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6 questions for Sam Calagione

April 10, 2003

Real Beer Six-PackOn Monday, Dogfish Head Brewing's 90 Minute Imperial IPA defeated Alaskan Smoked Porter to win Realbeer.com 2003 Battle of the Beers.

The championship came shortly after 90 Minute received a rave review in Esquire magazine and as Dogfish readied to sell it in 12-ounce bottles (previously 90 Minute has been available on draft and in 750ml bottles), and to release 120 Minute IPA, a 21% abv monster.

You may remember Dogfish Head founder/president Sam Calagione from the Levi's ads shot by famous fashion photographer Richard Avedon that appeared in many national magazines a few years back. A busy man, he found time to answer a few questions from Realbeer.com.

1. Before there was 90 Minute IPA, you started with 60 Minute. Why did you brew that?

SC: Most IPAs have an early addition of hops (bittering) and one or two late additions (flavor and aroma). We wanted to see what happened if there was no discerning difference between the bittering and finishing hops, if you hopped it constantly.

The first time, we hooked up a hop container made from a 5-gallon plastic bucket to an electronic football and let it vibrate the hops into the kettle. That lasted one brew, got wet and didn't work anymore.

The 60 Minute was a draft only product (now it is available in 12-ounce bottles). About the same time we started selling the Midas Touch in corked bottles (750ml) and decided to make the 90 Minute and put it in corked bottles.

The brewers really hated me for about a year and a half, because somebody had to stand over the kettle (for 90 minutes) and toss in hops.

Now we've invented a pneumatic device with a four-by-four (inches) tray. They brewers call it Sir Hops Alot. Every 15 seconds it drops a little bit of hops into the kettle. The 90 Minute is then dry hopped with whole flowers and pellets. It's about a month old when it goes out the door.

2. The leap from the 90 Minute (9% abv, 90 IBUs) to the 120 Minute (21% abv, 120 IBUs) is a rather large one isn't it?

SC: We were getting ready to put a new 35-barrel open fermenter on line and thought, "What should we christen this with?" We see it as a sister brew to the WorldWide Stout (18% or so in the past, but 23% in 2002). We've had sort of a rivalry with our friends at Boston Beer to see who can produce the highest alcohol beer. (Boston Beer, with Sam Adams Utopias MMII, has so far triumphed.) But our goal it also to also produce a product that still tastes like beer

We want the 120 Minute to be the holy grail for hopheads. It's dry hopped every day for a month.

Even though it is still conditioning, you've served this at a few events. Will the "Shock and Awe" name you've used at those be part of the official name?

SC: No. That was just for fun — basically, that beer was still fermenting so there was a lot of shock and awe.

Since, like the WorldWide Stout, this will be a once-a-year beer and on the expensive side (about $17.99 per 750ml bottle) how widely available will it be?

SC: It will probably make it up to New England, but almost all will stay on the East Coast. We'll try to send 10 cases to Colorado in May.

3. Beers like Midas Touch, WorldWide Stout and the IPAs get a lot of attention, but most of the microbreweries that have grown well past micro in the last 20 years have a flagship beer accounts for half to three-quarters of their sales. What's your best selling beer?

SC: Since we recently released the 60 Minute in 6-packs it's No. 1 right now. In the fall it will probably be Raison D'Etre, and Shelter Pale Ale is always up there. No beer ever is more than 25% of our sales.

We don't sell a lot of any one beer, and we don't sell a lot of beer anywhere. In a way that's good — because we don't have a flagship beer it gives all our beers a chance to shine.

Do you worry about living up to your reputation, of disappointing consumers?

SC: We test every batch before it goes out. We have an amazing production team and the beer has never tasted better. We are constantly experimenting and trying to challenge our selves with new beers. While we are still very small, I think that on our tiny level, the consumers who care to find our beers are willing to take a leap of faith across our entire product line and trust that a beer from Dogfish Head is going to be of the highest quality and is not going to taste like anything else on the shelf.

4. Raison D'Etre is one of those beers people always talk about, but with beet sugar and green raisins among the ingredients it doesn't exactly conform to a traditional style. Do you think you'll ever win a medal at the Great American Beer Festival?

SC: I don't know what categories to enter our beers in. We'd be thrilled to win a medal some day, but we almost wish we could go out there and just serve our beers without entering. The reception has been great for our beers. Last year, I think we went through a keg of WorldWide in about 11 minutes a The Falling Rock.

5. Dogfish Head started as a brewpub in Rehoboth Beach, Dela., in 1995. How much beer could you brew at one time?

SC: That system yielded 10 gallons (by contrast most of the Anheuser-Busch breweries around the country brew in 1,000-barrel batches, and there are 31 gallons in a barrel).

You opened the microbrewery in Lewes in 1997, then moved to Milton (after buying a defunct micro) last year. How much do you brew now?

SC: 100 barrels a day, unless we are making the high gravity beers. In 2002 our production grew 46% and revenues were up 64%. That shows people are gravitating toward our higher-priced beers. We budgeted for 35% growth this year, and right now we are on target for 45%.

With 7,100 barrels production in 2002, you still count as pretty small. It was amazing last year when Alaskan Smoked Porter, with such limited distribution, won the first Battle of the Beers. It was even more surprising when you knocked them off in the finals this year.

SC: I want to say a big thank you to everyone who voted for our little brewery in The Battle of the Beers and to everyone who supports the better, smaller breweries through out the country.

6. Few brewers have made as much use out of visiting the Library of Congress as you have.

SC: Not many people realize all the great public domain photos that are available there. We decorated the brewpub (Farm Security Administration photographs lending a distinct agriculture tone) with them. The man kissing the keg (on Dogfish Head posters) is from there, and so are the three guys drinking on the front of our website.

Similarly, your Woody Guthrie beer dinners celebrate the same era.

SC: I heard an interview he did with Alan Lomax about how he and some friends were waiting for a train and decided to brew a batch of beer. The instructions on the packet said to add one packet a day for three days, but they didn't have time so they added three packets in one day ...

You've taken a few liberties from there, and we hear the story is a little different (and a little better) each time you do a beer dinner.

SC: We saw some neat parallels. Just think what might have happened had Woody Guthrie become the father of modern microbrewing. We play some Woody Guthrie songs, Billy Bragg (who wrote and recorded music using lyrics Guthrie's wife had saved) and Wilco. We try to have a little fun, have a beer dinner that is something other than "Now we'll try this beer with this dish."

Speaking of music, Rehoboth Beach pub has a pretty good reputation for booking interesting acts. Do you have anything to do with that?

SC: I work on a few of the national acts. We've got Johnathan Richmond coming up (June 28). I'm really excited about that.

What have been some of the other ones you most enjoyed?

SC: Vic Chesnutt, Freedy Johnson, Dirty Dozen Brass Band, a lot.

And what music are you listening to these days?

SC: Cursive. It's a punk/Americana band out of Omaha. Kind of Uncle Tupelo meets Nirvana. And I just got a Laurie Anderson retrospective. Really interesting.

Thanks, Sam. Looks like we'll have to wait until next time to talk about your brewery rap group.

Read More: Michael Jackson visits the Delaware brewery.

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