Microbrew Guru Shares Secrets Behind Dogfish Head's Success

Micro BrewSam Calagione was like any other college student when it came to beer. "I loved beer," says Sam, "but it was quantity over quality."

It wasn't until Sam began waiting tables in New York City after college that his love for beer grew and he really developed an appreciation for flavorful beer.

One mentor, one home brewing kit and one batch of beer later, Sam had an epiphany that he wanted to be a beer brewer.

With a basic business plan in place, Sam raised $220,000 from family and friends to open Dogfish Head Brewing & Eats, the nation's fastest-growing independent brewery. In the past 16 years, Sam and Dogfish Head Brewing & Eats have continued to carve out their niche within the craft beers industry. As Sam explains, "We are 'off-centered,' meaning that we're not going to appeal to the majority. That said, we've been able to grow by catering to a very small, but very engaged, minority of the beer-drinking population."

Brewer's luck

The manager who introduced Sam to microbrews was a former computer programmer, initially inspiring Sam to try his own luck with beer brewing. "I thought if he could do it, then so could I," remembers Sam. With nothing more than a positive, no-fear attitude and a dinky stove in his tiny apartment, Sam took his brewing kit from The Little Shop of Hops in Manhattan, and created his first batch. "It turned out awesome and I knew right then that I wanted to brew beer."

Advice from the brew master

Maybe it was beginner's luck that caused Sam's first home-brewed batch to turn out so well, or maybe he just didn't know any better, but one thing was clear, Sam had discovered his true passion and he was willing to work hard and smart to establish a name for himself in an unfamiliar industry.

So what exactly were those lessons that Sam learned along the way that not only helped him stand out among the Bud Lights and Coors of the world, but also allowed him to navigate the beer waters of microbrews, when the buzz about them was just starting?

  • Passion before profit. "If you want to be an entrepreneur, you have to be passionate first and then worry about payment later," says Sam.
  • It takes a village."The successful entrepreneur recognizes his strengths and then brings on other people to join him and work within their strengths."
  • Financing is key. "Too many people are overly optimistic coming out of the gate and don't have enough in the nest egg to keep it going."
  • Know your industry. "Spend a lot of time getting to know your industry before you put your thumbprint in it."

The buzz about the beer book

You don't have to sport a staunch beer belly, run a hops house or even really like beer to understand what all the buzz is about -- there is a positive message here for everyone.

The purpose of this book is to share knowledge and lessons learned with others, but Sam also wanted to share his failures. "I didn't see a lot of business books out there that told stories about people who failed and learned from those mistakes. I wanted to let others know that yes, I am successful, but that I have also failed a lot."

For more on the story of how Sam got Dogfish off the ground, check out Sam's book, Brewing Up A Business.

Plans for the future

Now that Dogfish Head has established a name for itself, Sam and his team continuously raise the bar by coming up with innovative ideas.

Surprisingly, Sam does not do research within his industry to get ideas for his beers but looks at music, art, food and wine. "Sometimes I just do a mashup of things that haven't been done before or whatever ingredients slip into my head."

Most recently, Sam and his crew have invented a machine called a Randall. This contraption not only locks in the hoppy flavor of the beer that Dogfish Head has become known for, but it also allows the brewer to "test" out different ingredients that he wants to mix into the beer.

"At the Extreme Beer Festival in Boston in March, we mixed beer through the Randall with jalapenos and bacon in it; who knows, maybe we will do that again sometime for bottling."

With new, exciting beer co-promotions in the works for Sam, such as a Discovery Channel Show called Brew Masters, and the recent launch of Birreria, a Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich brewpub on the rooftop of Eataly in New York City, one thing is for certain, this Brew Guru always has something on tap.

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