The first time I ever saw Sam Calagione was in a Philadelphia hotel ballroom crowded with tuxedo-clad well-wishers gathered to “roast” Michael Jackson. As part of the evening’s program, Sam presented a monologue portraying Jackson in an alternate world, faithfully written in the style of short story writer Raymond Carver, whom both men admire. Even in a line-up of clever speakers that night, Calagione stood out for extreme cleverness, as Douglas Adams would have put it.
This was some years after Calagione founded Dogfish Head Craft Brewery, the first brewpub in Delaware, and boot-strapped it into viability. It was after he had “exported” his company’s beer to New Jersey by rowing a six-pack across the Delaware himself in a homemade boat.
It was, however, before he teamed up with archaeologists at U Penn to recreate a 3,000 year old beer based on the excavation of King Midas’ burial site, before he became Grandmaster IBU of the Pain Relievaz (“probably the finest beer-geek hip-hop band of our generation”), or transformed himself into a fictional homebrewing Woody Guthrie to entertain audiences with a one-man beer show.
Sam Calagione is a prodigiously talented guy who probably could have succeeded in a variety of fields. But he makes clear in Brewing Up a Business that it was only when he fell in love with beer that he found a focus for all that pent-up creativity. The book tells the story of the growth of Dogfish Head, from a brewpub with a tiny 10-gallon system to a microbrewery producing some of the most sought-after specialty beers on the market.
On the way, Sam has become one the most visible brewery owners, beloved by beer geeks, supported by a broad swath of specialty beer customers, but regarded warily by those in the industry who distrust his showmanship.
Although Brewing up a Business gives the history of Dogfish Head, it is more a business book than it is a beer book, and more inspirational text than how-to. Throughout the book Calagione speaks directly to budding entrepreneurs of all kinds who may find their passion in unlikely enterprises. He talks about beer with great fervor, but he’s positively evangelical about the importance to success of a belief in your self, a willingness to embrace risk, strong personal values and hard work. He observes, “If you are going into business, the core of your strength lies in your ability to picture a world in which your idea makes a difference.”
Calagione has written “a small business book for people who hate business as usual.” He believes in Davids who can turn Goliath’s might to their advantage. He loves the nimbleness of small businesses that can exploit niches the big guys can’t, and build success based on the highest quality, not the lowest price.
With graduation season coming, this is a book to buy for that brilliant, slightly rootless nephew who hasn’t found his dream yet. The world of the unconventional microbrewery owner is so cool, the nephew won’t notice he’s reading a book full of old fashioned family values.