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Friday, March 11, 2011

Wes interviews Sam from Dogfish Head (2008)

Roughly three years ago -- long before The Buzz existed -- future correspondent and all-around good guy Wes Eaton put a call in to craft beer ambassador Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head. The resulting interview first appeared in the May, 2008 issue of Wide-Eyed, an arts and music magazine published in California. The interview is reprinted here (with permission) for the benefit of our loyal readers, the overwhelming majority of whom do not live in California and, as a result, probably missed it the first time around.

Editor's Note: Some may question the wisdom in posting a Dogfish interview when so few of their beers are available at Siciliano's (due to complicated distribution issues). To that we say, there is no spoon. Enjoy the interview!

In 1993 Sam Calagione homebrewed his first batch of beer. The craft beer scene at the time was limited and underground; Calagione was about to help change that. He looked around, checked to see which way the mass beer trends were flowing, and decided to swim upstream. No light lagers for Dogfish. Instead, to distinguish his creations, Calagione opted for candied fruits, old-world spices, continuous hopping regiments and parameter-shattering abv’s. Two years after his first homebrew, Calagione opened Dogfish Head Brewings and Eats in Rehobath Beach, Delaware. Back then he brewed ten gallons batches, an output more in line with homebrewers than commercial breweries, and one positively dwarfed by current operations.

In the spring of 2008, Dogfish Head invaded California with a line-up of three big beers: 90 Minute IPA, a continuously hopped Imperial IPA; Midas Touch, a honey- and saffron-flavored, Muscat grape- and barley-based elixir inspired by the ancients; and Palo Santo Marron, a strong Brown Ale aged in massive (and expensive) Paraguayan wooden vats. As evident below, Calagione’s Yankee ingenuity and rugged individualism epitomizes America’s artisan food and craft brewing cultures.

Wes Eaton: Would you give us some back story to your experimentation with non-traditional ingredients with some culinary insight?

Sam Calagione:
Sure. When we opened in 1995 we were the smallest commercial brewery in America. At that time there were 800 US breweries. I researched what I wanted to do, I was just kind of a manically obsessed home brewer and back in my apartment in Manhattan I was creating beers while I was writing my business plan. I was always trying to make beers like nothing that was out there. Then, just as now, the domestic beer landscape was dominated by three breweries: Miller, Coors and Bud, and they’re all essentially making very slight variations of the exact same product: a light lager beer. So I knew from the get-go I had no interest in brewing those kinds of beers. That’s when the concept of off-centered ales for off-centered people came about. Basically, we’re never going to appeal to the majority of people out there, so let’s just have fun and brew for ourselves, and hopefully there’ll be a growing community of hard-core beer folk that want to explore the outer-limit of what beer can be. We opened our restaurant with a tiny, inefficient, ten-gallon brewery, and we had to brew two, three times a day, that small scale allowed me to experiment without too much risk. I’d go into the kitchen of the restaurant and take some coffee or raisins or licorice root and incorporate them into that day’s brew. Our reputation for brewing exotic brews came from those humble beginnings.

Eaton: Talk about the relationship between wine and beer. What do you want people new to this crossroads in alcoholic beverages to understand?

Calagione: Wine culture is further evolved than beer culture in America. The average consumer understands that an amazing bottle of Merlot can justifiably cost three times as much as a crappy bottle. That same consumer is just now beginning to understand that an amazing four-pack of wood-aged, 12% abv beer, fermented with organic brown sugar, as is the case with Palo Santo Marron, can still be a great value at three times the price of a six-pack of generic lager. The West Coast is recognized as the premier wine region in America and the average consumer in that region is more open to the idea of approaching beer with the same respect.

Eaton: How do you think your distinct beers will be accepted here in California?

Calagione: It actually helps us that the wine culture is so evolved on the West Coast because our beers are very wine-like in their flavor profiles, alcohol content and their food compatibility.

Eaton: You’re known to many as a poet, builder, brewer, filmmaker and writer – was brewing the key to the actualization of your passions? How do you define yourself?

Calagione: I’m the brewer first; the rest of the stuff is just hobbies. I mean for me they all kind of augment the making and the selling of beer. I write the books as educational programs and components which teach people how to brew and get comfortable with drinking beers that have non-traditional ingredients. I try to teach people just what Dogfish is, that’s sort of what the first book is about (Brewing Up a Business), and then He Said Beer She Said Wine is all about making wine people comfortable appreciating and understanding good beer in the context of food and beer people understand wine in the context of food.

Eaton: I read Raison D’Etre was designed as a beverage that would be the ultimate complement to a steak dinner. Is food pairing always this important at Dogfish?

Calagione: Yeah. Right from the beginning we knew that we were going to be brewing beers that were a lot closer to wine in alcohol content, complexity and food compatibility. The best way to highlight that was to pay careful attention to what foods we recommended pairing with each of these beers. Since we opened as a restaurant brewery, we also had the ability to feature on our menu the idea that for every great food item there is a perfect beer match. A lot of times, like in the case of the Raison D’Etre, we were actually designing beers backwards from what would be the ideal partner in the food world.

Eaton: Beyond beer, Dogfish distills distinct spirits which stress the definition even of “Extreme Beer.” Are these natural evolutions of continued fermentation exploration or intentional directions for Dogfish?

Calagione: We use our mission statement as a dynamic compass. If you pull out the word “ale” and put in “distilled spirits” it still rings true. We’re not doing what the big distilleries do; we’re following our own path as we do in our brewery. In the case of a distillery product like our Brown Honey Rum, (which is) aged on honey while it sits in oak, which is very unique, it’s perfectly in keeping with our vision. Our distillery is 1/1000th the size of our brewery, but it’s still a fun little project that we think adds vibrancy to what Dogfish Head is all about.

Eaton: Dogfish is also known for its historical and ancient ales like Midas Touch and Chateau Jiahu, talk about these experiences and recipes.

Calagione: Certainly the majority of our recipes come from our own inspiration, we think about which unique ingredients will work in a beer that have never been used before. But we sort of stumbled into being this specialty brewery for ancient beverages, and that’s right up our alley. (Ancient recipe beers) are like liquid time capsules. They allow people to come face-to-face with the history of civilization, not just the history of fermented beverages. In the case of our Chateau Jiahu, it’s got a 9,000 year pedigree and is recognized as the oldest known fermented beverage. This also silences the naysayers about the validity of “extreme brewing” because it shows that at the beginning of civilization people were making really exotic, multi-fermentation sugar source beverages to celebrate special occasions. Therefore, Chateau Jiahu has sake yeast, sake rice, and hawthorn fruit. Midas Touch has honey, grapes and saffron. We’re doing another ancient ale with the oldest known chocolate discovered in Central America. Before humans were eating chocolate they were drinking it as a fermented beverage. The beer (called Theo Broma) therefore has Chilean cocoa nibs, cocoa powder and tree seeds and is coming out in August.

Eaton: There is a culture clash within the brewing and drinking community over the ambiguously termed "Extreme Beers". Talk about your role in formulating these out-of-bounds beers. When you began brewing high gravity, sugar- and spice-infused exotic brews, did you know you were taking part in the next movement of the American Craft Beer Revolution?

Sam Calagione: I don’t think it was anything that conscious. Our motto of off-centered ales for off-centered people wasn’t really derivative of anything of the mid-nineties. Nobody was focused on strong, exotic beers when we started. We were considered sort of side-show freaks and black sheep, like what we were doing was novelty. But again, as beer culture started to evolve and expand, this niche within the greater craft brewing niche became extreme brewing. While we didn’t come up with that term for it, [extreme brewing] was all that Dogfish did since the day we opened. Our brewery was recognized as a pioneer within that niche.

I don’t think there’s that much backlash (against extreme beer.) There are a few isolated brewers who don’t like the term, but at the end of the day it’s not really up to us to give it a name, it’s up to the consumer. It’s sort of an elitist position to rebuff extreme brewing because the people have spoken and they want these kinds of beers. Look at the growth of breweries like Dogfish, Russian River, or Allagash, who brew these exciting and unique beers which people really enjoy. Beer is subjective. No brewer should be so elitist as to determine for people what they should be drinking.

Eaton: Nine years ago the storied “Beer Hunter” Michael Jackson and you spent a day together. Raisin D’Etre, Chicory, Shelter Pale and Immort Ale were already on your menu and a new 30-bbl brew house was being constructed. Talk about the changes you have seen in our beer culture since then and your contribution to this dynamic enclave.

Calagione: In that era, Immort Ale was among the first wood-aged beers and it was [also] exotic, incorporating maple syrup, peat-smoked barley and vanilla beans. Frankly, we could barely give it away. Nobody was willing to pay $13.00 for a six-pack of beer, so we had a real tough time. We started as the smallest brewery, today we’re one of the fastest growing breweries, and I think the 35th biggest brewery in the country out of 1400. While I’m proud of all that growth, what I’m most proud of is that we never discounted or dumbed-down our beers in order to achieve growth. That shows that while we’ve been very lucky to be able to stick to our original mission and achieve this incredible growth, it’s really indicative of how far the average beer consumer’s I.Q., experimentation and interest level has come.

Eaton: As you and Dogfish Head redefine the term “beer”, do you find the conventional terminology frustrating or do you see it as a necessary challenge?

Calagione: Frustrating. Not because of a few people who take shots at extreme beer and want things to be like they were 100 years ago, but because our government is very restrictive in the licensing process. When we go to get a beer label approved or new beer brand that has a non-traditional ingredient they make you go through a million steps. They’ve very subjective on their definitions. For instance, they will not let us call the Theo Broma an ale, even though it’s fermented with ale yeast. Because of all the special ingredients we need to call it a “malt beverage”. That undermines what we’re doing. “Malt beverage” sounds very generic compared to “ale”. The bureaucratic hoops that we have to jump through just to present these unique beers are stifling.

Eaton: What really makes a craft beer craft beer?

Calagione: Three things: craft beer comes from an independent brewery with no ownership from a big brewery and is made by a traditional brewery which uses barley or exotic, more expensive and flavorful sugars and not the cheap rice and corn that the big breweries use. Also it has to come from a small brewery, defined by the Brewer’s Association as less than two million barrels (annual production). The consumer wants to know where their beer is made in the same way that they want to support their local coffee roaster, local baking company and to buy locally. The big breweries are seeing the small craft breweries growth and that that’s where the excitement in the beer industry is. They’re trying to co-opt that growth and in essence act as culture vultures and try to confuse the consumer as to what real craft beer is.

Palo Santo Marron is an example of what Dogfish Head is all about. There’s no precedent for it. All other breweries are aging beers on oak, kind of the go-to wood of the beverage industry for malt whiskey, wine or beer. We do some beers in oak, but we found this really exotic wood from Paraguay. A high-end flooring salesman brought us some samples and we did a test batch and aged some beer on it. It has really high resin content and the alcohol, which acts as a solvent, strips the natural oils from the wood and we found that it imparted this amazing, unparalleled, caramel, vanilla character to the beer. So we went for it, went all out, and built the biggest wooden brewing vessel made in America since before prohibition out of this exotic wood. Each tank that we built cost $110,000. The return on the investment in this tank in measured in decades not even years, but we’re a private company we don’t give a shit. We’re not being held to investors to make more profits every quarter. This is a labor of love. While this is a very expensive project, it’s one that we believe enhances what our company is all about. Will it ever sell as well as 60 Minute I.P.A. or Raison D’Etre? Probably not, but we don’t care; it’s just another beer that we’re excited to drink and we’re glad people are excited to try it as well.

Eaton: I’m excited; I’ll be drinking that one tonight.

Former Siciliano's employee Weston Eaton is currently pursuing a PhD in Sociology at Michigan State University. He lives with his wife and dog in Grand Rapids, MI, where once upon a time Dogfish was not the rarity it is today.

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