Q&A: Sam Calagione talks Philly Beer Week, Rehoboth Beach, and Dogfish Head’s 20th anniversary

Founder and president of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery Sam Calagione attends The 2009 New Yorker Festival: Bottoms Up Beer Brewing at The Gate. (Photo by Amy Sussman/Getty Images for The New Yorker)

Back in June 1995, Dogfish Head Brewings & Eats opened its doors in idyllic Rehoboth Beach, Del., and — in the beer world, at least — very little has been the same since. 

Now, 20 years and more than 200 beers later, founder Sam Calagione is showing no signs of slowing down as Dogfish Head moves into its third decade of brewing. Which, of course, is good for us, what with Philly Beer Week kicking off today and all.

Dogfish has a slew of events scheduled throughout the week, but Calagione will be in town starting Sunday, when he’ll attend BarLy’s Girl Power Hour. From there, he’ll move on to Local 44 on Monday for a joint event with Wells & Young’s Jim Robertson, followed by the Decker & Sam Happy Hour at American Sardine Bar.

To cap his trip to Philly off, Calagione will judge the Extreme Homebrew Challenge at Jose Pistola’s alongside George Hummel and Nancy Rigberg of the legendary Home Sweet Homebrew — where Calagione secured the materials and ingredients for the first few batches of Dogfish Head all those years ago.

I recently spoke with Calagione about Philly Beer Week, his ongoing battle with Rehoboth officials over expanding the brewpub, and what we can expect from Dogfish Head in its 20th anniversary and beyond. Through all that, one thing is clear: Dogfish’s proudly off-centered tradition will carry on.

Check out the interview below:

Philly.com: First and foremost, what can we expect from Dogfish Head for Philly Beer Week this year?
Sam Calagione: Sunday, I fly into Philly, and we’re pulling up some hard-to-find Dogfish beers like 120 Minute. But we’re also launching our Festina Peche during Philly Beer Week. That’s the first American bottled Berliner Weisse beer, which we’ve been doing for seven years — long before sours were popular. 

P: Yesterday, you debuted another Ancient Ale with U. Penn’s Dr. Patrick McGovern called Two-Rabbit Pulque — a brewpub-exclusive sour. Why that brew specifically?
SC: It’s a pretty important historical finding because it proves that … well, the earliest culture and geography known to do distilling was thought to be in Asia. But with the new findings in this region of Mexico, it shows that new world settlers were distilling much earlier there.

P: You recently were nominated for a Beard Award this year, but lost — Dogfish’s fifth year being nominated in a row. When will they finally throw one your way?
SC: Always the bridesmaid, never the bride. Just to be recognized that many years in a row, that’s an honor in itself. As long as I keep getting voted in there to be a finalist, I feel like it’s my obligation to show up and represent beer in that culinary community.

P: But at least some hometown recognition came when the Lewes Historical Society opened a Dogfish Head exhibit in mid-May showing the growth of the brewery, right?
SC: When we opened as a small commercial brewery in Rehoboth 20 years ago, if you told me that there’d someday be a museum exhibit focused around it, I’d have never believed you. We’re proud that the Lewes Historical Society put on the exhibit.

P: At the same time, DFH was denied a request to expand the Rehoboth brewpub, but since has been granted a second hearing in June. What has that battle been like?
SC: It was heartwarming to see thousands of people stand up and say the decision the city made was inappropriate, and we’re hopeful that calmer heads will prevail. Now that they’re going to reconsider our application, we’re confident we’ll be given the same rights as some of the other restaurants in town, like Nicola and Grotto. They’ve been given variance freedom to build bigger buildings than what we’re asking for, so hopefully we can go through that process. 

P: Would you consider taking Dogfish Head out of Rehoboth over the expansion issue?
SC: We don’t think it would be a good thing for downtown Rehoboth — for the identity of the city, for the other businesses in that city — if Dogfish Head pulled up our roots and went somewhere else. Of course, it’s where we want to be, too. We love that town too much to just spitefully walk away from it. We’re fighting the good fight on behalf of a vast majority of people who want us to stay. 

P: Last fall, Dogfish Head announced it had begun construction on a large-scale distillery. Is that the next big thing coming out of Milton for you guys?
SC: We just started to do trial batches on the larger distilling equipment, and we plan to have spirits available here in Delaware in the fall. We’re just starting to get it finished now. We’ll keep the R&D distillery in Rehoboth, but we’ll also have a much bigger production facility in Milton.

P: Aside from the distillery, the other big development has been the Dogfish Inn. How has that complimented the Dogfish ethos so far?
SC: It’s been a ton of fun, and it’s really like a nature-oriented hotel sitting right on the harbor in Lewes. You can ride your bike or kayak to our restaurant in Rehoboth in one direction, or you can ride your bike or kayak towards our production brewery in Milton the other direction.

P: Similarly, Dogfish has been pushing into sports a little bit more, specifically with the new river deck at PPL Park. What makes that fit work?
SC: We thought it would be a great fit because a lot of craft beer drinkers are also soccer fans. I love going, and that Dogfish deck isn’t just 60 Minute — there are some interesting, hard-to-find Dogfish Head beers up there. It’s great seeing craft beer exploding beyond this small niche of hardcore beer geeks, and it’s fun for us to explore.

P: And, of course, after 20 years, Dogfish has brewed hundreds of different beers. If it’s possible to pick, do you have a favorite?
SC: It’s usually the one I drink with someone after that question.