Dogfish Head's Latest Innovation Is 3,500 Years Old
Instead of focusing on new technology, Dogfish Head is taking a deep dive into the brewing traditions of the past.
Mixing his beers with fruit, herbs, and spices, Sam Calagione, founder of Milton, Delaware-based Dogfish Head Craft Brewery, uses ingredients remarkably close to ones used to brew ancient ales. The flavor of the company's latest concoction harks back 3,500 years.
That brew, called Kvasir, was on offer Thursday during a lecture and tasting in Brooklyn, New York as part of the World Science Festival. Calagione and Patrick McGovern, a biomolecular archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, explained how they made new beers based on some of the oldest brewing recipes ever found.
The duo actually made two different types of Kvasir, a Nordic grog recipe sourced from a birch wood drinking vessel found inside a burial casket submerged in water for thousands of years in Scandinavia. They also made an even older brew: Jiahu, a 9,000-year-old rice beer recipe found in a tomb at an excavation site in China.
Dogfish Head, which has made the Inc. 5000 four times, grew from the smallest commercial brewery in Delaware, making 10 gallons of beer at a time in 1995, to selling more than 200,000 barrels in 30 states last year. In July Calagione will open the Dogfish Inn, the first-ever beer-themed hotel, near the brewery.
The company has grown along with the craft brewing movement, which Calagione says has helped the U.S. win back its reputation for great beer.
"Forty to 50 years ago American beer was the laughingstock of the international brewing community. We were the country that homogenized and commodified beer and built these juggernauts who turned it into this global thing that could be sold on its marketing strategy rather then what's in the package," he says. "Today, there are craft breweries in Scandinavia, Japan, China, New Zealand, and Italy who are referencing the 3,000 craft breweries in the U.S. more than the German and English breweries that turned their nose up at American beer."
After his World Science Festival talk, Calagione sat down with Inc. for a glass of Kvasir and a conversation about Dogfish Head's embrace of the past and plans for the future. Here are his comments.
Inc.: Time is a theme that runs throughout Dogfish Head, from the names of your beers to the fortuitouness of starting a craft brewery in the 1990s. Can you tell us what timing means to Dogfish?
Sam Calagione: Timing is at the heart of our company--not just because our best-selling beers are called 60- and 90-minute IPAs, but because we were the first craft brewery to look way far backwards into history for inspiration for creative ingredients. We try to pay that forward. We try to be forward-thinking and creative in terms of looking into the culinary landscape for inspiration, but also looking as far back as we can for inspiration to remind today's drinkers that it's not weird today's beer landscape is as diverse as it is. The big breweries are great at making quality, consistent beer, but a homogenized style of beer. It's the craft brewers' job to play outside the lines and experiment. And that is the oldest tradition in brewing: experimenting to make beer.
You say that you're bringing beer back to a status on par with wine. Can you talk about the differences and similarities?
SC: Beer is unique compared to wine. Wine's basic ingredient is best served if it's harvested in the same place where it's fermented and packaged so the ingredients aren't dried. But the basic ingredients of modern beer, particularly hops and barley, are dried. They are a movable feast and can go to every geography in the world, unlike the bands of geography that support wine. The terroir of beer isn't so much the dirt underneath the brewery, it is the mind of the brewer. It's a man-made thing, proudly, as wine is a nature-made thing.
Dogfish made the Inc. 5000 four years in a row. Where are you guys now in terms of fast growth? Where do you want to take the company?
SC: We had a number of years where we were the fastest-growing craft brewery in the world and now we're probably not. For us, as we look economically at our position in the marketplace, we're not big: We're one-third of one-percent market share. But we're of a scale now [that] to grow 30, 40, or 50 percent a year, even if there's demand out there, would be uncomfortable for our company. I'd either have to take our company public, or take venture capital money to continue growing that fast. We're choosing to sacrifice top-line revenue growth so we can keep Dogfish a family-owned company, so we can do shit like we're doing tonight. If this was a publicly-owned company and I was diverting these resources to make one keg of beer I drove up from Delaware for an event, I'd be fired. I don't think fast growth is the best thing for a craft brewery.
My ultimate goal is to keep Dogfish family-owned until my son, who is now 14, and my daughter, who is now 11, are in their late 20s. And if they don't want to take it over, maybe I'll sell it. But if they want to take it over, I have an obligation to keep it family-owned until they decide.