Welcome to Craft Course, our column on the art of craft beer. Every week Christian DeBenedetti will take a look at interesting beer styles, brewmasters and their breweries, and more from high to low, East to West, and around the world.
Sam Calagione at Dogfish Head [Photo: Discovery]
Sam Calagione is already a rock star to fans of Dogfish Head, the craft brewery in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, that brought the world 60',90', and 120' IPA (just to name a few). With a profile in the New Yorker and a treehouse for a boardroom, he's so well known in the beer scene that at events like the annual Great American Beer Festival in Denver there are lines with hundreds of faithful fans lined up for a high five. But soon he'll have a whole new audience, as he takes to the tube on the Discovery Channel's new series Brew Masters (premiering Sunday 11/21 at 10pm). Produced by Zero Point Zero, the Emmy-award winning company behind Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations, the new show follows Calagione as he delves into the art and science of brewing both at home and abroad, all while maintaining his marriage and running a growing business. I caught up with Calagione this week to see how it's all going.
What have you been up to this week?
I'm on my way to catch a train to New York to shoot with Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich for an episode about [their joint brewery project] Eataly, and then flying to Arizona to shoot some promos with Mike Rowe [of Dirty Jobs] to cross-promote our shows. That should be fun.
How's the show itself going right now?
We've probably done nine-tenths of the shooting but we still have to finish one episode. So the show's gonna start airing as we're still in post-production on two episodes, so it's been chaotic. But, it's also really fun because of the people at both Discovery Channel and the production company, they really believe in the show. They really get our company, what we're all about at Dogfish Head. They've been really fun to work with and they're two very creative entities in their own right, so it's been a lot of fun.
How does the brewing industry compare to working in television?
It's equally chaotic and equally creative. My schedule is already a mess with travel and projects in a good kind of way. You know, I'm always focused when I'm completely unfocused. I'm getting to do a lot of fun projects that kind of inform each other, and are backed by each other.
Is there anything you can compare it to in your career?
I think that the similarities with what we do is that it's a different group of creative people than we usually work into a meeting. Usually it's internally, or collaborating with other breweries, or Sony in the case of bottling Bitches Brew [note, the making of this beer is the subject of episode one]. But any time you have a bunch of creative people at the table together there's obviously a lot of a give and a take, that all the great minds around the project certainly inform and expand upon the project.
What about the subject matter, where has it been coming from?
When we moved forward to do this project I basically said, "Yeah, we all have to do this, but here's our challenge: we're growing faster than we want to grow, and we're very lucky to have that opportunity." But we're intentionally slowing down our growth, and as for me, I can't really change my job schedule because I got so many projects here at work. [So I said] here's what our projects are, and if you'd love to follow us or help us complete these projects or get into them, we'd love to have you on. These were things we'd already planned to do at Dogfish whether or not there was a TV show happening. The process has been really organic, because we didn't have to manufacture a bunch of content. It was all stuff that Dogfish was already passionate about and on board with.
Why does craft beer work on TV, you know, for the layperson?
I can already tell that there's going to be entertaining and exciting components to this, whether you're a full-on beer geek like you and I are, or a total neophyte. I mean, the Discovery Channel does a lot of technical content in their shows — engineering, scientific stuff. It has all of that in here, but it's not at a level of sophistication that's off-putting. They've done a great job of describing the brewing process: why, when, and where we add different ingredients. I think it comes a long way for demystifying the whole brewing process, which I think is going to give a lot more viewers a new level of comfort in cheating on their go-to beer, going out there and experimenting with all the amazing beers out there, but certainly not Dogfish, because we know that certain viewers won't even have access to our beer A), because we're not in every main market and B) because we tend to run out occasionally. So we're really hopeful that it just going to be a great thing for the whole craft brewing community, that people will take a lot of interest in going out to try what's interesting out there, you know, in their local market.
Can you give me an example of settings of early episodes that will be surprising?
Yeah, in one of the earlier episodes we're brewing with Epic Brewing Co., a great little craft brewery in Aukland, New Zealand. In one early episode you get to see what the craft brewing scene is on the other side of the world, literally. And it gives you the context that the craft brewing renaissance is truly global, not just happening in the US.
What's the plot?
The main story is about our collaborative brew with Epic, and going down to premier at New Zealand's biggest beer festival called Beervana. Within that episode as well is the story about the whole history of our own 'Punkin' Ale', the earliest beer we ever brewed, based on a recipe I won a homebrewing competition with before the brewery opened. We were there to do [the collaboration] beer with tamarillos, which are these sweet New Zealand tomatoes, obviously another vegetable beer. But at the festival competition the Punkin' Ale wins and the tamarillo one does not. There's tension around that, but in a good way.
Sound like there's some dramatic arc, but it's not some sort of Top Chef-style smackdown.
No, we've been really sensitive to that. I think a lot of people reflexively feared the worst going into this. The fear that the production company or network would need to stir the turd and create intra-personnel tension, and that proved to not be the case at all. They want to celebrate how passionate all craft brewers are, and all Dogfish Head coworkers are. We've learned that in order for viewers to want to come on this journey with us and watch our show, they need to root for us, and they're not going to root for a fictitious group of people. Maybe we were all on the same page to turn the show on our weaknesses and our mistakes; at the same time we were showing our successes so that viewers would want to root for us.
Because, you know, things are not always perfect and you gotta show that, the humility. If you want people to be interested or give a shit, you show the strive to improve. So you have tough stories like Punkin Ale and the tamarillo beer in New Zealand. But we show that in the tamarillo beer, the first batch came out probably a little too bitter, and we were honest about that. In other episodes, the first one, we show how we lose a stainless steel tube into in a bottle of beer, and, needle-in-the-haystack, go through hundreds of cases by hand to find this stainless tube so it didn't end up in someone's esophagus, you know?
Why do you think the US is ready for a show about craft beer? Has there been anything like this before?
I think this is the first show that's going to be celebrating our community through the eyes of just one in 1,600 interesting, exciting, indie breweries across the country. I'll always be a great champion of [beer writer] Michael Jackson as the sort of the Original Gangster of beer evangelists. And he had a wonderful show on, The Beer Hunter, a couple of years ago [Ed. note: it was on Britain's Channel 4 and The Discovery Channel, debuting in 1996]. Whereas that gave people an overview from beer lover's perspective, we'll give the overview of our community from a beer maker's perspective. And I think the time is ripe for this. Because here we are in the recession, and craft beer is growing. That's counter-intuitive, in that the highest segment industry would be growing in a challenging economy, but it's indicative of the average consumer choosing whether or not to go and buy local, to buy indie, to support the companies in their community, as a conscious rejection of big business and of all the troubles that we've gotten into as a country from Wall Street to Detroit. And then to say, you know what, I want to keep my money on the community, I want to support this little company that's on the same human level I am as a consumer. So I think that phenomenon is really something timely because, you know, craft in general is growing and it's really truly getting outside of the beer geek community and onto the general consumer's radar. I think that gave Discovery the confidence that the time was right for a show celebrating this community.
Any highlights adventure-wise?
Oh yeah, I mean, from looking at a brewery called Faust in Germany and watching them work in their open top fermentation room and just how beautiful, and cozy, and wheaty it smelled in there to being in this museum in Egypt, and seeing the first artistic representation of the brewing process and history of civilization and bringing all that information back to Delaware and showing how it informed our creative process and further gave us greater respect for this industry that we've chosen to work in. The experience has just been tremendous on all fronts.
What about mishaps?
Well, one challenge was we have a really sophisticated Quality Control department and we had a giant batch of 120' IPA coming through that just frankly, didn't ferment all the way down, and was maybe five or ten percent sweeter than it should have been, and our sensory panel just felt strongly that it wasn't up to type, and we just said, hey, we charge a lot for this beer because it costs a lot to make and, but if we sell it and it's not perfect, it will reflect badly on our company. So we decided to dump it down the drain, and they asked if they could cover that story. And you know, it was definitely a heart-wrenching story because it was about half a million dollars worth of beer that one day we just dumped down our drain. But, again, it will show people how diligent we are about making world class beer and that sometimes giant financial hiccups are inevitable if you've got that as a goal.
Ouch. That must have been tough.
Yeah, well, we have a line-up in our budget called "damaged and destroyed goods" so we budget for that, but we didn't think it would become half a million dollars worth of 120' IPA, so it was a growing pain for sure.
Have you gotten to know [Dirty Jobs host] Mike Rowe well?
Not yet. I'm a huge fan of that show and I think as a host he just does an incredible job to be grounded and naturally curious and excited about exploring the goodness of people in a million different, challenging vocations. And I think we share that excitement, so I'm looking forward to hanging out with him over some beers. It's kind of funny, this summer he was doing a Dirty Job shows in Harrington, Pennsylvania at a scrapple plant where they make, you know, scrapple. And his production crew came to my pub and drank Dogfish beers all night. Unfortunately, I was shooting the show up in Maine while he was at our pub, so I didn't get the chance to meet him that time.
Brewing can be a dirty job, but it's got a nice payoff.
Exactly. As brewers we always say, brewing, you can make it very romantic and sophisticated, but in the end of the day it's really making a giant mess and then cleaning up after yourself, that's what a brew day is. So I'm sure I'll have a lot to talk about on that with Mike.
What about Mario Batali... Is he a big beer drinker?
Yeah, he was already into beer. And you know Joe Bastianich, our partner [in the Eataly brewpub], owns some wineries, so he definitely came more from the wine side. I think Mario was into beer and wine. But mostly he has been incredibly kind and open-minded about taking this brewpub to a new level of considering all the nuances that come with pairing world class beer with world class food. And it's certainly been cool for me to watch him get into it. He'll be like, "Wow, that wheat beer has all these spicy notes and it would go great with this kind of sausage." That's what we were hoping to do through this collaboration with them, which is sort of get our beer-geek peanut butter in their foodie chocolate. And hopefully be able to turn both communities on.
Tomorrow we're going to be tasting here New York City some of the Eataly recipes that Dogfish, Casa Baladin and Birra del Borgo collaborated on. One of them is a wheat beer made with peppercorns that Joe and Mario chose from a bunch of sample peppercorns we presented them with, and the other is a an English Mild we did with Italian chestnuts, and Mario says he could be making some sausage at home to bring from his parents' tomorrow. So my mouth's already watered.
Last thing: what beer will you be drinking on the 21st as you watch the show?
You know, we're actually going to do a little party for our coworkers at our brew pub in Rehoboth, so that Saturday I'm going to watch it from my pub with all my coworkers so I can high-five them when they come up on the screen, but I'll probably be drinking a lot of the Bitches Brew. That beer is celebrating African and American roots. It uses gesho, a tree root from Africa. We used this beautiful brown sugar from the island of Mauritius, we used Ethiopian honey that was really raw, unfiltered—still had chunks of honey bees in it—and we use an ass-load of dark, roasty grains to balance the sweetness of the honey. And that first episode is all about that collaboration we did with Sony and Miles' family, so I imagine there will be a numerous Bitches Brews going down my gullet that night.
Video: Mission Statement and Ingredients
Video: Working With Sony; Old-School Hip Hop
Video: Inside the Brewery
Video: Working on Bitches Brew Beer
Video: Testing Bitches Brew
Video: The Brewing Process
Video: Finding the Stainless Steel Tube
Oregon native Christian DeBenedetti (@debenedetti) is currently hard at work writing a book about American craft beer for National Geographic, due out in the Fall of 2011, and writes about beer and travel for magazines including Food & Wine, Men's Journal, Departures, Outside, and others. He lives and drinks in his hometown, Portland.