Why This Craft Brewer Is Giving a Middle Finger to Beer-Making Tradition
Sam Calagione, the founder of Dogfish Head, has never hidden his disdain for antiquated beer-brewing laws, and has instead found inspiration in culinary ingredients and techniques utilized in cooking.
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in June 2016.
A few days after the 500th anniversary of Germany's Reinheitsgebot—a purity law enacted in 1516 that rigidly decreed beer in the country could only be made with water, hops, and barley—I met with Sam Calagione at Dogfish Head's brewpub in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. Why? I wanted to learn more about his unwavering vision for the brewery, and its longstanding intimacy with food.
Calagione, who launched Dogfish Head from this site in 1995, initially making only 12 gallons of beer per batch, has grown the innovative operation into one of America's largest craft breweries, with over 250,000 barrels produced annually.
When he started the company, many of the country's earliest craft brewers adhered to the Reinheitsgebot and focused only on European beer styles; but Calagione found inspiration in culinary ingredients and techniques utilized in cooking. He incorporated juniper berries, maple syrup, apricots, and raisins into his beers—like the ancient recipes devised thousands of years before him, another source of inspiration—and other brewers followed, helping to establish craft beer's central tenets of flavor (to the extreme, at times), creativity, and excitement.
Calagione has never hidden his disdain for the Reinheitsgebot, which many German brewers still proudly follow. He believes the law stifled creativity, and has frequently called it a "modern form of art censorship." Before we started the interview at Chesapeake & Maine, Dogfish's newly opened, regionally focused seafood restaurant adjacent to the brewpub, I jokingly asked if he had celebrated its anniversary.
"Not quite," he laughed. "But what do you think they would have said about this?" he asked, referring to what we were drinking. It was SeaQuench Ale, a seafood-inspired beer exclusive to Chesapeake & Maine until a national rollout in July. A few minutes later, a server delivered another exclusive to our table: a platter of Smoke in the Water, Dogfish's proprietary oysters raised in smoked sea salt-infused water.
MUNCHIES: Can you tell us about Smoke in the Water? You had initially tried to develop a hop-infused raw oyster, right? Sam Calagione: Right. So we spent at least a year developing the oyster recipe, and around the same amount of time designing a beer for the restaurant. We were actually doing both at the same time and it had me thinking, How could you design a beer to go with a food while designing a food to go with a beer? Could you do both simultaneously?
At first, the idea for the beer was a Berliner weisse, which is more of a low-bitterness, more-tart sour. And off that idea I said, "Let's do a hoppy food." Because you would never expect the food to be the hoppy one out of the two. So we tried to make these filtration beds with Hooper's Island [Oyster Company], and we made this tea with hop oils to feed the oysters we put in there. But when we added the hop tea into the oyster beds, they immediately shut their mouths. They didn't eat it.
We were about to give up when I was reading Saveur, I think, and it had a chef talking about his favorite things to cook with. And he mentioned using smoked salt, smoked over alderwood and oak. That was like a lightbulb going off.
We took that same tea-creating equipment—basically a converted keg—and we bought a culinary smoked salt. We diluted it in the water and added that to the beds with the oysters, and they stayed open and really loved it, which just blew my mind. There's seaweed and vegetation in the ocean; there's no forest-type flavors. But they liked the wood, the smokiness. It goes to show that oysters have palates, too. So the smokiness now inherent to the oysters, that tweaked the recipe for SeaQuench. We went up with the acidity, adding more lime.
We were labeled disrespectful, at best. Adding raisins to beer? We got so much shit.
That's what we're drinking now. How do you make it? [SeaQuench] is a mash of three styles—so basically another "Fuck you!" to the Reinheitsgebot. [Laughs.] We brew a kölsch—which is a very yeast-friendly, low-acid beer—overnight in a big tank. And then the next day we add a gose that has salts from Maine and from the Chesapeake Bay, and then we add a Berliner weisse with about 25 percent of its fermentable sugars coming from lime juice. So your first sip is going to be mostly the sea salt, but by the second sip you'll get the lime juice. It's a little tart, low-alcohol, really refreshing. This and the oysters, that's probably my favorite pairing at the restaurant right now.
What inspired you to open a restaurant like Chesapeake & Maine? Well, from the day we opened we were as much a food company as we were a beer company. If you go to the original brewpub, you'll see two neons in the window: "wood-grilled food" and "homemade beer." They've been there since day one.
Specifically about seafood, I also saw another thing to rebel against, where—and it's not as recognized as the Reinheitsgebot is in the beer world—but I read a stat four or five years ago that 90 percent of seafood sold in American restaurants doesn't come from America or our shores; it comes from overseas. And that really stuck with me, both as a bummer and an opportunity. Obviously that means that most of the seafood that comes here is frozen, and it has a large carbon footprint. So it got me talking with the local oystermen and the local lobstermen, the National Aquarium in Baltimore—which is starting a certification program for Chesapeake seafood companies and fishermen—and with my buddies in Maine, a lot of them who work as fisherman, to see how we could do our part to change that.
It felt profoundly rewarding when the first batch turned out great. I was taking creative-writing classes at Columbia at the time, and I remember thinking it might be fun and more attainable to make a living writing creative beer recipes instead of short stories or novels.
So, when did you know you wanted Dogfish to be so closely associated with the culinary world? I wrote the business plan for Dogfish in 1993, before the internet and all. At the time, going to Columbia, I was going to be a writer. I was waiting tables at a beer bar on the Upper West Side, which is where I was really exposed to the first-wave craft brewers, and that got me homebrewing and hooked on being a brewer pretty quick. So I would take classes and work at the bar to make some money, and then I would go to the library at night and do these Nexus searches, just typing in keywords and reading newspaper articles.
I read about Sam Adams and other craft breweries, and at the time they were all only doing European styles, adhering to the Reinheitsgebot. And that's not how beer was always made; the earliest brewers used what was around them: fruits, honey, spices. So I said, "Well, I can't compete with them and I don't want to compete with them, so how can I be different?" Then I'd search, like, "small bakeries" and "micro roasters" and I would read these articles by Alice Waters and James Beard saying we should stop worshipping what's happening in Europe, that we could and should have our own first-class culinary scene in America. And that was really the epiphany. I decided to go completely outside the frame with culinary ingredients. That was critical to our theme: to be a culinary-obsessed brewery.
What was the reaction from the industry? What about beer drinkers? We were labeled disrespectful, at best. Adding raisins to beer? We got so much shit. When we opened in 1995, some of our first beers were Raison D'Etre, that's made with raisins and beet sugar; Immort Ale, which is made with maple syrup from my family's farm, juniper berries, and vanilla; Chicory Stout, which has coffee that's roasted nearby, roasted chicory, and licorice root; and Aprihop, that's infused with apricots. I mean, we basically couldn't give the beer away at the beginning. We opened the production facility in Milford in '97 and we had to take all the profits for the restaurant and put them there; the production brewery nearly went bankrupt.
I always think, Imagine if I worked at Anheuser-Busch and I spent a year working on a scrapple recipe? I'd be fired right away.
Did you ever consider, I guess, simplifying your recipes? We never thought about dumbing anything down. Maybe for a night, when my wife and I hadn't cashed a check in six weeks and I'd drive to Pittsburgh for a beer dinner and nine people would show up. But the next time we'd go, 14 people would show up, so I saw these little glimmers of hope. I believed people would eventually come around.
When did that turnaround happen? Probably late '99, when we came out with Midas Touch and 90 Minute IPA. Putting those two beers out at the same time was great because drinks like Midas existed long ago, but imperial IPAs are strictly an American invention. My friend Greg [Koch, co-founder of Stone Brewing], he actually did the research and found that 90 Minute was the first-ever imperial IPA. So we came out with Midas, based on this 2,700-year-old recipe that gave us a soapbox to say that long before the Reinheitsgebot people were brewing with things like grapes and honey and saffron. And then at the same time, we had 90 Minute, which was taking the industry forward.
The beer writer Michael Jackson really validated our philosophy. He wrote this fantastic article basically saying, "Don't make fun of them. It's cool that they're making traditional Tej-style brews with tree roots." And then Food & Wine wrote something glowing about Midas.
Midas Touch was the first of Dogfish's Ancient Ales, right? Yeah. We made that with Dr. Pat McGovern, the world's leading expert in ancient fermented beverages. His lab is underneath the University of Pennsylvania museum and I was doing a beer fest on the main floor; Michael [Jackson] actually introduced us.
Dr. Pat said he had studied molecular evidence of an ancient ale from a 2,700-year-old tomb in Turkey believed to belong to King Midas. He invited me to try and create a modern interpretation of the recipe he was able to reconstruct through chemical tests; it was like a wine-honey beer-mead hybrid. And our recipe became Midas Touch, which was a wild experience and really kicked our collaborations with Dr. Pat off. We've done half a dozen more Ancient Ales around the world together, and they've all been so rewarding and unique.
What do you consider to be Dogfish's wildest recipe? We have our Chicory Stout, which is considered to be the first coffee stout. As somewhat of an homage to it, we've been using that beer as a base and tinkering with a "kitchen sink" beer that has scrapple in it. We've been working on the recipe for a year, working with a local scrapple company, and we have a test batch on at the brewpub right now. It's called Beer for Breakfast, and we're planning to launch it nationally in the fall ... I always think, Imagine if I worked at Anheuser-Busch and I spent a year working on a scrapple recipe? I'd be fired right away.
Any recipes you'd ever revist? Funny you ask that. When I wrote [Extreme Brewing] in 2006, I was making a lot of interesting recipes, trying them once and moving on. I'm hoping to revisit a lot of those beers. Specifically there's a hefeweizen with blood orange and a kiwi witbier that I'd like to make again.
Were there any beers involving food or unconventional ingredients that didn't work? Oh, man. I remember we did a wheat beer with lavender and peppercorns. We had comment cards at the brewpub at that time, and I still remember one comment said, "Drinking this was like tongue-kissing Laura Ashley." [Laughs.] That comment haunted me for so long. We just did a beer called Bière de Provence, which has lavender, as well as bay leaves and marjoram, and I made sure to calm down the lavender.
Thanks for speaking with me.
This interview has been edited and condensed.