When craft beers first started to arrive in North Carolina, one of the first names I learned was that crazy one, “Dogfish Head.” Sam Calagione’s Delaware-based brewery has been out in front of the pack for 20 years, coming up with serious and funky beer creations.
When I heard Calagione, 48, would be in Charlotte this week for an event at Flight uptown, I grabbed the chance to meet the man in person. I had seen him in person before: When he finally won the James Beard Award for Outstanding Wine, Spirits or Beer Professional (after being nominated six times before), I was there when he accepted the award from Valerie Bertinelli at the Lyric Opera House in Chicago.
Six things I asked him about Wednesday afternoon:
1. Why Calagione likes it here. This is his second trip to Charlotte, and he was bubbling over about local craft brewers he got to meet on this trip, including brewers from NoDa (he’s a fanboy of Chad Henderson), Sugar Creek, Unknown and Lenny Boy.
“Externally, there’s a perception that Asheville is mecca for N.C. beer,” he said. “But I think N.C. is the mecca of N.C. beer. Every city’s got these robust and interesting local beer communities. . . . What I love about North Carolina, it’s got breweries of all shapes and sizes. North Carolina is this great snowflake flurry of breweries.”
2. Distributors have their place. While he gets the Craft Freedom movement here, in which breweries are fighting to raise the amount of beer they can make before they have to sign with a distributor, he also doesn’t automatically diss beer distributors. In Delaware, there is no self-distribution at all, and he says that helped him to grow, because he could focus on making good beer and not have to spend a lot of time on how to get that beer into the market.
3. The consumer has a right to know. As a member of the national Brewers Association, which represents independent breweries, he’s also a big supporter of clarity in who owns breweries. The new program to add a symbol to labels is an important step.
“We’re vehement supporters,” he says. “It’s a call to action, saying consumers should be able to access the information. It should act as a catalyst for more robust dialogue.”
He doesn’t fault breweries like Wicked Weed that have made deals with large companies like Anheuser Busch InBev: “You can’t fault an entrepreneur for deciding to sell their business. That’s the American dream for some people.” Making that deal can bring a brewery more than money: They can get better access to ingredients and to national distribution.
But he wants to see commitment to clarity and marketing, so the consumer can know and decide. He’d like to see a way that consumers can get “immediate access to who makes everything in the world.”
“If I could change anything, I’d change that.”
4. Brace for impact. Yes, craft beer is growing rapidly even as general beer sales fall. And there will eventually be an economic slowing. But that’s not a bad thing, he says.
“Consumers’ beer knowledge is so much greater than a decade ago. There will be an economic Darwinism (as some don’t make it), but that’s OK.” The ones that will be left will be the best makers.
5. What’s a Dogfish Head? Actually, I didn’t ask where the name Dogfish Head came from: He’s told the story many times. Calagione spent summers in Maine as a kid, near a fishing area where lobster boats caught a lot of dogfish.
6. Dogfish never kills a beer, but some get put into deep sleep. No, he won’t start making Raison d’Etre, his seasonal Belgian made with raisins, just because I liked it so much and still miss it. But if I ever get to Delaware, I can buy a bottle of Raison d’Extra, a high-alcohol version that he can’t distribute here.
OK, OK. Thanks, Sam.