Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to clarify Dogfish Head’s appearance in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.
As Sam Calagione makes his rounds at Dogfish Head Craft Brewery in Milton, employees and guests take a moment to say hello or smile. Dressed casually in slacks and sandals, a SeaQuench Ale in hand, the brewery’s founder and CEO gives the impression that he’s the beer connoisseur you’ve been looking for. But Calagione is more than that. To Delawareans, he’s the leader of a craft beer movement that has taken over the state, with over 20 breweries popping up since the mid-1990s.
On this busy afternoon in September, Calagione strolls around the brewery’s signature Tasting Room, nodding and striking up conversations with regulars. As the CEO leaves the tasting room and enters the bowels of the brewery itself, he points out what each section does, all the while nodding and chatting with brew masters and co-workers. One area holds wooden barrels for aging specialty beers, while another hosts production for its distilled products. On the canning line, beer flows into containers on its way to thirsty consumers.
When Dogfish opened in the summer of ’95, it was the smallest craft brewery in the country, focusing on creating brews made with culinary ingredients like notes of fruits, citrus and other items that before weren’t commonly found in beer. This helped the brewery’s beer pair well with food, leading to their restaurant/brewery concept. Dogfish Head was exploring uncharted territory in the beer market.
Today the operation has grown into a top-20 craft brewery, winning numerous awards that include Wine Enthusiast’s 2015 Brewery of the Year and the 2017 James Beard Foundation Award for Outstanding Wine, Spirits, or Beer Professional. Its beer can be found in more than 40 states and Washington, D.C.
Dogfish Head is also now on the storage shelves of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. The brewery’s original stainless-steel boil kettle and vintage vibrating electric football game are now a part of the museum’s permeant collection. (Calagione purchased the toy at a local thrift store and, with a few adjustments, used its vibrations to shake hops gently and continuously over the kettle into his beer, according to Smithsonian Magazine. That beer became 60 Minute IPA, referencing the 60 minutes of continuous hopping.)
From those humble beginnings, the company has grown into an enterprise comprising 400 workers and multiple locations bearing its name, including Dogfish Head Brewings & Eats, a brewpub and distillery; the seafood restaurant Chesapeake & Maine; the beer-themed Dogfish Inn; and Dogfish Head Craft Brewery, which includes the Tasting Room & Kitchen.
Since its inception, Dogfish Head has supported the Independent Craft Brewing Seal, the marker for independently owned American craft breweries. In May 2019, however, Dogfish Head fans were concerned about the brewery’s indie status when Calagione made an announcement alongside the Boston Beer Company, the parent company behind Samuel Adams: The two were merging. According to the companies’ annoucement, the cash-and-stock transaction, valued at $300 million, brings two craft-beer leaders together while allowing the newly merged company to keep the Independent Craft title.
Boston Beer is credited for helping to launch the craft-beer industry after it brewed its first batch of Samuel Adams Boston Lager in 1984. To date, Sam Adams continues to win more awards that any craft brewery in the world. In addition to its iconic Sam Adams beer, the company now offers other national brands, including Angry Orchard hard cider, Truly Hard Seltzer and Twisted Tea.
Fans of the Delaware brewery responded to the merger announcement with mixed reviews. Would Dogfish stay in Delaware? Would Calagione continue to be at the helm? And would the beer continue to follow the same mission it always has?
For Calagione, the answer to all of this is yes, and more. Joining forces with Boston Beer will allow the company to see 25 percent growth in 2020, as opposed to the 2 percent growth they’d see independently, he says.
“We as a joint company are ready to invest significant dollars in our Delaware facilities, more than we would have in 2020, [more] than we would have planned to spend if we stayed mom-and-pop,” Calagione explains.
Calagione thought he’d be a writer. “I love creative writing and storytelling,” he says.
The brewer grew up in Massachusetts, while his wife, Mariah, is from Milford. The two met and began dating while students at private Northfield Mount Hermon School in Gill, Massachusetts, and then went on to attend separate colleges. However, the pair would stay in the Rehoboth Beach area during college summer breaks, renting beach houses with friends and waiting tables at local restaurants.
After college, Sam and Mariah moved to New York City. He started working at a first-generation beer bar while taking writing classes, set on becoming a novelist or professor.
However, that plan changed when Calagione decided to put aside his love of storytelling for something else: brewing beer. By the 1990s, craft breweries were popping up on both coasts. Standing out in the crowd of new brewers was difficult as most were brewing traditional European beers with local interpretations.
Calagione, in his early 20s by then, saw an opportunity to rebel. Instead of brewing the typical pale ale and pilsner, he focused on blending culinary ingredients into beers. That niche is what Calagione describes as finding “white space” in a burgeoning industry. It’s also why, when the brewery opened in its original Rehoboth Beach location, it included dining.
“I knew I wanted to open a brewery and a restaurant,” he explains. “I knew I wanted to do it in a food-centric town and Rehoboth was sort of ahead of those sorts of local, interesting, creative restaurants.”
Calagione saw plenty of people traveling from nearby cities like Philadelphia, New York and Washington, D.C., to Rehoboth. He hoped his beer and wood-fired, rustic food would find an enthusiastic audience among the visitors to coastal Delaware, as well as the locals.
It’s fairly safe to say it worked.
“We couldn’t have made it where we are today without the support of the local Delaware community,” Calagione says.
When Dogfish opened in 1995, there were about 600 breweries in the U.S. and Dogfish was the smallest. In fewer than three decades, the number of breweries in America has skyrocketed to more than 7,000 in 2018, according to the Brewers Association trade group. Dogfish is no longer the smallest, and now, as other breweries add culinary ingredients to their offerings, Dogfish’s brewers are working even harder to create new, stand-out products.
“I would say the pendulum has really shifted and there are thousands of craft breweries making beers with culinary ingredients,” Calagione says. He doesn’t see the trend as a negative but rather as a validation that the concept remains exciting.
In fact, he and his team of brewers have chosen to embrace competition by expanding into new markets. They’ve recently found success with pioneering active lifestyle—brewer code for “light”— craft beers with fewer calories but high flavor profiles.
Starting with Namaste White, which Dogfish has been brewing for well over a decade, the brewers added SeaQuench Ale, SuperEIGHT and Slightly Mighty.
“Those are four very unique, active-lifestyle beers that have really captivated a younger, millennial audience that’s into having an active lifestyle, wellness and integrity of all-natural ingredients,” he says.
This kind of forward thinking also helps pave the way for other Delaware brewers, says Kim Willson, executive director of the Delaware Brewers Guild (DBG), who calls Calagione the “brewers success story.”
The DBG is a nonprofit that works to promote and protect the state’s craft breweries, mostly by supporting legislation to make Delaware a brewer-friendly state, she explains.
Calagione was a founding member of DBG, and Willson says he’s still involved today. Dogfish is statewide leader, she says, with younger brewers looking to Calagione for guidance, leadership and inspiration.
While Willson can’t predict the future, she sees the Dogfish-Boston Beer merger as something that will allow the state’s beer business to continue to grow. In addition, it will likely benefit Sussex County with added employment and tourism draws.
For Calagione, entering into the merger with Boston Beer can be boiled down to one word: Growth.
Both Sam and Mariah say joining with Boston Beer opens up new avenues to grow the brand and offers more opportunities for their co-workers. Plus, with different product profiles, the two brands aren’t fighting for the same taste buds, Sam explains. While Dogfish works with IPAs, sours and distilled liquors, Boston Beer excels in lagers, tonics, ciders and alcoholic teas.
“We don’t compete with our main products. They’re actually very complementary,” he explains.
Calagione says he believes the merger will benefit his employees as they transition from a hyper local business model to a national brand model, and it will allow for more local investment and donations to nonprofits through their foundation, Beer and Benevolence.
The foundation works to give back to Delaware communities. Already, the foundation works with over 200 non-profits each year, according to Dogfish’s website.
But even as Dogfish grows, Calagione promises its core mission will stay the same.
“We’re going to continue to have fun,” he says.