Sam Calagione, the head brewer at Dogfish Head Brewery in Delaware, might look like a frat boy and sound like a total dude, but he’s one of the biggest geeks around when it comes to beer. His new show on the Discovery Channel, Brew Masters, follows his team of brewers as they travel around the world seeking inspiration from ancient and obscure beer recipes.
How did the show come about? Did the Discovery Channel people call your people?
Well, to begin with I don’t have any “people.” Our company only advertises in beer publications and we make our own ads. We design our own packaging; we design our own beers. We don’t have focus groups or PR companies or that kind of stuff. But one of the things we do guerrilla-marketing-wise, my wife, Mariah, and I — she runs the company — we make these short, goofy videos for our website, dogfish.com. I’ve got a goofy beer-geek hip-hop band called the Pain Relievaz, and we’ve made a couple of goofy videos, so that’s what’s out there on the Internet.
So, they saw your stuff?
The idea of a beer show was already in process with a few different networks and production companies, so a few of them called us. Being very green to the entertainment world, we just said, “Look, you know, we’re brewers, we’re really not going to sign any contracts with you. So, if you tell us you want to do a show with us, it’s awesome, and if you want to do a show with someone else, that’s awesome, too.” I think they just did a few different scenarios with different breweries for show ideas and they decided they wanted to work with us, and we’re really excited and glad they did.
Were you nervous about having in all likelihood significantly more viewers than you ever had with your videos?
You know, our initial anxiety was this was reality TV. Am I going to have to show my lack of a six-pack? My beer-belly situation? Are they going to be expecting us to get into fistfights and cry? They quickly pacified those fears. Basically, I just sent them my schedule of collaborations and travels. So, it’s really authentic. It’s not a bunch of manufactured situations. And they got their drama because shit happens at breweries. You know, you’re up against 2 million yeast cells and sometimes they don’t go in the direction you want them to. They see us struggling to make great beers and see all our co-workers coming together. I’m really proud of the episodes I’ve seen.
Molecular archaeology is a big interest of yours. Is that the focus of Brew Masters?
One particular episode has to do with ancient ales. I’d say in general the show’s just focused on brewing outside the box — using exotic ingredients from around the world to make beer.
Would you say you’re a fairly unruly bunch when you travel together?
I would say at the end of the evening, if it’s just us, we’re giant goofballs and we don’t take ourselves very seriously. But we take beer really seriously in a fun way. If we’re out doing an event or something we try to represent beer with respect because we have great respect for the tradition of brewing. But we try to have fun, too.
Where did you travel for the show?
Oh, let’s see. New Zealand, Egypt, Germany, Finland, Peru, Italy … Maine.
What was your favorite?
I would probably say my favorite moment — there were so many awesome moments — was this Egyptian tomb. I think it was about a 5,000-year-old tomb outside of Cairo. It has the oldest known artistic representation of the brewing process, where they’re showing hieroglyphs of beer and bread being made together. It was a pretty existential moment as a brewer to be standing in the written birthplace of your vocation.
Did you uncover any “new” ancient recipes that you’re going to try out?
Yeah, in both Egypt and Peru. The Peru one is in the second episode, and the Egypt one is really cool. We did some really groundbreaking stuff with wild yeast for that one. So, yeah, we do a couple of ancient beers for this series.
How do you come up with new beer recipes?
Each beer, we find our own way into it. They’re all unique. Sometimes it’s just me on my bike in the morning with, like, a holy-shit moment of, “Oh my God, these two ingredients have never been used in a beer. Next week, I’m going to make this at our brewery and pub.” Or it could be I read crazy hundred-year-old beer book and come across some latent brewing technique or ingredient or whatever and want to revive it. Or I’ll work with my buddy Dr. Pat McGovern, who’s a molecular archaeologist at UPenn. Based on his microscopic findings on shards of crockery from different dig sites we’ll come up with a different beer.
Wow. Sounds science-y. When you started 15 years ago, was this your vision of yourself as a brewmaster?
No. Honestly, what we’ve been able to accomplish collectively has exceeded my wildest dreams and our brewery is much bigger than we ever thought it would be. That said, it shows you how big the brewing industry is. Dogfish Head has one-twentieth of a 1 percent market share. Even a brewery like Sam Adams that’s bigger than us only has 1 percent of the domestic beer market. Two giant international companies have over 80 percent of the domestic beer market, and collectively all 1,600 small breweries in America only hold 5 percent. So, I’m very proud of what we’ve accomplished. But speaking on behalf of all small brewers, we still have so much work to do and so many exciting beers to make if we’re going to truly grow this movement. Do you ever worry about getting too big?
We’re not trying to shrink. We’ve grown some 20 percent this year, and we plan to grow 20 percent next year. For a brewery making 7,000 cases of beer a day, that’s another 1,400 cases a day in the next year. We’re still ambitious. I love doing these new projects, and certainly they bring attention to our brewery and so demand as a result stays pretty high. We don’t put any more energy behind selling one of our beers than our others. We have 41 different beers. We just don’t want to do one thing and grow fast for the sake of growing fast. We love the opportunity for creative expression and we love this community of like-minded beer lovers.
What do you envision as the future of Dogfish Head?
Mariah, my wife, and I just recently sold 8 percent of the company to our 11- and nine-year-old son and daughter, the ungrateful bastards. That’s our dream. It’s, “Can we make this community substantial and strong enough that we can pass it to the next generation and keep it a family-owned company?” Assuming one or both of them would be interested in helping carry on what Mariah and I started. I just want to keep growing because I have so many awesome people running this company with me and I want to make sure that they always have an opportunity for personal and professional growth, as well. Beyond that, I don’t really care how fast we grow. It’s whatever is most comfortable with the brewery. The only thing we know is we’re going to be making beer five years from now that we’re not making now. That’s why I love it.