The Way I Work: Dogfish Head's Sam Calagione
In 1995, Sam Calagione founded a small brewpub, with the modest goal of exposing his customers' palates to something other than the pale lagers churned out by big, industrial breweries. Last year, his company, Dogfish Head Craft Brewery, brought in $28 million in revenue, producing 74,600 barrels' worth of eccentric beers -- including Aprihop, brewed with apricots and whole-leaf hops, and Raison D'Etre, a mahogany ale made with raisins and Belgian yeast. Calagione, 40, manages 106 employees in his 103,000-square-foot brewery in Milton, Delaware. He is an engaged entrepreneur with a rebellious streak and an aversion to top-down management. On a typical day, you might find him answering customer service e-mails, proselytizing about the virtues of craft beer, buying pints for strangers, and brainstorming ideas for Dogfish Head's next brew.
About half of the time, I work in the office. On those days, I get up at dawn and work out until 7:30. I'll go for a bike ride or, since I live near the beach, go rowing or surfing. I do a lot of my best abstract thinking in that hour. Then I come home, shower, take the kids to school, pick up coffee, get to the brewery around 8:30, and start checking my e-mail.
I get an average of 100 e-mails a day that need answering. I've given out my personal e-mail address a lot, and we also put the company e-mail address on all our packaging. If something comes into the general inbox addressed to me, I try to answer it. Replying to so many e-mails can be soul killing, but it's also an amazing barometer of the health and position of your company. When customers contact you of their own volition, that means you get brutal honesty, good or bad. One of the worst things is knowing that I can't answer all of those e-mails to the extent that people wish I could. If someone e-mails me and says, "Hey, I read your book, Brewing Up a Business. I really want to start my own business, and I'd love to talk with you," it's gotten to the point where I have to say, "Hey, sorry, I'm overwhelmed, but if you can give me two specific questions, I'll do my best to get you a few sentences back." There's also this looming knowledge that three or four e-mails will just slip through the cracks every day. That really gets to me. It might have been some guy with an awesome idea that I didn't get back to or some person who said, "I had the first beer from you that I didn't like, and it really bummed me out." I didn't answer that e-mail, and as far as that guy knows, it's because I'm an asshole.
Usually, I don't stop for lunch. I'll just run out to Subway and get a small meatball sub and a lemonade. Or I'll grab an everything bagel with butter or cream cheese and tomato and an Orangina with my morning coffee. I eat pretty much the same thing every day.
At the office, I spend a lot of my time in meetings. To keep that from being oppressive, we all swear like truck drivers. The F-bomb is probably the most used adjective in meetings. We're completely politically incorrect. Some of the women are the worst offenders. We have only one conference room, so often we'll just pull up chairs to one another's desks to have a meeting. Or we go out to the production floor and make a desk out of a pallet of beer.
We have our production and marketing meetings early in the week, when my wife, Mariah, who's also Dogfish Head's vice president and director of marketing, is in the office. Our management meeting is the longest, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. every Monday. The managers update one another on what each department has coming down the pipeline so we don't get blind-sided. It was a big step for us to move to thinking more strategically. The first half of our 14-year history was management by crisis, and I'm totally to blame for that as the leader.
In meetings, I try consciously to never sit at the head of the table, in recognition of the fact that on an operational level, other people are doing a lot of the heavy lifting. Likewise, my cubicle is no bigger than anyone else's in the company. I don't shut my computer off at night. There have been a few times when I've called from the road to ask whoever picked up the phone at the brewery to pull up some info from my computer, but leaving my inbox open is more of a symbolic gesture. You've got to practice what you preach when it comes to openness and accessibility. If people want to check my e-mails, I don't care. I'm not trying to run the CIA here; I'm trying to run a fun company where people aren't working for me. The people who do the best at our company are working for themselves.
Nick Benz, our chief operating officer, has done a great job of helping me take that philosophy of openness that we've always had and put our money where our mouth is. Everybody at Dogfish gets bonuses based on the financial health of the company. The biggest factor is EBITDA, but each department has its own goals. It's amazing how a bonus will motivate someone to say, "The glue machine on the labeler is pumping out more than we need. Let's tweak that."
About every other week in the fall and spring, I'm on the road from Tuesday to Friday doing beer evangelism. Dogfish Head is sold in 27 states, but I'm in the big East Coast cities such as New York, Boston, Philly, and D.C. more frequently. I'll set up a bunch of events. I'll meet with the distributors. I'll talk with the sales force. In the evenings, I'll do either a promotional event at a bar or a beer dinner at a fancy restaurant. It's usually five courses, and we're pairing a beer with the food, showing that beer is every bit as compatible as wine. My wife is awesome at getting the beer geeks to come out. She'll put up the information on Dogfish.com, Twitter, Facebook -- all that stuff. When I bring one of our experimental beers, the hard-core beer geeks at the event post comments about it on sites like RateBeer.com or BeerAdvocate.com. Nowadays, they're typing while they have dinner; it's online by the time dessert comes around.
As the big breweries have tried to muscle their way into our market, our strategy has been to continue to have a dialogue with beer enthusiasts and, frankly, to out these big breweries -- to let consumers know that Blue Moon isn't two guys in a garage at the end of your block. It's Coors. I'm not knocking Blue Moon. It's great to have it out there, because it allows Coors drinkers to take baby steps outside of their light-lager comfort zones.
On my beer-evangelist days, I try to answer e-mails by iPhone. If I'm at a beer event, I take pictures to send to Mariah, and she puts them on Facebook.
I used to bring my kids, Sammy and Grier, with me on the road when they were really young -- they're in fourth and second grade next year. That stopped after a beer festival in Philly. My son, Sammy, who at the time was maybe 5 years old, was behind the booth with me, helping pour beer. I got to talking with someone, and I lost him for a second. When I found him, he was playing with a toy dinosaur in a puddle of beer. I could imagine him on a psychiatrist's couch at 21: "It all started when my dad abandoned me at a beer festival..."
Now they stay with Mariah. God bless her, she definitely does the majority of the parenting. But we have a deal that I don't do any trips in the summer that take me out of Delaware overnight. I sleep in my bed every night in July and August.
My favorite days are when I actually get to brew. The first year we were open, I brewed more than 300 batches of beer myself. Now, I do that about six or eight days a year, when we're coming up with new beers. Those almost always start at the old hand-valved, five-barrel system at our brewpub in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. I work with Bryan Selders, my lead brewer. Basically, I'll send him a paragraph that says something like, "This dude sent me samples of this exotic Paraguayan wood. The best base beer to use it in would be a dark-brown ale that's low in hops but relatively high in alcohol, so that the alcohol will act as a solvent and strip the oils off the wood." From that description, Bryan will source a bunch of hops and barley; we'll talk about the volumes and ratios, then we'll brew a test batch.
Out of respect for Bryan's greater technical skills, I gladly do the menial tasks, such as mashing in the barley and cleaning the tanks, while he directs temperature changes and hooks up the pumps. We serve the experimental batches at the restaurant. Instead of us paying for a focus group, our regulars pay us to buy a pint and say, "This sucks" or "It's good." Usually, we know if a beer is working within a month of putting it on tap. If it is, we'll take the five-barrel recipe we did at the pub and extrapolate it up to a hundred barrels for our production brewery.
Whether I'm brewing or at the office, at 5:15 or 5:30 each day -- no matter what I'm doing -- I just walk away from it and go home.
Six or seven years ago, I'd get a call from Mariah saying, "Are you coming home for dinner or not?" If the answer was not, that night might go until 9 or midnight -- it didn't really matter. Those days, if some dude didn't show up, I'd be on the bottling line or the guy running the labeler. But my wife knows there's no excuse for me not coming home for dinner anymore. She's like, "Don't tell me you have to work on the bottling line. There are eight people there who can do that better than you can. You'd better get your ass home, spend some time with the kids." I'm glad she does that.
We eat out for dinner more than your average family, because we try to visit the accounts that support our brewery. I try not to be an aggressive salesperson. Occasionally, if I see people drinking Dogfish Head, I offer to buy them their beer and thank them. But I also make sure I check in with the manager and say, "Hey, are you getting the seasonal beers? Are you getting good service from your distributor? Do you need anything from us? Coasters, pint glasses? Do you want to invite your staff out to our brewery? We'd love to show them how we make our beer and what makes it special."
Usually, we put the kids upstairs at 8. By the time I'm done reading to them, it's 8:30. I'll start my bath around then. Once in a while, I come down and watch Entourage or Flight of the Conchords with Mariah while she's typing away at her computer, posting updates on Facebook and Dogfish.com. But usually, after I take a bath, I read until 10:30 or 11. Sometimes, it's culinary or wine magazines. I have a little notebook next to my bed, and if something I'm reading inspires me, I'll jot down some notes. For the last half-hour, I'll read some fiction just to take my mind off of work. I just finished David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. It took two months out of my life, but in a good way.
I obsessively notch the pages, even when I'm reading fiction. If it's notched up and folded back, it means it's an actual idea that applies to Dogfish. If it's notched down, it's more about the feeling -- part of what's written reflects our off-centered philosophy. Every word that I read, I filter through this Dogfish prism. Every thought that I have in some way pertains to Dogfish. It's kind of sick in a way -- that Dogfish is that prevalent in my thought patterns. But after 5:30, I stop focusing on the nuts and bolts of the business and let my mind wander to the more fun and creative parts. I feel like that's pretty healthy.
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