All About Beer Magazine - Volume 20, Issue 4
September 1, 1999 By

The young woman with whom I had dinner was envious. “You are spending the whole day with Sam Calagione. Tomorrow!? He’s the Robert De Niro of brewers!” She told me that he had not only the good looks of a movie star but also the sensitivity of a poet. He even took Walt Whitman to bed with him. I think she meant a book by the laureate, though I am certain she had no first hand knowledge of this.

Outside the fancy hotel where a client had accommodated me, the pompously-uniformed, top-hatted doormen looked less impressed with Calagione when his 1990 Ford Lariat rattled to a halt amid a snake pit of shining stretch limos. The top hats distracted themselves with other duties, such as whistling cabs for invisible but apparently impatient guests.

The doormen’s view was obviously that, if the lariat were to be uncoiled, either I or Calagione could do the dirty deed. He did. He opened the door to help me in and offered me a cup of tea. A very thoughtful touch, that, but I have not been a caffeine junkie since I dated a French Canadian 30 years ago. Englishmen are supposed to be polite, so I apologized like a stereotypical Anglo for not being one.

He apologized for the mobile junkyard. I reassured him. Most brewers’ cars are full of kegs, tapping systems and the like. Tidiness, cleanliness and godliness are focused on the brewery itself.

The Calagiones seem to be practical people. The grandparents on both sides were from Calabria, Italy. They came to Milford, MA, to quarry pink granite. Among the next generation was a quarryman with a more personal pursuit: he was an oral surgeon. He is also a gentleman farmer who makes his own wine and cultivates maple syrup. It may rot the teeth, but son Sam has found good use for the syrup.

This was not his original plan. Sam was an English major and took courses in fiction and poetry. Perhaps he was just too romantic. He was thrown out of one school for playing ice hockey in the nude in the middle of the night. Somehow he finished up bussing tables in a nightclub in Australia, developing a more than passing interest in beer and home-brewed pumpkin ale.

Dogfish Head and the Poetry of Brewing
“I did start writing, but it was a business plan,” observed Sam. “I do creative work, too—I formulate beers.” In 1995, Sam opened a brewpub. “It is an opportunity to express myself, to create something that had not existed before. I get up every morning and do what I love. It is a romantic notion. Hopelessly so, but I am happy to pursue the struggle.”

He named his brewpub after a promontory in New England: Dogfish Head, site of a lighthouse in Booth Bay, ME, where his family has a weekend place.

The jump in the purpose of writing, and creativity, seemed a lengthy leap, I noted. I was thrown this reply: “Believe what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men. Speak your latent conviction and it shall be the universal sense.”

These did not seem to be the nature of sentences commonly uttered in a Ford Lariat hurling down the interstate. Scarcely had that thought registered than Sam added a silent dash and an attribution. “—Emerson,” he said.

All very fine, I countered. I understood the poetry of brewing, but was the notion not limiting? “What of beauty I see now,” he intoned, “has grown from within, out of some unconscious truthfulness, without ever a thought for the appearance. Beauty of this kind is destined to be preceded by a like unconscious beauty of life.” This time, the attribution was “—Thoreau.”

Was beauty enough? “Art-art does not support the space it takes up. Business-art does. Or it goes out of business.” —Andy Warhol.

The quotations rolled out effortlessly as Sam swung the Lariat round each bend in the road. We were heading south, past Philadelphia now, crossing waterways as we entered the flat, open landscape of Delaware’s bean-growing country. While the Calagiones come from one town called Milford, Sam’s wife, Mariah, is from another of the same name, in Delaware. He established his brewpub in that state, but farther south in Rehoboth Beach, “summer capital” for Washingtonians.

On a road lined with outlet stores and restaurants, a homemade model of the Dogfish Head lighthouse marks out the pub, on Coastal Route 1, three blocks from the boardwalk. The otherwise utilitarian building had previously accommodated a succession of failed restaurants, and for a time a successful crab house. Sam gave the interior a touch of style by creating a bar and wainscoting in wood salvaged from a Victorian tobacco barn in Massachusetts. The agricultural touch is heightened by blow-ups of photographs from the Farm Security Administration. Local tuna and mahi mahi is grilled over hickory and oak, and the beer is pulled by tap handles made by a blacksmith in the area. What Sam describes as the “self-reliant, artisan approach” is evident everywhere.

The first brew-kettle was a converted keg. The present brew house was assembled from vessels acquired at an auction when a local cannery closed. Supportive local farmers refrained from bidding. Sam’s wife, a former television news producer, runs the pub. There is also a sweat-equity partner: Jason Kennedy, who was cellarman at Wild Goose when that operated as an independent brewery on the Western Shore of Maryland.

In this Mid-Atlantic region, Dogfish has begun to win a reputation for its extraordinarily adventurous beers.

Home Base Beer
The nearest thing to a conventional brew is the oddly-named Shelter Pale Ale, at 5% ABV. “Your home base, your shelter, the place to which you return,” explained the poetic Sam. The grist of this ale contains a small proportion of Delaware-grown barley, kilned in the pub’s pizza oven. With its deep golden color, Shelter Pale has a firm malt background, becoming almost slippery in its smoothness. It starts dry, then develops a clean sweetness, with lively flavors. The hops—Willamette, Cascade and Columbus—provide an earthy, cedary aroma and powerful bitterness.

On a number of occasions I had already greatly enjoyed Dogfish Chicory Stout. In addition to granulated chicory root, this contains locally roasted organic Mexican coffee and St. John’s wort, sometimes known as “nature’s Prozac,” as well as smoked barley malt, wheat and oatmeal. The brew has a sweet, fresh, flowery aroma; a relatively light but smooth, rounded body; a gentle dryness; and a suggestion of anise in the long, faintly medicinal finish.

I could not resist the pun in a beer called Raison d’Etre, based on a brown ale. This contains green raisins and dark candy sugar, and has a primary fermentation with an English ale yeast and a secondary with a Belgian culture. It starts winey, with suggestions of sweet oloroso sherry, developing spicy grain notes in the middle, then finishes with a soft, almondy dryness.

Near the brewery is the site of a colonial settlement called Zwaanendael (old Dutch for “Swan Dale”). This has been punned into Zwaanend Ale. The crimson brew contains equal amounts of barley, corn, molasses and dates. The corn lightens what might otherwise be an overwhelmingly rich and rummy brew, but this is still a deliciously syrupy dessert beer.

The Dogfish word plays are endless. Immortale is another of my favorites. It contains peated barley, demerara sugar, maple syrup, vanilla beans and juniper berries; has a secondary fermentation with champagne yeast; and is matured over oak chips from chardonnay barrels. This heady, fruity brew starts with a rich sweetness, becoming firmer, then lightly smoky and woody.

Bizarre though these beers may be, their sales have been sufficient to encourage the opening of a 30-barrel Dogfish micro five miles away in the town of Lewes. To help justify this, Sam has moved into “export” markets. The energy he puts into sales has impressed me greatly. His first shipment to New Jersey—a six-pack—was transported by small boat across Delaware Bay, requiring seven hours for the 20-mile journey.

He rowed the boat himself. He also built it.

No wonder the women are impressed.

Read more of our favorite columns by Michael Jackson