Uncorked: Pushing beer’s boundaries at Dogfish Head

Given that Dogfish Head Craft Brewery touts its line of singular beers as “off-centered ales for off-centered people,” you naturally expect its owner, the 39-year-old Sam Calagione, will be a similarly eccentric character. But he’s as down to earth as his beers are out of this world.After earning an English degree from Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania in 1992, Calagione moved to Manhattan to take writing courses at Columbia with an eye toward joining its master of fine arts program. Instead, he discovered craft beer. He fell hard, becoming a home brewer almost overnight.
Calagione apprenticed for a month at Shipyard Brewing in Maine, then opened Delaware’s first microbrewery in 1995. At the time it was the smallest commercial brewery in the nation, with a brew kettle that held just 10 gallons.

Calagione, who grew up in western Massachusetts, also spent time with his family at their summer cabin in Boothbay Harbor, Maine. There’s a jut of land there called Dogfish Head, and that’s where the name of his brewery originated.

“I wanted to give it a name that wasn’t geographically specific,” he explains, “because it was always my dream to sell our strong, exotic beers across America. I also figured no one would be fighting me over the copyright of a name that goofy.”

Calagione has also written three books on beer: “Brewing Up a Business” (Wiley; 2005), “Extreme Brewing” (Quarry Books; 2006) and the recently released “He Said Beer, She Said Wine” (DK; 2008), which he co-wrote with wine expert Marnie Old.

Dogfish Head beers are noted not only for their quality but also for their complexity, and many use uncommon ingredients as well as brewing methods – the Midas Touch Golden Elixir, for example, is inspired by a 2,700-year-old recipe from King Midas’ tomb.

For the first time, Dogfish Head beers – albeit just three of them – are available in Northern California, and each one is more unconventional than the last. The strong, very hoppy 90 Minute India pale ale is 9 percent alcohol by volume with 90 IBUs (International Bitterness Units), because hops are added continuously during a 90-minute boil. The Palo Santo Marron brown ale is aged in Palo Santo wood imported from Paraguay. And the above mentioned Midas Touch is made from white Muscat grapes, saffron and honey.

Calagione was on the West Coast recently introducing himself and his beers to California consumers. We caught up with him at one such event at the Toronado in San Francisco.

Q: What’s the first great beer you remember drinking?

A: I was taking writing courses at Columbia when a pint of Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale got in my way. I had an epiphany and fell in love with good beer. I started home brewing in my apartment in Manhattan with my then boss, the owner of Nacho Mama’s Burritos, a burrito place with a beer-drinking problem.

Q: When did you know you wanted to make beer professionally?

A: After I did my first batch of home brew. I was buying ingredients at the local beer supply store, and I’ve always read voraciously, so I shifted all my reading from fiction into beer literature, beer magazines and beer newspapers and bought everything I could get my hands on.

I quickly recognized, in that era, that this was a nascent but really growing industry, particularly out in California, Colorado, Oregon and Washington (state). And so I said, “Wow, that’d be really cool if I could make my living making beer.”

Q: What do you think of California beers?

A: I love them. I’m great friends with a lot of the brewers here. We do agree to disagree on just how bitter an IPA should be, but I do love California beers. They have a great reputation across the country, and deservedly so.

Q: How much hops is too much?

A: When done deftly, too much is never enough. In other words, extremely hoppy beers, if they’re balanced and well crafted, can work regardless of how much hops you add. But at the end of the day, any monkey can add five wheelbarrows of hops to one barrel of beer and it will be crushingly bitter. Maybe some sadomasochist freak will like that experience, but the majority of hard-core beer people do want complexity, not just harsh bitterness.

Q: How do you think beer should be paired with food?

A: Basically, in the book (“He Said Beer, She Said Wine,” co-written with Marnie Old), I start by saying that the easiest analogy to make to the wine world is ales are more like red wines. They’re more complex and fruity and robust. Lagers are more like white wines. They’re more mellow and refined. In that context, ales tend to pair better with food where red wines would, i.e., meats and rich grilled dishes. Lagers in general work better where white wine would – chicken, lighter fish dishes, vegetarian dishes and things like that.

We also give some objective guidelines on using your palate and thinking about how your senses interact with the food and beverages. At the end of the day, it’s a subjective thing. Different people like different beers and wines. We just wanted to give people some information so they could start trusting their own palates.

Q: Which of your own beers do you think turned out far better than your expected?

A: Midas Touch, which is one we’re introducing to the California market. It has white Muscat grapes in it, and saffron and honey. It’s based on a 2,700-year-old recipe that was found in King Midas’ tomb. When the molecular archaeologist told me what was in it, and asked me to make a modern version of it, I initially thought, “This is going to taste weird.” But it turned out to be a great bridge between the worlds of beer and wine. It’s very complex, sweeter and fruity, and it’s a wonderful food beer, particularly with spicy dishes.

Q: What can you tell us about King Midas that we don’t already know?

A: The legend is that he was buried with all this gold, but in reality all that was in his tomb was petrified lamb stew and the remains of this drink. I think that’s indicative that he was a man who had his priorities right. Gold isn’t going to give you sustenance on your journey from this world to the afterworld, but great beer can do that.

Q: How did you become interested in ancient brewing techniques?

A: From the day we opened, our motto has been “off-centered ales for off-centered people.” So we were always, right out of the gate, brewing with nontraditional ingredients. I started reading about how, historically, hops hadn’t been cultivated until many centuries after commercial brewing began. And I was looking into some of the things that people had been using before they were using hops – different sugar sources, things like that.

We were well down the path of experimenting when we got a call from the University of Pennsylvania archaeology department. They have one of the world’s foremost experts, Patrick McGovern, on ancient beverages. He and I struck up a friendship that started with the Midas Touch and has led to a series of beers that we’ve been brewing that are based on the molecular evidence found in ancient tombs around the world.

Q: If you had a really great bottle of beer, with whom would you want to share it?

A: I just made a long pilgrimage to City Lights bookstore, so I’d probably right now say if I could have a beer with Kerouac, I think that would be pretty cool.

Q: What do you think is beer’s


A: It’s becoming revealed more and more every day – that beer has more complexity and diversity than wine just by virtue of the fact that it’s a four-ingredient beverage instead of a one-ingredient beverage. Just by virtue of the number of the ingredients – four instead of one – beer is bound to be more complex.

Q: Having worked for several years now with wine expert Marnie Old and having just published a book with her, what do you really think about the beer versus wine debate?

A: We definitely approach that subject with some tongue-in-cheek, war-of-the-sexes light-heartedness. But to be perfectly honest, I love drinking wine on occasion, particularly California and Oregon Pinot Noirs, so you’re outing me as a cross-drinker.

Q: Where is the future of brewing going?

A: There’s a whole new generation of brewers – like myself, and Vinnie Cilurzo, Tomme Arthur, Rob Tod and Adam Avery – who have worked hard to get the consumer to follow the brewer’s lead and not be obsessed with styles and instead be obsessed with flavor and diversity.

I see things continuing to move outside of traditional style structures and I see the spirit of experimental brewing captivating small brewing cultures beyond our borders, whether you’re talking about Dieu du Ciel up in Montreal, Le Baladin in Italy, or Norrebro in Denmark. All of these breweries are now looking toward American brewing culture and saying, “You know what? That’s so freeing, to not have work in that structure.” They’re starting to change their own much more historically oppressive beer cultures and approach things with their own creativity. I think that’s great for the whole world of brewing.

Jay Brooks is a freelance beer writer and beer judge who also publishes the Brookston Beer Bulletin online. E-mail him at wine@sfchronicle.com.