As you pull up at Dogfish Head brewery HQ, a 100,000 square foot converted cannery, in Milton, Delaware, you are immediately struck by the sight of a treehouse that is part futurist steampunk vision, part Mad Max movie prop and the overwhelming sense that you are about to experience something, well, a little bit different.
Inside, a urinating statue and bocce court add to the relaxed tongue-in-cheek tone, but the moment that the founder and CEO Sam Caglione opens his mouth you are left in no doubt that this is a company which is deadly serious in its intent.
Since 1995, what is now the largest craft brewery in the mid-Atlantic has been fervently colouring outside the margins in a bid to add some flair to the American corporate beer machine and its forbidding oceans of fizzy yellow bromide.
Insipidly piloted by two conglomerates controlling 80% of the market, it is a harsh environment in which to thrive, but Dogfish Head has been making a righteous fist at it simply by having the courage to express itself.
In the mind of Caglione, brewing has far more to do with art, poetry and free-form cerebral gymnastics than prosaic lockstep processes and subtly tampering with the trusty building blocks of yeast, hops and barley.
“We incorporate the entire culinary landscape for potential ingredients, and the last place I look for inspiration is the beer world,” explains the former English literature student.
Dogfish Head’s stated mission is to produce “off-centered stuff, for off-centered people”, and a quick glance at its output emphatically proves its aim is true. Strong is often better (up to 20% is not uncommon) and taste and imagination is everything.
Aside from a range of signature India Pale Ales, Caglione’s roster of 34 creations include Raison D’Être (a strong Belgian dark ale brewed with beet sugar and raisins), Namaste (Witbier brewed with dried organic orange slices, fresh cut lemongrass, and coriander), and Pangea (brewed with ingredients from every continent including Australian crystallized ginger, water from Antarctica, Asian basmati rice, African muscavado sugar, South American quinoa, European yeast, and North American maize).
Another memorable concoction, Verdi Verdi Good, which has since been discontinued, stood out for its green colour derived from an infusion of blue-green algae.
There has also been a series of musical tributes, with beautifully brewed and designed limited edition beers for the 40th anniversary of Miles Davis’s entirely apt exploratory soundscape Bitches Brew, as well as the recently launched Faithfull Ale, which makes a nod towards Pearl Jam’s 20th anniversary and their seminal album Ten.
Even more out there is the “Ancient Ales” series, which is based on the chemical analysis of residue found on pottery and drinking vessels and audaciously produced in collaboration with a molecular archaeologist.
Midas Touch, which is produced all year round, is an ingenious concoction inspired by residue found on drinking vessels from the 8th century BC tomb of King Midas and powered by such ingredients as Muscat grapes, honey and saffron.
The Dogfish Head creative process begins when Caglione, a former short story buff and practitioner, pens a descriptive paragraph that is then delivered to the brewers at the Dogfish Head brewpub in the Rehoboth Beach area in Delaware.
The brewpub is the genesis, soul and epicentre of the company, starting life as the smallest commercial brewery in America and still acting as the testing ground for every aspect of operations, particularly for how its wine-like complexity produces complementary interactions with food (there is immense pride for a fresh range of sustainable grilled seafood, burgers, pizzas and sandwiches on offer).
If the regulars “dig it”, the concept graduates to the Milton HQ to be fine-tuned and configured for large-scale production and distribution both nationally and, increasingly, internationally.
Currently, the company boasts a network of 50-plus wholesalers across the US, covering a 25-state area. Achieving nationwide coverage is a long-held ambition.
Each beer is treated as a work of art, both inside and outside the bottle, with distinctive artwork produced by, among others, Caglione himself, to ensure a strong visual identity.
While all this may be anathema to Joe Sixpack, Dogfish Head’s high-end artisanal approach has proved a huge success.
In 1995, the company was producing just two to three 12-gallon batches a day. This year, 145,000 barrels are due for production. During this period sales have grown from $700,000 to an estimated $52,000,000.
“The only growth in the American beer market right now is in craft beer,” says Caglione.
“Here we are at the highest price end in the industry and yet we’re growing. That’s an anomaly in the recession.”
Indeed, the US craft brewing sector’s retail dollar value in 2010 was estimated at $7.6B by the US Brewers Association, up from $7B in 2009.
Today, 1,753 companies provide employment for 100,000 people. While that may be small beer in the grand scheme of things – the global beer market is forecast to hit $496B by 2014 – the craft beer revolution is on a steady upward curve and becoming more influential with each passing year.
“We’re thriving because we are creating these really exciting, exotic beers,” says Caglione.
“People want more flavour in their lives. It’s an affordable luxury to drink world-class beer. It is a trading up that’s accessible.”
Caglione’s 200-strong company could be even bigger than it is today, but he is keen to retain its familial vibe and provide quality of life for his employees.
To this end, a conscious decision was made to curb the rate of growth from 35% year-on-year to around 20% moving forward. The bricks and mortar intensity of massive up-scaling is not on the agenda, and neither is venture capital infusions or cash-yielding IPOs.
That is not to say, the company lacks ambition. The Rehoboth brewpub recently branched out to incorporate idiosyncratic takes on gin, rum and vodka, and there are plans to open a roof-top brewpub in New York City later this year.
Longer term, Caglione has designs on a realistic endgame within his lifetime of 500,000 barrels per annum. After that it is his “children’s problem.”
Caglione is keen to stress that any growth, whether large or tempered, will never negatively impact on employee welfare in any way, nor the goodwill and corporate social responsibility plus-points it has racked up over the years for extensive commitments to environmental sustainability, whether it is producing zero waste from its ingredients, repurposing water to irrigate farmlands, forging strong links with the US Nature Conservancy or collaborating with Patagonia for a co-branded clothing line initiative.
Unsurprisingly, Dogfish Head’s unorthodoxy, sense of fun, laudable principles and ability to churn out mind-bending libations has not gone unnoticed.
Last year, a combination of word of mouth and social media-savvy helped catch the attention of Discovery Channel executives, earning the company the protagonist role in Brew Masters, a behind-the-scenes look at the brewing process from elaborate recipe brainstorming and conception to bottling.
The show is a perfect fit for Caglione, who is a natural showman and whose tireless and entertaining evangelizing about the merits of beer render you all but helpless to resist – a canny knack he has also replicated in book form and, hilariously, through hip hop, as one half of the Beastie Boys-esue hip-hop duo Pain Relievaz (with Dogfish Head brewer Bryan Selders).
Caglione can trace his love affair with beer back to when he was studying postgraduate creative writing in New York. Like most college students, he had tended to opt for a quantity over quality approach to drinking, but a stint as a bartender at an artisan-minded pub soon exploded that notion. Before long he was brewing up a storm in his dorm.
His first home-brewed batch was a resounding success, using soured cherries to add nuance to an English-style pale ale.
“This beer is awesome,” he proudly announced to his college buddies. “This is what I’m going to do with my life!”
His next two batches were a flat out disaster, but he was too far gone to change tack. According to Caglione, good beer has the potential to connect with us on more intellectually resonant level than wine, which is geographically anchored and reliant on meteorological forces and natural variables such as soil condition.
World-class beer, on the other hand, is entirely down to the individual skill of the brewer and can be produced anywhere on the planet.
“As brewers it is not mother nature that contributes the quality, rather it is the brewer themselves,” he says.
“The consumer identifies with the fact that the brewer’s creativity is put to the test.”
In his mind, the fact that he hasn’t yet fully succeeded in this respect inspires him to keep pushing at whatever boundaries are in front of him.
“My favourite beer doesn’t exist yet,” he smiles.
“I’m just thinking about the next one and what hasn’t been done before!”
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