I spoke to Dogfish Head's Sam Calagione last week and everything seemed normal... kind of.
Just last week, I was basking in the sunshine with Dogfish Head Co-founder Sam Calagione on a picnic table outside the brand’s Milton, Delaware, brewery. Over the course of our 45-minute conversation, the actual business of beer was only sparingly discussed — as if neither of us really had the heart to dig into the current fate of midsized brewers like Dogfish Head. Instead, the talk was surprisingly small: We reminisced about when I first met Sam as a fresh-faced beer journalist at Philadelphia Beer Week a decade ago; I recommended he check out the three newest Guided By Voices albums after finding out he had fallen behind in their ever-expanding catalog. Though discussion of the state of the brewing industry did eventually rear its ugly head, Sam made no mention of the news that broke yesterday: that Dogfish Head is being acquired by the Boston Beer Company, the owner of Sam Adams (as well as Angry Orchard, Twisted Tea, and other brands) in a merger valued at around $300 million. But Sam (Calagione, not Adams) didn’t have to say anything at all: The hints were all around.
“The beer industry right now is like a set of jaws,” Sam told me. The top teeth are the 50 biggest brewers, he said, and the bottom ones are the small, upstart breweries flourishing in local markets. The midsized brewers are getting chewed up in the middle. As someone who follows beer for a living, this analogy wasn’t a revelation: Only a week earlier, Pennsylvania’s once ground-breaking and beloved Weyerbacher Brewing — founded in 1995, the same year as Dogfish Head — became the latest seminal craft brewery to announce it was filing for bankruptcy, adding to a list that over the past couple years has grown to include previously industry-defining names like Bridgeport, Smuttynose, and Green Flash.
And yet, according to the Brewers Association, Dogfish Head is America’s 22nd largest brewery, which led me to ask, “But isn’t Dogfish in that top jaw?” In retrospect, it was the only moment where Sam may have hinted at the announcement to come. It seemed he didn’t quite know how to respond — as if he’d already fully absorbed the implications of the merger which was solidified back in February, according to Brewbound. Boston Beer Company is the second largest craft brewer, America’s ninth largest brewer overall, and a publically-traded company, selling over ten times more product than Dogfish Head. Sam’s company was about to make a leap from the molars to the incisors.
But our talk only told part of the story anyway. The beers had changed too: not worse, but different. Four years earlier, I attended a beer dinner where Sam spoke of the joys of aging high-gravity beers. The event kicked off with Sam serving the nearly 20-percent ABV 120 Minute IPA as an aperitif! A 15-percent ABV barleywine was the star of the show. Today, we were surrounded by cans: the 4.9-percent ABV SeaQuench Ale, the 5.3-percent ABV SuperEight, and the 4-percent ABV Slightly Mighty. (Not to mention that, in 2016, Sam told me Dogfish Head would never can their beers.) Once proud to be a purveyor of some of the boldest beers on the market, in the past year, Dogfish Head had made a clear pivot to crossover beers aimed at drinkers with a healthier lifestyle. The new buzzwords were “thirst-quenching,” “super-fruit,” and “lo-cal” respectively.
Granted, Dogfish Head isn’t alone in changing focus: Many, if not most, of beer’s biggest brands are adapting as overall beer consumption has dropped and a new generation of forward-thinking drinkers drive a more crowded and mature market. And as I toured Dogfish Head’s massive, new, state-of-the-art packaging facility, it quickly became apparent that the brewery has no choice but to keep up with the times. Among many slick features, Dogfish Head has an automated robot arm that prepares kegs for shipping. That thing’s not going to pay for itself. It’s not to say the brewery got in over its head, but like the sharks that Dogfish is named after, the old adage goes that you have to keep swimming to survive. Despite all its success over the years, Dogfish Head wasn’t necessarily beyond finding itself in a precarious situation if it didn’t make its next move.
A few days after Milton, I was in Philadelphia, talking to another seminal figure in American brewing, Curt Decker. Until 2014, Curt owned the city’s Nodding Head brewpub. Back in 2000, that tiny brewery left a big mark by creating what many consider to be America’s first Berliner weisse. Curt now runs a small taproom called Second District Brewing which opened in 2017 on a nondescript block in South Philly. As the Friday night crowd trickled in to try Second District’s varied selection of delightfully handcrafted beers brewed on site, Curt spoke about his friend Sam Calagione. As Curt tells it, the brewer who created Nodding Head’s Berliner weisse eventually moved to Delaware where he also brewed Dogfish Head’s Festina Peche, regarded as America’s first mainstream take on the style. “If I had a penny for every bottle of Festina Peche they sold,” Curt quipped.
As part of the Boston Beer/Dogfish Head merger, Sam and his wife Mariah, who he cofounded the company with, will reportedly receive over 400,000 shares of Boston Beer stock valued at more than $314 per share. That’s equity worth over $125 million.
Brewing is an art, but it’s also a business. Sam Calagione and Dogfish Head have succeeded at both. Dogfish Head’s tour guides will tell you that Sam decided to launch the brewery after his early attempts at homebrewing as a twenty-something in New York City were served at a raucous house party to rave reviews. Fittingly enough, later this month, Sam will turn 50 years old. It’s an important milestone in any person’s life — and in Sam’s case, he’ll likely be facing it with one of the freshest outlooks he’s had since 1995.
As I sat there talking to Sam last week, one nagging question remained in my head, “Has Dogfish Head ever thought about selling?” Frankly, with all that’s been happening in the industry, the question — and the eventual answer — made sense. But having chatted with Sam for over a decade, I knew how fiercely vocal he’d been about independence. On that warm afternoon, I decided not to let my journalistic instincts ruin the pleasant mood — for better or worse. Sam, if you’re reading this, definitely give Zeppelin Over China a listen. It’s my favorite Guided By Voices album since Universal Truths and Cycles.