Exploring the Off-Centered World of Dogfish Head

Last week many in the craft beer industry were shocked by the news of the Boston Beer Company and Dogfish Head Brewery merger. Certainly, you’ve seen the news and read the reaction comments and stories from every beer geek and their brother. Everyone has an opinion, including us, but you’ll be happy to know that isn’t what this story is about. This story is about our love of Dogfish Head, and last summer when we visited their brewery, hotel, and brewpub in Delaware during the 2018 Beer Now Conference (formerly the Beer Bloggers & Writers Conference.)

Visiting the Dogfish Head Brewery in Milton, Delaware

What’s the Big Deal About Dogfish Head?

As craft beer lovers who live in Colorado, we choose to drink local about 75% of the time. With so many outstanding craft breweries nearby, it’s no sacrifice to shop from the local side of the beer cooler during most of our beer runs. However, great craft beer isn’t exclusive to Colorado, so we certainly have more than a few out-of-state favorites. Check our beer fridge at any given time and you’ll probably find beers from Sierra Nevada, Stone, Bell’s, Cigar City, and many other great breweries. You’ll almost always find a few Dogfish Head Craft Brewed Ales in there as well. Jeff usually keeps a few of their IPAs on hand, while my go-to is their Sea Quench Session Sour. If we happen to see a Dragons & YumYums or American Beauty in the bomber room, we won’t pass them up either. We really enjoy Dogfish Beer. They are always creative, flavorful, and unique… or as they put it, Off-Centered.

The History of Dogfish Head

To say that Sam and Mariah Calagione are craft beer pioneers is not hyperbole. After all, when Sam Calagione decided to open a brewpub in Delaware in 1995, breweries weren’t even legal in the state. He had to go to the Delaware State Senate to get the law changed before he could begin brewing. When the brewpub finally opened in Rehoboth Beach, Calagione didn’t just brew your typical beer styles. From the beginning, he focused on creating experimental beers with unique ingredients and using unconventional brewing methods. The beers they made were unlike what anyone else was making at the time. That may be typical in today’s craft beer environment, but not so much in 1995. It was a risky move for a startup brewery, much less one in a small, seasonal, resort town. Yet as we all now know, being a non-conformist definitely paid off for the Calagione’s and Dogfish Head.

Talk to Sam Calagione for any amount of time about the success of Dogfish Head, and he’ll be certain to point out that he didn’t do it alone. Mariah Calagione, Sam’s wife and company co-founder, joined Dogfish Head in 1997 when they were still a struggling start-up. While the plan was for her to focus on marketing, she juggled a bit of everything those early days. While Sam did the brewing, sales, and deliveries, Mariah handled the accounting, payroll, compliance, and whatever needed to be handled. It was Mariah that came up with the idea behind the Dogfish Inn, and she can be credited for increasing their brand awareness through marketing and social media. It’s a great example of “teamwork making the dream work.”

Visiting the Dogfish Head Brewery in Milton, Delaware

Today Dogfish Head still operates a brewpub in Rehoboth Beach, although it’s much larger now. That’s not all that has grown over the past two decades. They’ve expanded the Dogfish Head business ventures to include a brewing and packaging facility in Milton, where they also operate a distillery that makes spirits and bottled cocktails. There’s a new seafood restaurant, too, not to mention a trio of Dogfish Head Alehouses in nearby Maryland and Virginia.

Our Dogfish Head Beercation

Last year we got to cross a few things off our craft beer geek bucket list when we visited Dogfish Head’s brewery, brewpub, and inn last summer. It was all part of an incredible pre-conference excursion arranged by the Beer Now Conference. Now that we’ve been to Delaware once, we can’t wait to plan another trip back. Not only has Dogfish Head created a great beercation destination by opening a super-cool inn near their breweries, but the whole area around Rehoboth Beach and Lewes is absolutely beautiful. While our trip was short, we fit a lot of fun into 24 hours in Delaware. Here’s a bit more detail about the places we visited.

Visiting the Dogfish Head Brewery in Milton, Delaware

The Dogfish Head Brewery in Milton

When the news broke about Dogfish Head last week, you no doubt saw photos of the Dogfish Head Brewery in Milton and the iconic Steampunk Tree House that sits out front. It’s the first thing you notice when you pull up, serving as a bit of a heads-up that Dogfish Head isn’t your typical brewery. In person, it’s even more epic. It’s just another great reason to make a pilgrimage to Dogfish Head.

The Taproom & Brewery Tour

Inside the taproom, we were met with beer samples, tasty foods, and cheeses to pair with our beers, and several Dogfish Head employees happy to answer all our questions. We took the full brewery tour, where we learned about the history of Dogfish Head plus plenty of fun facts about their beers and ingredients. For example, you know the 90 Minute IPA, the one that is continuously dry hopped for 90 minutes? We learned that Calagione originally used a retro vibrating football game purchased at a thrift store to make those consistent hop additions. At just the right angle the vibrations would slide the hops into the wort consistently over 90 minutes to give this Imperial IPA it’s big aroma and bitter flavors. Who knew?

Inside the Dogfish Head Brewery in Milton, Delaware

After our history lesson, we toured the brewhouse, distillery, and packaging facility. The brewery is pretty massive, and while it’s not markedly different than other production breweries we’ve seen, it’s worth the time to tour. The tour was fun, informative, and there were some great sampling areas along the way. We sampled a beer that wasn’t available in the taproom, as well as a few of the tasty Dogfish Head spirits. There’s just something about tasting beer at the site where it was made that feels magical. Or maybe that’s just us. Regardless, the Dogfish Head Brewery in Milton is worth a visit, and won’t disappoint.

The Steampunk Tree House at the Dogfish Head Brewery in Milton, Delaware

The Steampunk Treehouse

Touring the Dogfish Head Brewery was bucket-list worthy on its own, but we really wanted in that tree house. Not technically a tree, the Steampunk Tree House is a large-scale art project made in 2007 by Sean Orlando and the Five Ton Crane Arts Group. It debuted at Burning Man, before finding a permanent home at Dogfish Head in 2010. Typically going inside is reserved for Dogfish employees only, but we convinced our tour guide to let us in for a peek. It was pretty impressive. While you couldn’t (and most definitely shouldn’t) fit very many people up there at once, it’s a chill place to hang out and escape reality while dreaming up your next off-centered brew. There are stained glass windows, a wood-burning stove, and various knobs, contraptions, and portholes. Our favorite item was Sam Calagione’s Analog High Five Machine. Give the wooden hand a high five and a door opens to reveal a tiny skeleton wishing you “Namaste.” It was just too cool!

Inside the Steampunk Tree House at Dogfish Head in Milton, testing the analog high five machine.

Fireside Chat with Sam & Mariah Calagione

So, this isn’t typically part of the tour, but attending as part of the Beer Now Conference definitely has its perks! During our brewery visit, we enjoyed a “fireside” chat with Dogfish Head founders Sam and Mariah Calagione. As if that wasn’t brag-worthy enough, we got to have a conversation with these two amazing people while sipping on some 10-year aged 120 Minute IPA. Our beer geek cup runneth over! Both Sam and Mariah were friendly and open about how they started, what drives them, and their thoughts on the beer industry. Was there any hint of a future merger, you may be wondering? No, not at all. However, Sam did mention that the industry was getting harder and that to survive businesses would either need to decide to stay hyper-local or try to go very big, because there would be less room for all those breweries floating around in the middle. I guess now we know which path they are taking to stay competitive. Based on our feelings about them as business folks and individuals, we are sure they made the decision after lots of thought about what was best for the company, their staff, and their future. We hope it means nothing but good things for the Dogfish Head family.

A fireside chat with Sam and Mariah Calagione at the Dogfish Head Brewery in Milton, Delaware. Part of the Beer Now Conference excursion, 2018.
120 Minute IPA from Dogfish Head, vintage 2008. We tasted this 10-year aged beer at the Dogfish Head Brewery in Milton, and it was amazing!

The Dogfish Inn

Next stop on our Dogfish Head beercation was the Dogfish Inn, in Lewes, Delaware. Just north of Rehoboth Beach on the Delaware Bay, Lewes looks like a great coastal vacation spot. It was pretty quiet when we arrived that evening, but many of our Beer Now group still managed to visit the beach for an impromptu dip. Lewes is the sort of sleepy town where if you hang your wet boxer shorts on a light post outside a bar to dry, they’ll still be there waiting for you when you come back out. Not that we know this by experience, but rather, by observation, we swear! In short, Lewes is a quiet beach town that probably is happy our crazy busload of beer writers were only visiting for the night.

The Dogfish Inn in Lewes, Delaware

The Dogfish Inn was totally my kind of place. It had a retro highway motel look on the outside. There is a patio with a firepit for guests to gather around at night, plus a few bicycles you can borrow to explore the town. Inside, the rooms were modern and featured all the necessary amenities for a relaxing getaway. The minibar inside the room offered some local snacks and Dogfish souvenirs for purchase, but take note, it does not stock any beer. They don’t serve Dogfish Head beer at the inn on purpose, in the hopes that you’ll be inspired to check out the other local Lewes bars or restaurants. They also provide guests with a 32-ounce Dogfish Head growler that you can take with you to get filled at the brewpub or brewery… so you don’t leave empty-handed.

After a good night’s sleep, we woke early to explore Lewes a bit. It’s a cute place, with lots to do and plenty of small, independent businesses to keep you fed and outfitted for your next adventure. We highly recommend the Dogfish Inn and will plan our next Delaware trip just to stay there again.

Bonus (for us anyway): We learned just before our trip that my sister & her family were vacationing in a nearby town. We told you this was the cool vacation destination! We had just enough time that morning to catch up with them before we jumped on the bus for our next stop. It was great, given that we live in different time zones & don’t see each other as often as we’d like. It was also great because they brought us some incredible local doughnuts and much-needed coffee. They’re the best! You never know you’ll run into when in Delaware, apparently…

Dogfish Head Brewing & Eats

The final stop on our all-Dogfish-Head-Delaware-tour was their Rehoboth Beach brewpub, Dogfish Head Brewing & Eats. This is where it all began back in 1995, sort of. It is the home of the original brewery and brewpub, however, after 20+ years they expanded the new Brewing & Eats to a bigger and better space next to the original space. We never visited it before so we can’t say how it’s different, but we can say that Brewing & Eats was a pretty great space. This place really highlights Sam’s love of music, which has often inspired his beers. From punk rock and hip hop posters to the big-ass stage for live music, Dogfish Head Brewing & Eats is a really cool place. We’d love to check out some live music there someday.

Dogfish Head Brewing & Eats in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. Great food, beer and spirits!

Beer, Lunch & a Colorado Connection

Here we enjoyed a beer pairing lunch, complete with tasting notes from brewer Bryan Selders. The food was absolutely delicious, with a menu featuring a variety of made-from-scratch sandwiches, tacos, pizza and more. Of course, all of it was even better when paired with delicious Dogfish Head beer. We got to chat with Selders during lunch and were excited to learn he has a connection to Colorado, too! After a long stint at Dogfish Head, he left in 2013 for Colorado where he was the founding brewmaster at The Post in Lafayette. He helped create several of their flagship brews, and even won a GABF medal with The Post before boomeranging back to Dogfish Head for a great opportunity.

Visit Delaware & Dogfish Head

We can’t rave enough about our whirlwind trip to Delaware and Dogfish Head. It was an amazing time, we learned a ton, and we got to experience a whole new side of one of our favorite breweries.

As a beercation destination, we can’t recommend this trip enough. Delaware on its own was really awesome. If you love relaxing beaches, fresh seafood, outdoor fun, and friendly people, Delaware has you covered. If you’re a craft beer geek and want to see where Dogfish Head started, how they find their inspiration, and where they make all those delicious off-centered beer, this is the vacation for you. The only complaint we could make was that we weren’t there long enough. Next time, we’ll add a few more days to enjoy some outdoor fun and R&R. We hope to make the trip again sometime soon.

Plan your Delaware vacation at: visitdelaware.com

Plan your visit to Dogfish Head at: dogfish.com/visit

Learn more about the Beer Now Conference & how you can have fun experiences like the ones above by visiting
beernow.org/.

Jeff & Chris of Bottle Makes Three with Sam Calagione at the Dogfish Head Brewery in Milton, Delaware.

Finally… the Elephant in the Room

Clearly, big changes have happened since our trip to Dogfish Head. Everyone has different opinions on what the Boston Beer acquisition means, but most of it is just speculation at this point. We choose to be cautiously optimistic about the change, knowing that the founders of each of the breweries are committed to craft beer, innovation, and independence. In the end, this could be a good thing for beer, and we’re not alone in thinking that. Rather than rehashing the same analysis that others have already said (and probably said better), check out this Grub Street article and read their analysis on the move, and how it may be good for beer lovers.

It’s important to note that it doesn’t appear that this move will have an immediate impact on the Dogfish Head locations in Delaware that we visited. Certainly, none of these locations have been shuttered due to the change, and there is no indication that is on the horizon. Sam and Mariah Calagione took most of their share of the buyout in Boston Beer stock, ensuring they are big shareholders in the newly combined company. Sam Calagione will join the Boston Beer board of directors next year as well. Calagione has said that he prefers to call the deal a merger and that the move will give Dogfish Head even more resources to continue to grow the brand for many years to come.

Given that Dogfish Head has been a passion project for the Calagione family for decades and the brand itself is still a craft beer powerhouse, it feels likely that it will be business as usual in Delaware, at least as far as the customer is concerned. So by all means, book that trip to Rehoboth Beach. Make a reservation at the Dogfish Inn. Go enjoy some live music and grub at Dogfish Head Brewing & Eats. We are sure you’ll have a great time. Send us a postcard and let us know if you think anything has changed. Better yet, bring us back some beer!

Just a little artwork inside the restroom at the Dogfish Inn, Lewes, Delaware.
Sampling beer at the Dogfish Head Brewery in Milton, Delaware

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