale) while the brewmasters perfect a recipe so they can get a good batch made in time for the big debut event.
It’s the kind of effort, collaboration, creativity, pace and success that has made Sam and his self-described cast of “freaks and weirdos” legends in the beer world.
Brewing yeast is a bit of a crap shoot. All anyone knows about an untested variety is that it will eat sugars to create alcohol and carbonation during fermentation. They don’t know how it will affect the flavor of a beer until they try it.
To illustrate the point, a few months before the revolution in Cairo, Sam and Dogfish Head brewmaster Floris Delée were in Egypt, taping an episode of the Discovery Channel series “Brew Masters.” This particular episode is all about yeast.
That Sam should star in a TV series is, by now, no surprise. Since a poorly executed publicity event almost 15 years ago, when Dogfish Head was the smallest commercial brewery in the country, the place has become a media fave. It started when Sam rowed the first beer “exported” from Delaware across the bay to Cape May, N.J.—beer he made by hand delivered in a boat he made by hand. Practically no one showed up for his landing, except, as fate would have it, a reporter for a beer publication.
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That writer’s favorable article led to more attention from the beer press, which led to coverage in major papers and consumer magazines, especially business titles. Mags like Esquire and Men’s Journal quickly became big boosters of Dogfish Head brews in annual best-beers-in-America type surveys. Even wine magazines—wine magazines!—have shown a peculiar fascination with Dogfish Head beers because of their novelty and complexity.
Sam himself has written three books about brew and business, which further raised Dogfish Head’s profile and led to Sam making quite a few appearances on popular TV programs like “The Today Show.”
When Discovery saw Dogfish Head’s own house-made videos on youtube.com, it found a new show.
So there are Sam and Floris on “Brew Masters,” researching ingredients to re-create a beer from the oldest known depiction of brewing in the world, carved as hieroglyphs on the wall of a king’s 4,000-year-old tomb. The research means finding a yeast like one the ancients would have used. So Sam and Floris trap fruit flies in petri dishes in a grove of date palms, send the hitch-hiking yeasts to a lab in Belgium to be identified, then culture the best in the yeast management lab at their brewery in Milton.
As Sam and Floris browse spice markets in Egypt, the crew at the brewery struggles to save a batch of Chateau Jiahu. Chateau Jiahu is based on the oldest of known recipes for a fermented beverage, one believed to go back 9,000 years. Dogfish produces a limited quantity once a year, so anticipation of its release is high among fans. Yet the yeast is “stuck”—fermentation has stopped—and the most heroic of efforts fail to save it. A crestfallen crew sends what would be $50,000 to $70,000 in sold product down the drain.
A short time later, Sam and Floris, home from their travels, are in the small test brewery at the Dogfish Head brewpub in Rehoboth, where they, with brewmaster Bryan Selders and head brewer Jesse Prall, start experimenting with ingredients from Egypt: a grain known as emmer wheat, a palm fruit called dom, chamomile, other spices and loaves of bread that Prall baked in an outdoor oven, just like the ancients would have done.
There is no small amount of pressure to get things right. The crew is scheduled to unveil the result in three weeks during a big event in New York City, where Dogfish had recently partnered with celebrity chef Mario Batali in the then-soon-to-open rooftop brewpub, Birreria, at Batali’s famed Eataly restaurant. It takes eight days to propagate enough yeast, which means the brewers really have less than two weeks to resurrect a mummy beer.
So when they arrive in New York at the appointed hour, no one—no one—has tasted the result. Before an eager audience of beer lovers and archaeology buffs, the Dogfish Head crew is outwardly merry, inwardly tentative. “If we screw this up,” Sam says in an aside, “it will be all over the papers tomorrow.”
But they don’t screw it up. In fact, the crowd is delighted, pronouncing the brew “delicious,” “super hearty” and “smooth.” One taster even noted of the yeast, “I could smell it.”
If you’ve sensed by now that Dogfish Head does things differently, that it makes anything but your basic industrial light lager, you are correct, but there’s more to it than that. Dogfish does things no other commercial brewery does, period. It created “continuous hopping” while the grains boil to strengthen the hops flavor. It uses two to four times more grain in brewing, which results in Dogfish Head making more beers over 10 percent alcohol by volume than any brewer in the world. (That’s damned strong beer.) And it makes beers that start with a story.
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While explaining to his young daughter Grier and son Sammy how all the land in the world was once one mass, he hatched the idea for a beer that included an ingredient from every continent. Pangaea, released once a year, includes water from Antarctica. The name of Punkin’ Ale, flavored with pumpkin and pie spices, is a nod to the great Sussex tradition we know as Punkin’ Chunkin. When Sam heard a biomolecular archaeologist speak at UPenn about a recipe for a beer-like beverage found in a tomb believed to be that of the mythical king Midas, he decided to make it. When Midas Touch, a dry ale with notes of honey and melon, hit the market, it showed adventurous drinkers that beer could be every bit as complex as wine, which fit right in with Sam’s mission of changing people’s minds about what beer can be.
Inspiration for Dogfish Head brews comes from every quarter, and everyone, employee or consumer, is welcome to contribute ideas. Prall concocted Son’s Love at the pub when his boy was born two years ago. Mariah Calagione, Dogfish Head’s vice president and Sam’s wife, daydreamed the idea for Namaste after yoga class.
Dogfish is also known for the great lengths it will go to to find unusual ingredients. Sometimes that means a 30-mile drive to Wyoming for peaches and berries for its seasonal ales or a 15-minute drive to Lewes Bake Shoppe for coffee beans to use in its Chickory Stout. Sometimes that means journeys to the selva of Paraguay to harvest Palo Santo trees to build a special wooden tank to flavor its Palo Santo Marron. Sam makes two to three trips to far-flung places a year in search of ingredients and ideas.
That’s not to mention the famous collaborations, with both external partners—ethically kindred spirits—and within the company. Inside, Housley got to build her own yeast management lab, Ryan Mazur got to build his own tasting lab, and brewmaster Tim Hawn, fresh from Pabst six months ago, got to create his own beer during his first week at Dogfish Head.
Externally, Dogfish Head has joined with other craft breweries to create unique beers. They include Golden Revolution with Herold Brewery in Prague in 2006, Old Odense Ale with Anders Kissmeyer from Norrebro Bryghus Brewery in Copenhagen in 2007, Portamarillo with Epic brewing of New Zealand last year and, closer to home, Saison du Buff with Victory Brewing Company of Downington, Pa., and another brewery, also last year. After Sam made a presentation about business and marketing to the gang at Google recently, the two created a limited edition brew for its employees. URKontinent (named for the landmass that existed before Pangaea) was a Belgian dubbel that incorporated input from hundreds of Google employees around the world. What’s next—Mark Zuckerbrew?
Collaborations extend past beer. Clothing designer Billy Reid recently released two T-shirt designs painted by Sam. Dogfish has hooked up with Patagonia, long known for its pioneering approach to business and life, to produce high-tech outerwear. And distinctive original artists have designed Dogfish Head labels, such as Jon Langford, a member of alt-band Mekons (a Calagione fave), who designed the labels for four limited-release brews, and rock poster artist Tara McPherson, who did the labels for the brew Fort and Chateau Jiahu. That’s not to mention labels painted by creative Dogfish Head employees, who count a fair number of music geeks among their ranks.
The music geekdom has led to some of Dogfish Head’s most notable collaborations. With Sony Legacy Records, Dogfish Head produced Bitches Brew to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the seminal Miles Davis album; Hellhound on My Ale, to commemorate the 100th birthday of blues man Robert Johnson; and, just a few weeks ago, Faithfull to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Pearl Jam’s debut record.
All the collaborations are quintessential expressions of Dogfish Head’s philosophy of beer, business, story and creative expression. Sam was listening to “Bitches Brew” when he made his first batch of homebrew. The beer celebrates African roots by using gesho root, brown sugar from Mauritius and Ethiopian honey so raw, it still included bits of bee. (Gross? Not so much. The Dogfish Head team has been known to chew mint leaves or blue corn for some experiments—picture medieval Japanese virgins masticating rice for sake—which has been known to freak out the consumers a little, until they taste the result.)
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All of this collaboration, globe trotting and derring-do have made Dogfish Head the 11th largest craft brewery of the 1,500 breweries in the country today—up from the smallest brewery in 1995. It has won countless awards. It has been recognized by the U.S. Small Business Association for job creation, and it has become a poster child for economic development in Delaware. Levin has been known to try to seal a deal with Dogfish Head brews.
It may seem bizarre to talk about a corporate culture at Dogfish Head. Especially in Delaware, where the local economy had for decades been underpinned by places like Bank of America and DuPont, big employers that epitomize the meaning of “corporate” and the culture of conformity the word often implies. Small businesses like Dogfish Head represent a new opportunity for economic growth. Yet Dogfish Head is a corporation, 141 workers strong, and it has a palpable culture—one of non-conformity and fun. Requisite beer tasting for quality control explains part of the good vibe, though what matters most is that the culture shines through in the flavor.
Those flavors have made Dogfish Head so popular, it will reach sales of $56 million for the year. Even the 142,000 barrels of beer it will brew—4.4 million gallons—isn’t enough to meet the demand. Having gladly assumed the mantle of David in an industry of Goliaths, Dogfish has achieved the sort of success that drives many entrepreneurs to play it safe, lapse into formula, join an establishment that makes them feel safe and secure, to, in a word, sell their souls to protect profits.
Yet after a few years of 40 percent annual growth—during a recession, no less—Dogfish Head has won the luxury of opting to scale back. The goal is not to maintain revenue but to maintain quality, to serve its devotees well, to keep the creativity flowing and to remain an independent, family-owned business. This is a place where “employee buy-in” truly means something (especially since Sam, vehemently averse to top-down management, insists that members of the “super-talented” crew are not his employees but his co-workers) and where “stakeholders”—all those co-workers, dozens of collaborators and thousands of beer lovers—really do have a stake in something.
So in the great big world of beer, Delaware Native Ale might not seem like such a big deal. Except, to Dogfish Head, which is huge in the world of craft beer, it is a very big deal, indeed.
“This project reeks in every way of the terroir of the state,” Sam says.
It’s open season on Kloeckera apiculata. Any brewer here is free to use it. But beyond that, Sam wants to share his knowledge about yeast collection so that brewers across the country might harvest their own. That would make American craft brews as regionally diverse and interesting as wine or Scotch whiskey. And—who knows?—KA-1 may become as famous a brewing yeast as Ardennes and Nottingham.
But let’s not get ahead of things. All that really matters right here and now is that those Delawareans who love beer have their own, a beautiful brew the color of hay, with a subtle hops flavor balanced by hints of local peach and pear. It is the essence of the state. You’ll like it a lot.
And if you have a taste for doing things differently, you’ll love it.