High Spirits: Dogfish Head Brewery
Our look behind the scenes at the company THAT BREWS “off-centered ales for off-centered people”
Dogfish Head’s slogan, “off-centered ales for off-centered people,” was inspired by a longer Ralph Waldo Emerson quote, although most of the 100,000 annual visitors to the brewery in Milton, Del., might be more familiar with Dogfish Head beer than the transcendental writer whose words grace the brewery’s walls.
Proprietor Sam Calagione is an artist at heart, albeit one who traded the craft of writing for the craft of beer brewing during his graduate school days, and Dogfish Head is, if nothing else, a collection of stories.
There’s the story of how Calagione fell in love with Sierra Nevada and Chamay Red during his time at Columbia University, a story that, when traced forward twenty-plus years, results in that same graduate student now owning the 13th largest craft brewery in the United States, a brewery that produces more than 300,000 barrels annually and brings millions in revenue to Delaware’s coast.
Perhaps the most important detail of that story is the spur-of-the-moment decision Calagione made to toss a handful of bodega-bought cherries into the inaugural batch of beer he had brewing in his kitchen. Hence, a cherry pale ale, and a craft brewer, were born.
The brewers at Dogfish Head today use a similar, if more refined, process than the original one Calagione developed in the early 1990s. In many ways, the brewers are also chefs, and not just because the brand now offers a walk-up window of beer-infused menu offerings at the Milton location as well as the Chesapeake & Maine and more casual Brewings & Eats restaurants in Rehoboth.
Each beer, whether it is a classic 60- or 90-minute IPA, a fan favorite such as Namaste or Punkin Ale, or a rarer blend, is produced not only from a precise scientific method that sends batches crisscrossing the sprawling compound in an intricate network of shiny steel tubes, but also from a diverse combination of ingredients.
Dogfish Head beers have included such ingredients as peppercorns, blackened Persian limes, Paraguayan palo santo wood, cucumbers, chili oils, and cinnamon chips. The company encourages visitors to actively participate in the research and development process and frequently partners with local orchards, academic institutions, and celebrity artists and musicians to develop specialty blends that quickly become classics.
One way in which Dogfish Head has developed its distinctive brewing tradition is by proudly disregarding the German purity law known as Reinheitsgebot, a tradition dating back to the 1500s that states only four ingredients can be used in beer — yeast, water, barley, and hops.
Instead, Dogfish Head derives inspiration from surprising sources, including traces of Muscat grapes, saffron and honey found in King Midas’ tomb, brought to life by biomolecular archaeologist Pat McGovern and infused into Midas Touch. Other recipes were recreated from ancient pottery shards unearthed in northern China, which resulted in Chateau Jiahu. The sea salt found in SeaQuench Ale is a chemical replica of salt found in the Chesapeake Bay and on the coast of Maine, a nod to the families of both Calagione and his wife, Marcia.
The seasonal, or “sessionable,” in Dogfish Head lingo, Pennsylvania Tuxedo ale takes flavor from spruce gathered from forests in — where else? — Pennsylvania and around the corner in Georgetown, Delaware. Most recently, the brewery has turned its attention to spirits and is producing rums, wines, gins and soon-to-be launched whiskeys and cocktails.
These stories and rewritten rules have launched Dogfish Head to the top ranks of the craft beer industry. In the main, spotless brewing room, a line of bottles advertises each beer Dogfish Head has produced in its 23 years. That same room contains both the home-rigged brewing device Calagione used to create his first IPA and today’s 200-barrel vats.
The visual message couldn’t be clearer. Sometimes, a great product comes from an individual willing to take a risk. For Dogfish Head, this means borrowing from a chef’s toolkit to brew beer and developing a product line accessible to beer experts and novices alike. About 99 percent of brewers are good guys, paraphrases Tour & Tasting Room Manager Matt Fetherston. Beyond excelling in the production of beers and spirits, Dogfish Head employees promote a community atmosphere to ensure the brewery is at the top of that 99 percent.