Beer Town: Dogfish Head founder talks ‘26 Years of Off-Centered Adventures’

"The Dogfish Head Book: 26 Years of Off-Centered Adventures" (Wiley, $35) is a “celebratory chronology of the offbeat escapades that propelled Dogfish Head to become the beloved craft brewery, distillery, hotel and culinary hub it is today.” (Courtesy of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery)

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"The Dogfish Head Book: 26 Years of Off-Centered Adventures" (Wiley, $35) is a “celebratory chronology of the offbeat escapades that propelled Dogfish Head to become the beloved craft brewery, distillery, hotel and culinary hub it is today.” (Courtesy of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery)

Before many current craft beer devotees were born, tiny Dogfish Head Craft Brewery, located off the grid in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, was dedicated to making some of the biggest and most adventurous beers in the world — including Immort Ale, Raison D’ Etre, World Wide Stout, and a host of IPAs.

On Oct. 19, with the publication of “The Dogfish Head Book: 26 Years of Off-Centered Adventures” (Wiley, $35), the company will celebrate what’s billed as the “offbeat escapades that propelled Dogfish Head to become the beloved craft brewery, distillery, hotel and culinary hub it is today.”

The chronological history, which was co-written by Dogfish Head founder and brewer Sam Calagione, co-founder and communitarian Mariah Calagione, and longtime co-worker and INNkeeper Andrew C. Greeley, follows the brewery’s expansions and exponential growth.

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Almost a scrapbook by design, the layout features an archive’s worth of photos and artwork, along with song lyrics, and quotes from the likes of Herman Melville and Denis Johnson.

Recently, I talked with Sam Calagione during a phone call that began with a bit of reminiscing.

“We used to hang when we saw each other at GABF (Great American Beer Festival) and other beer events,” Calagione recalled. “You were one of the first to write about Dogfish coming to Atlanta, and we still have that story framed in our big conference room.”

“The Dogfish Head Book” was originally scheduled to be released in 2020, to mark the 25th anniversary of the brewery, but as Calagione explained, like so many other things, it was delayed by COVID-19.

“That’s why the book is coming out late,” he said. “But we always intended it to be the voice of all of our co-workers who helped to grow this brand for a quarter century. In fact, we modeled the book after the Beastie Boys book, in that it’s informal, design forward, and it incorporates the voices of a bunch of artists they collaborated with and folks they touched.

“We started with the smallest commercial brewery in America, but we always aspired to be a multiplatform creative hub, from food to beer to distilled spirits and beyond. I think we were the first to call ourselves a craft distillery. That nomenclature didn’t really exist yet in the spirits world, but we’re on the cusp of 20 years since we launched our distillery.”

With good reason, Calagione is proud of the early influence Dogfish had on craft beer, especially when it comes to using exotic ingredients.

“At the time you wrote that first story on Dogfish, there were not many commercial breweries focused on making beers with fruits and spices,” he said. “But now, look how far the beer industry has come with all the fruited sours and pastry stouts. That stuff was not going off when you and I first did a story together.”

Though the longer raison d’etre for Dogfish Head comes from a Ralph Waldo Emerson quote, it was updated and shortened to “Off-centered ales for off-centered people” to fit on a beer label, Calagione noted. It was later updated to “Off-centered goodness for off-centered people.”

“Basically the whole model was let’s not be a follower, let’s be a pioneer,” he said. “Sometimes that means we’re going to take risks that don’t pay off, but sometimes we’re going to find space and create our own little niches within the world that we play in.”

Certainly the biggest and most controversial move in the history of Dogfish Head was the 2019 merger with Boston Beer Co. Asked about that, Calagione placed it in the context of the larger craft beer business, declaring that Boston Beer was a perfect fit in terms of its complementary culture and product mix.

“We saw the industry changing very quickly, and bifurcating into essentially two models for American craft breweries,” Calagione said. “One sort of the hyperlocal, taproom-focused, direct-to-consumer model, or the nationally distributed, call it Top 50, volume craft brewer model.

“More and more, that Top 50 list was filled with breweries that had allegiances to international brewing groups. We wanted to make sure there was always going to be opportunities for our co-workers to grow, and for the culture of Dogfish to stay vibrant.”

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