"Since we opened in '95, our mission has pretty much been off-centered ales for off-centered people," says Sam Calagione, the founder and president of the award-winning Delaware microbrewery Dogfish Head. "We really had no interest in doing what had already been done. We started using coffee, licorice, pumpkins, and raisins. Even in the burgeoning craft-brewing industry, we were kind of looked upon as freaks and heretics. But it helped create this niche for strange and exotics beers as opposed to the norm."
Calagione will be in town this Thursday for a meet-and-greet and book signing at the Charleston Beer Exchange and for a seven-beer/five-course beer dinner at Laura Alberts Tasteful Options on Daniel Island. The guys at Charleston Beer Exchange call Calagione "one of the biggest rock stars of the craft beer world," and they mean it. When the first wave of flavorful ales hit the local store shelves in late 2008, the shop became one of the micro's biggest proponents, selling copious amounts of the 90 Minute Imperial IPA, the high-gravity Palo Santo Marron, the honey-flavored Midas Touch, and the exotic Pangaea ("brewed with ingredients from every continent").
More so now than just a few years ago, brewers in the contemporary craft brewing scene make their fruit-infused beers with fresher ingredients, avoiding syrups and extracts. Dogfish's new seasonal ale Aprihop — a very hoppy, well-balanced amber ale made with freshly pureed apricot — will be featured at Laura Alberts as the reception beer. Their new Black & Blue — a Belgian-style ale with pureed blackberries and blueberries — will be paired with a main course as well.
"We started working on the Aprihop recipe around '97 or so, pretty much in response to some of the fruit beers that were coming out at the time, many of which tasted like soda," says Calagione. "We called it the fruit beer for people who hated fruit beers ... or an IPA with a fruit problem. The pureed apricot was just in there to accentuate and magnify the citrusy character of the northwestern hops that we used."
Calagione started Dogfish Head in 1995 in the community of Rehoboth Beach. It was the smallest commercial brewery in America at that time. In 2002, they relocated their main production brewery to a converted cannery in the town of Milton. They now produce 75,000 barrels of beer annually — more than 20 styles of exotically inspired ales sold in 28 states.
"I haven't had the chance to return to South Carolina since I started working on the brewery in the '90s," Calagione says. "I'm really looking forward to checking out the craft-brewing scene down there — especially since the laws were changed to allow bigger beers into the market. It looks like South Carolina might become one of the top 10 states for us out of 28."
In addition to running a brewery, Calagione has written three books about beer. In 2005, he published Brewing Up a Business, which touched mainly on his nontraditional success as an entrepreneur. Extreme Brewing, released in 2006, aimed for homebrewers and enthusiasts with recipes and in-depth, behind-the-scenes accounts of his brewing experience. The recently released He Said Beer, She Said Wine (co-authored by Marnie Old) emphasizes the pairing of both beer and wine with a wide variety of foods.
"I think what you're seeing now is that foodies, and wine people in particular, are recognizing that good beer is very compatible with good food — just as much as wine," he says. "And the 10 best beers out there are much more affordable than the best wines. It is an affordable luxury, and foodies are starting to cherish that."
The spring and fall seasons are extremely busy for Calagione, who spends a great deal of time traveling around the country for seminars, beer dinners, and promotional events.
"Every event is so different," he says. "We just did a film-oriented event in Austin last week and a wine-versus-beer type thing earlier this week. Dogfish Head is lucky enough to grow because we make very good, very differentiated beers. Plus the consumers are out there spreading the word. I'm very grateful for that."
Meet Sam Calagione at Charleston Beer Exchange (14 Exchange St.) on Thurs. April 22 from 4:30-6 p.m. Several Dogfish Head ales will be on tap at the growler station. Calagione hosts a Dogfish Head beer dinner at Laura Alberts Tasteful Options (891 Island Park Drive #B, Daniel Island) on Thurs. April 22 at 7 p.m. Reserved seating is available for $55 per person (843-881-4711).