Sometimes you can be far more successful catering to the quirky than going mainstream – zigging when others zag, as it were.
Dogfish Head Craft Brewed Ales, from name to bottles, has embraced that against-the-grain philosophy whole-heartedly. They've even incorporated it into the brewery's slogan: “Off-centered ales for off-centered people.” And like many off-kilter businesses, it's a labor of love.
It all started in New York City, where Sam Calagione, founder and president of Dogfish Head, was taking writing courses at Columbia University and moonlighting at a beer bar. Like so many before him, he fell in love with beer in the process. But rather than taking the road well-traveled and becoming a brew-soaked journalist or author, Calagione started home-brewing, and then took the plunge.
He got himself an apprenticeship at Shipyard Brewing in Maine to brew his own beers and ultimately go into production for himself. Once he had the basics down, Calagione began writing his business plan in 1993 and set about looking for a state that didn't already have a craft brewer in place.
Since he and his wife, Mariah, were already familiar with coastal Delaware, and since the state had a distinct dearth of breweries, they chose Milton, a small town in the southern third of the state. The doors on Dogfish Head Brewing and Eats opened in 1995. Named for the Maine town Calagione spent summers in as a child, their new brew pub was the first to open in Delaware, and quickly outgrew its 12-gallon batches as the word got out about the beer.
“All we saw was modern, full-flavored interpretations of traditional beers when we were getting started,” said Calagione. “I just thought we'd go in the opposite direction and do beers with no stylistic reference. Really embrace the culinary gamut out there. We brew beers very exotic and extreme compared to the norm. By virtue of that approach, we're only going to appeal to the niche – the off-centered people. Lucky for us, the off-centered people demographic has grown quite a bit in the 17 years they've been in business.”
The company brews up odd ducks – the average beer when the pub opened had 9 percent ABV (alcohol by volume)and six ingredients instead of the traditional four. Even stranger, those ingredients range from bizarre heritage grains like sorghum to Antarctic water, ginger, raisins, and everything in between.
But that flaunting of tradition has paid off.
When the brew pub opened in 1995, Dogfish Head was the smallest commercial craft brewery in the U.S. – number 700 out of 700. Now there are roughly 1,700 craft brewers in the U.S. and Dogfish Head is the 19th largest. Pearl Jam even approached the brewer to create a bottle to celebrate the band's 20th anniversary, which will be hitting shelves shortly.
All told, 145,000 barrels of deliciously odd beer will flow forth from the doors of the brewery this year, compared to only 300 barrels the first year they were open.
The company makes more beer in five hours now than they made the first year they were open – and every one of those beers starts in the brew pub, where they careful gauge customer reactions before passing new ideas on to the production brewery.
In most breweries, the weird expressions never make it past the small batch phase. They're created as limited editions that sit in the company store for visiting beer geeks making the pilgrimage their personal Mecca to try.
At Dogfish Head, those weird ones are the bread and butter. Calagione comes up with ideas for what he'd like the next project to be and then he works with the 11 other brewers on staff to get a test batch made at the brew pub, where it gets put through its paces.
“We have a huge core of beer geeks – locally and folks who come from all over – who help us test the batch,” said Calagione. “Once we get tastings at the pub done, then we take the leftover kegs to external beer events and watch the chatter online to see if it's something that differentiates our portfolio. If it's something people are excited enough about it, we put it into full production.”
That approach has resulted in some of the strangest, and tastiest, brews in the world. Since virtually no ingredient is off-limits to the brewer, the sky is pretty much the limit.
Here are a few that recently shipped to keep your eyes peeled for:
120 minute IPA – The strongest IPA (India Pale Ale) ever brewed, according to Dogfish Head, 120 Minute weighs in between 15 and 20 percent ABV and a whopping dose of bitter hops sure to please hop heads to no end. The bottle pours a rich amber gold with a grassy aroma and mild sweetness dominating, but the hops aren't far behind, offering an intense punch that only hints at the experience to come. It's a medium-bodied beer, but the high alcohol content lends it a chewy, almost syrupy texture and the sweetness continues up front, with malt and a liqueur-like flavor on top of a massive dose of bitter hops all balancing precariously on the edge of a cliff marked “too much.” But it never quite falls over the precipice, the complex mix delivering a decidedly unique experience. Plus, at these alcohol levels it can be set aside to age a few years, growing in complexity and flavor over time.
Pangea – Some ideas are so crazy they just might work. And while brewing a beer with ingredients from every continent may not bring about world peace, it does make for an intriguing beer. Dogfish Head literally sourced ingredients from every single continent, including Antarctica. Every bottle contains crystallized ginger from Australia, water from Antarctica, Basmati rice from Asia, Muscavado sugar from Africa, South American quinoa, European yeast and North American maize. And while that combo may sound like the recipe for some eco-friendly and delicious organic bread, it actually brews up a tasty Belgian Pale Ale. It's creamy, with a nice sour tang and spicy sweetness that screams ginger. Best of all, the beer is incredibly drinkable even with a higher than average 7 percent ABV. The world may not be able to come together in peace, but it apparently comes together nicely in beer.
Tweason'Ale – One of the most common requests Dogfish Head gets is for a gluten-free beer to allow the gluten intolerant among us to once again rejoice in our malt-laden birthright. Good ones are tough to find, but Tweason'ale not only fills the gap for celiacs, it also slots into the no man's land between Fall and Winter nicely. Made from buckwheat honey, strawberries and sorghum, the beer, as with many Dogfish Head creations, defies classification. It drinks differently than pretty much anything you may have come across before, pouring a reddish pink that shouts strawberries to the skies, not to mention everyone around you who'll make fun of you for drinking a girly beer. But while there's sweetness, it's balanced by crisp citrus and a sort of earthy and musty funk that's strangely addictive. For such a crisp beer with so much sweetness to it, it's surprisingly warming – a solid choice to curl up with on a chilly autumn evening.
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