Delaware Becomes a Hub of Elite Craft Breweries

All eyes are on the First State as the art of craft beer making gains popularity internationally.

Last Summer, Time magazine posted a blip of an article to its website and slapped on a headline that read: You’ll Never Guess Where the Nation’s Best Craft Beer Is Brewed. The answer may have been surprising to the rest of the nation. But it was no revelation to us. In the midst of a nationwide craft-beer revolution, tiny Delaware is growing into a powerhouse. Led by the pioneers at Dogfish Head, the state’s 10 breweries (with more on the way) have catapulted the state toward the top of per-capita national rankings in craft-beer production, consumption and economic impact, according to the Brewers Association.

Dogfish remains Delaware’s largest and most recognizable brand, but they’re not alone. Brewers at Iron Hill, Stewart’s, Fordham, Dominion, 16 Mile and others, are also attracting international attention and acclaim, along with a wave of beer-centric bars, taverns, gastropubs, festivals and celebrations. “I’m excited that there are so many other small, vibrant craft brewers in Delaware,” says Dogfish founder Sam Calagione. “It’s been a rising tide, and, collectively, we’re so much stronger than we are individually. We’re marginalized compared to the international conglomerates that dominate our market, so I look at my fellow Delaware craft brothers as allies rather than enemies.”

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While companies like SAB Miller and Anheuser-Busch InBev still rule the beer market, the craft-beer industry has chipped away at market shares and has sustained double-digit growth in each of the past five years. As of this summer, 3,040 breweries were operating in the U.S., 99 percent of which are small and independent craft breweries. Another 1,929 breweries are in the planning phase. Big Beer’s omnipresence and endless advertising may have nurtured generations of brand loyalty, but the craft-beer movement, especially in Delaware, swims proudly against the grain, celebrating diversity and innovation.

Since opening Dogfish Head in 1995 (the smallest brewery in the country at the time, Calagione likes to point out), he has become one of the nation’s de facto craft-beer ambassadors—the face of a rising movement, where beer is elevated from humble beverage to an art form. Craft-beer acolytes could be considered the Impressionists of their era. In place of the conventional and homogenous assembly-line recipes, they color outside the lines, using creativity, bold or unusual flavors and high-concept artwork on labels. “It’s become an art form,” says Ryan Telle of Dover’s Coastal Brewing, which produces Fordham and Dominion beers. “We’re talking about high-dollar ingredients from all over the world, infusing nuts and barks and berries in there to create different flavors. It’s like gourmet liquid.”

At first, craft brewers were generally rejected by the public. “In 1995, we were considered weirdos and heretics for brewing “non-traditional” beers,” says Calagione, who used the commercial kitchen in his Rehoboth Avenue brewpub to create beers flavored with maple syrup, peaches or pumpkins. “Those early years were really hard for Dogfish Head.” But the company was ahead of its time. Palates adjusted, and beer fans soon acquired a taste for more full-bodied beers made from high-quality ingredients.

photo by kevin flemming

​Brewer Chris Gordon samples a beer at Fordham & Dominion Brewing Company in Dover.

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In 2003, Sam Hobbs began brewing Twin Lakes beers with whole-flower Cascade hops and the mineral-rich water extracted from a deep rock aquifer beneath his family’s historic farm in Greenville. “Once you go from drinking a Bud Light or Coors to a craft beer and you get that sensation, it’s pretty hard to go backwards again,” Hobbs says. “Not that I don’t drink a Bud every once in a while, but once you have the full-flavored taste of a good craft beer, you realize that you’ve just upgraded from a flank steak to a T-bone. The consumer’s taste reflects the craft-beer movement. There’s still a long way to go, but it’s enabled the individual to find a taste that they like.”

Changes to state laws in 1995 ushered a return of commercial brewing to the First State. Dogfish Head and Stewart’s Brewing Company in Bear were the first to begin operations (later joined by the now-defunct Rockford Brewery, Blue Hen Beer Co., John Harvard Brew House and Brandywine Brewing Company). Iron Hill Brewery dropped its flagship brewpub onto Newark’s Main Street in 1997 and played a vital role of introducing a younger generation to craft beers and the art of brewing. Founders Kevin Finn and Mark Edelson wisely gave customers an open look at the onsite brewing apparatus that brought beer making to life, and emitted the wondrous sights and smells of fermenting grains.

Iron Hill’s stalwart focus on experimentation and powerful flavors turned it into a veritable empire, with 11 brew pubs throughout the region and countless medals and trophies from America’s most prestigious festivals. Brewpubs also proved that beer and food could be uplifted together. The beers had complex and robust flavors that complemented food in interesting ways, opening up pairing possibilities beyond just pizza and wings. Whether it was scallops and risotto at Iron Hill or steak bahn mi at Stewart’s, standards for bar food evolved along with the beer. The addition of “nano-brewing” operations at Argilla brewing Co. in Pike Creek and Pizza By Elizabeths in Greenville added another positive to Delaware’s brewing lore. As Delaware’s homegrown beer industry continued to ascend, so, too, did the popularity of home brewing.

In 1997, Delaware lawmakers once again dusted off the post-Prohibition law books and proclaimed amateur beer making legal throughout the state. Even at its most esoteric or wasabi-infused, beer remains at its core hearty, approachable stuff, well within the reach of anyone who owns a stove. “I think it’s pretty simple. I think that craft beer is a flavor expedition,” says Ron Price, owner of Warlock Brewing Company in Smyrna and the lone East Coast representative on the American Homebrewers Association’s governing committee. “Why would you drink a lifeless, yellow, fizzy beer when you can make something hat tastes like a Yards IPA or Dogfish 60 Minute IPA. There’s so much more out there with so much more flavor. You get more bang for your buck in flavor, color, taste, aroma and mouth feel.”

photo by kevin flemming

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​Brett McCrea hoses down freshly filled kegs at 16 Mile Brewery in Georgetown.

Invigorated interest in craft beer had a domino effect throughout the state, and the spirit of the movement permeated into other areas of retail, service and entertainment industries. Festivals devoted to craft beer are held in every corner of the state—from the Brandywine Zoo to Dover Downs to Historic Odessa to the Cape May-Lewes Ferry. In 2010, the state tourism office acknowledged the growing trend and unveiled the Delaware Wine and Ale Trail, which encouraged tourists and locals alike to visit each of the state’s breweries and vineyards to collect prizes. The MidAtlantic Wine + Food Festival appeared in 2013, and quickly folded beer-focused events into its high-dollar schedule. In 2009, Cindy Small and her team at the Kent County Tourism office curated the first Delaware Wine and Beer Festival in Dover. In five years, she’s seen attendance swell from around 1,000 to roughly 3,000. The festival has added a popular home-brewing contest and spun off into a “Good Libations” brewery tour. “I can’t tell you how important and how big it’s gotten for our area and our state,” Small says. “You think about a place like Kent County; we’re not the beaches, we don’t have the world-class museums. We’re rural. What we did was take our best assets and put those forward, and it’s working for us.”

Crafter brewers had crashed the party by applying culinary concepts to beer-making, and the time had come to return the favor. A second wave of beer-centric restaurants (which arrived with a flashy new name: gastropubs) emerged as the dominant  trend in Delaware dining, including places like Ulysses Gastropub, Two Stones Pub, Restaurant 55, Chelsea Tavern, Pickled Pig Pub and 16 Mile Taphouse. Even the state’s most hallowed halls of wine appreciation—like Newark’s Caffé Gelato and Wilmington’s Domaine Hudson—started incorporating craft-beer dinners into the syllabus. As demand grew, new distribution channels opened the floodgates for revered microbreweries from elsewhere in the country.

In the last few years, Delaware began welcoming beers from New Belgium, Oscar Blues and Lagunitas into its bars and taprooms. “I think Delaware was bursting at the seams for something that everyone else has already had,” says Two Stones owner Michael Stiglitz. “These big cities have been getting craft beers for years while Delaware was starved. Since Delaware is finally getting recognized as a great craft-beer center, I think we’re going to have a few years of [seeing] new distributors and outside breweries, especially stuff from the West Coast. We’ll absorb new trends, new styles, new packaging. It’s a great time in Delaware to sit back and watch all this stuff flow in.”

Craft beer has woven itself firmly into Delaware’s identity, and is showing little signs of slowing down. Beer production has increased inside local breweries large and small, and a new crop of beer makers has arisen in all three counties. “I think it’s a great thing,” says Lori Clough, who opened 3rd Wave Brewing in 2012. “People are being exposed to way more different beers now than they were 10 years ago. It’s all about educating people, getting them to try new things, showing that beer can have aroma and body to it when it’s not just yellow water. And people are loving it. It’s just a new, exciting thing to jump into.”

Calagione points to Delaware’s history of scrappy companies like DuPont and Gore as an indicator for the growth of local brewers. “The rise in the craft-brewing movement is really about tiny, innovative manufacturing companies,” he says. “There’s a sense of pride about that in Delaware when it comes to local products and companies. “All signs show light at the end of the tunnel for quality craft beer. No signs yet that demand is ebbing from beer lovers. And there’s a growing number of consumers who want to support craft beer.” You’ll never guess where they live.

Check out the links below for an even closer look at how Delaware is making its mark in craft beer history.

Local Beers You Must Try

The Growth of Growlers

The New Kids

Pairing Beer With Food


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