The Art of ‘Brew Masters’


in: Drinking

One element at the heart of Sam Calagione’s Delaware brewery not yet tapped on the Discovery Channel’s “Brew Masters” series is his love for the pairing of brews and food. Calagione, the charismatic

None of it was made for TV, he says, noting that about 80 percent of the projects filmed had been on the 2010 calendar since the beginning of the year.

The sixth episode of the season, though, is the one that will finally connect Calagione’s beer with cuisine. The episode, still to be scheduled, chronicles the Dogfish Head team consulting on a beer for the Batali-Bastianich food and wine emporium on New York’s Fifth Avenue, Eataly. “Watching them (Mario and Joe) get into the beer makes him hopeful that a lot more foodies will recognize the possibilities.”

We solicited Calagione’s opinion on how to partner food with the beers he offers year-round –  the 90 Minute IPA, the 120 Minute IPA, Raison D’Etre, Indian Brown Ale and Midas Touch. (In 2011, they will also offer Palo Santo Maroon).

The IPAs, he says, work best as aperitifs, appropriate for cheeses, especially fatty and stinky ones. The India Brown Ale stands its ground with acidic foods such as tomato-based dishes, making it perfect for spaghetti and meatballs or pizza. Raison D’Etre is positioned as the ultimate steak or hamburger beer. The sweeter and maltier Midas Touch, made with white Muscat grapes, saffron and honey,  complements spicy foods such as gumbo and chili.

Brewing is art

Dogfish Head is positioned on the TV show as an out-of-the-ordinary brewery with off-center products. That facet of the company was driven home on Dec. 8 when Dogfish Head announced the 2011 roll-out of 20 beers with limited availability. An ancient ale program of four brews, for example, runs May to September. Three different bottle-conditioned beers are released through the year, one month at a time; the seasonal brews — Aprihop, Festina Peche, Punkin and Chicory Stout –  are tapped two or three months at a time with no two available at the same time. Next November, they will release a new beer, Brand X.

Production varies widely, from the hundreds of thousands of cases of the 90 minute IPA to as little as 3,000 cases of 12 ounce bottles of a specialty brew.

Their first brewed beverage was Shelter Pale Ale, made in 12-gallon batches in three small kegs with propane burners underneath that they brewed three times a day, five days a week. It allowed them to try multiple recipes and in 2002, seven years after they started, they opened a full-scale brewery in Milton, Del. In 15 years, they have catapulted from the smallest brewery in the United States to the 38th largest.

The growth that followed the move to a proper brewery was so accelerated that Calagione felt the need to put on the brakes — for three years. Between 2002 and 2008, the company grew annually in revenue by 40 percent as the beer was distributed to 31 states despite no national distribution network and of the 100 or so employees, only seven are sales people.

The TV crews arrived a year into the three-year plan to cut back growth to 20 percent through 2011. All the beer Calagione and his team is seen making is already allocated, a fact that he believes helps make the show a bit more honest and not a chronicle of a beer company planning an expansion.

“Knowing that there is a limited supply of beer, we hope this can be more of a celebration of renaissance of craft brewing,” he says. “We’re one example of 1,600 small breweries, and if we go to a second season, I think we will get to show more of our industry.

“The unwritten message is that brewing is an art form just like music and writing. The global, commercial beer world is dominated by conglomerates with no interest in unique liquids. The success of Dogfish Head is the same as all small craft brewers. We bring business to the human scale — it’s all about having conversations with your neighbors and your fellow brewers. Look at the locavore trajectory of the last five years or so and it’s not coincidental that it aligns with the breakdown of commercial industry.”

‘A good name for a beer company’

Placing that human element into a business environment was one of several story lines in a recent episode that covered Dogfish Head partnering with a surfboard manufacturer, artists installing a tree house on the brewery’s lawn and reminiscing with father about the day, at the age of 25, when he said he was going to become a brewer. They were on a walk in Maine while on vacation and his father, upon hearing the news, looked up at the street sign that read Dogfish Head Lane and commented that it would make a good name for a beer company.

The issue at the center of the episode though is what to do with two tanks of the 120 minute IPA that have failed at the quality control level, resulting in the lost of  half a million dollars worth of product. After re-tasting and examining their options, they decide to pour the ale down the drain and then re-analyze their recipes.

“Seven or eight years ago,” Calagione notes, “that would have put us out of business. We always assume there will be some beer that has to be tossed but the budget line for that is not in the middle six figures.

“I had some trepidation is showing that story, but it’s the realities of a small business. Everything does not go in a straight line and when you take on a challenge, not everything works out.”

Brew Masters airs at 8 p.m. on Thursdays. This Thursday, Calagione explores creating an ancient Chinese ale.


Phil Gallo is an entertainment journalist who writes about music, television, theater and film in addition to food and wine.

Photo: Sam Calaione of Dogfish Head.
Credit: Courtesy of Dogfish Head





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