Opening Your Mind To New Possibilities
“A liquid time capsule” is how CEO Sam Calagione describes his company’s most awarded beer, Midas touch. Based on a recipe found in a 2,700-year-old drinking vessel from the tomb of King Midas, this unique beer gives insight to some of the key values that make Calagiones’ business an industry leader. Their values, such as creativity and staying true to yourself, make Dogfish Head Brewery one of the top 15 producers in the craft beer industry and widely regarded as the most creative brewery on the planet. But they didn’t always have such an outstanding reputation.
Breaking the Law
Once an aspiring writer in Columbia University’s English literature master’s program, Calagione decided to take his creative sensibilities and leverage them to pursue another passion. After dropping out of Columbia, Calagione borrowed $110,000 from his family, packed up, and moved to Delaware with the intention of starting a brewpub. When he got a matching bank loan, Calagione was ready to turn his vision into a reality, until one big hurdle got in his way: What he wanted to do was illegal.
At that time, prohibition laws in Delaware forbade breweries. But Calagione was not deterred; he took his case to the state Senate, and after realizing the lunacy of never adapting the law, Delaware quickly ratified, and Dogfish Head Brewery was born.
Creating a Movement
Calagione came right out of the gate using unorthodox methods to challenge commonly accepted approaches to making beer. He began brewing beers with ingredients no one knew you could use. From raisins to spices unheard of in the beer world, Calagione built a brand based on creativity. But he didn’t anticipate that, by brewing these never-before-seen beers, he was also creating a movement. Calagione brewed his beers using a homemade system built from scrappy old kegs. It was unique, exciting, and horribly inefficient.
A Thriving Business
Calagione spent most nights sleeping on a mattress in the basement of the brewpub while making 10-gallon batches just to keep up with the demand he had created. He quickly realized that his business was unable to scale and grow within the limitations of his original business plan. Calogione was forced to make fast adjustments. He tapped into investor funds for a bottling system and employees. A sales staff was hired to take Dogfish Head Brewery beyond the borders of Delaware and into other regions. Late at night, Calagione would obsess over the fine print in contracts and figure out how better deals could be made. He began his path from passionate brewer to astute businessman.
Relentless Pursuit of Creativity
Once Dogfish Head began to reach homeostasis, Calagione went back to breaking through the barriers of mediocrity. In many cases, when breweries expand, they keep experimental options at their home base and distribute the beers they believe will be the most popular. Calagione blew both these ideas out of the water and began pushing with ferocity to free the creative spirit of his company.
Calagione gathered inspiration from any source possible — the biggest of which was history. The creation of the Ancient Ales series began, where beers like Midas Touch were born. Another spawn of this program includes Chateau Jiahu, which is a Chinese recipe from the oldest fermented beverage ever found. Pangaea was also created, which is brewed using ingredients from each continent on earth. Certain beers were even aged in ancient Paraguayan wood. Calagione defied all brewery norms with his innovative recipes.
Creating Beer Evangelists
The term “beer evangelism” was coined by Calagione to describe his marketing approach. Dogfish Head Brewery doesn’t shop around for the flashiest ad agency to market their beer — they empower their customers to do the marketing for them. It all starts at the roots for Calagione. When he goes to dinner with his family, they go to a restaurant that has Dogfish Head Brewery beers on tap. He makes sure the restaurant is taken care of with all their needs, and if you’re a customer with one of his brews in hand, he’s likely to ask for your feedback or buy you another.
Authenticity is vital to the development of Dogfish’s brand because it matters to consumers in today’s microbrew-crazed marketplace. While you may see Budweiser or Coors with ultraslick ads, Calagione is at a pub having a conversation about hops. Why? Because that’s what having a beer is all about — creating a meaningful connection.
Stay True to Yourself
The true success of Dogfish Head Brewery doesn’t reside in its massive production scale or the unwavering respect it holds in the brewing community. It comes from maintaining the ideals that made it initially resonate with people. Even when Dogfish Head Brewery went through its early scaling and financial struggles in the late ‘90s, the company never stopped making beers that challenged the status quo. No other brewery has demonstrated such a relentless pursuit of creativity balanced with growth like Calagione’s company. When Dogfish grew, they didn’t outgrow their ability to relate with their clientele. They are a top producer with the heart of a mom and pop store, and they recognize the value of each individual patron.
Calagione himself still brews the pilot batches when testing new beers, and the panel of judges for these new ales aren’t renowned taste testers or palette gurus. Tasting is open to anyone who goes to the original taproom. If you visit the brewery today, you’ll find the very 10-gallon system that started it all. And despite being one of the most successful CEOs in the industry, when Calagione travels, you’ll find one modest word written on his passport under occupation: brewer.