Jump to Main Content
USA flagAn Official Website of the United States Government

Dogfish Head Craft Brewery Taps the National Spotlight

SBA & SBTDC Support Early Stage Growth

Off-centered ales for off-centered people. The de facto mission statement of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery says it all.

“In that one phrase, you can understand what our company is all about and the profile of the consumer we are trying to attract,” said Sam Calagione, CEO of Dogfish Head based in Milton, Del.

Success hasn’t changed Calagione. More than 15 years since Dogfish’s launch, his innovative style continues to earn him a reputation as one of America’s most adventuresome brewers. It all started with a home brewing kit and a small Manhattan stove.

The Massachusetts native originally wanted to be a writer. While studying for a master’s degree in creative writing at Columbia University, a fateful job waiting tables introduced him to micro brewed beers. He soon discovered that he would rather spend his life brewing the great American beer than writing the great American novel.

After bankers dismissed his original business plan, he raised $180,000 from friends and family to open Dogfish Head Brewing & Eats, a 150-seat restaurant-brewpub in downtown Rehoboth, Del. The first batch of Dogfish Head beer was brewed in the restaurant using three kegs with propane burners.

He took some training courses at the Small Business Technology Development Center and worked closely with its director, Bill Pfaff, to refine his business plan.

“From my first meeting with Sam, I had the feeling this guy was a leader,” said Pfaff. “Sam has passion, creativity and an inner spirit that draws you to him, making him just your average guy next door who happened to build an international business.”

In 1997, he opened a production facility in nearby Lewes. Working through the SBTDC again, he secured a $208,000 SBA guaranteed 7(a) loan through Delaware National Bank that enabled him to purchase larger brewing vessels to expand production. After outgrowing the original location, the brewery later expanded into its current location, a former cannery in Milton.

As the business grew, so did Calagione’s profile. In the past decade, he was honored as Delaware’s Small Business Person of the Year and the Young Entrepreneur of the Year by the SBA and has since been tapped as a popular speaker and business guru on the national scene. 

Dogfish Head has grown from 10 to 120 co-workers (not employees per Calagione) with sales projected to reach $41 million this year. In addition to the brewery and Rehoboth restaurant, Calagione recently developed licensing agreements with three Dogfish Head Alehouses in Virginia and Maryland and is in the final stages of launching a rooftop brewpub in New York City with famed chef Mario Batali.

Calagione and his team are featured in a new Discovery Channel reality television show chronicling the Dogfish Head Team’s adventures.

“We hope it will inspire fellow entrepreneurs and show how a small family-owned company with big ideas can make a difference in a crowded marketplace dominated by global conglomerates,” said Calagione.

The father of two credits his business partner and wife Mariah as a major force behind the business’ success. “I am the boss and Mariah is just the decision maker,” jokes Calagione.

Dogfish Head has become one of the most watched and well respected breweries in the country thanks in large part to Calagione’s unconventional brewing methods. He is known to transcend styles with unique beers like Chicory Stout, which is made with organic Mexican coffee and St. John’s Wort, and Immort Ale, which is brewed with juniper berries, vanilla and maple syrup.  There is no doubt that its Raison D’être’s beet sugar and green raisins caught fan’s attention too. Dogfish Head also recycles ingredients from its innovative beers to make pizza dough, ice cream and cheesecake at the Rehoboth brewpub.

When archaeologists sought a leading brewer to recreate the ale recipe found in King Midas’s 2,700-year-old tomb, they turned to Calagione. After all, who else could turn Muscat grapes, honey and saffron into a delicious modern brew? Midas Touch caused such a stir in the beer industry that even the international media came calling.

Calagione is responsible for launching the brewpub and microbrewery industries in Delaware. When he first started the business, he discovered it was illegal to operate a brewpub in the state since Prohibition days. He worked closely with the Governor’s office and legislators to educate them on the industry’s economic impact. He later helped pass two other legislative bills permitting a brewpub to distribute its products and allowing a brewpub owner to operate a separate microbrewery.

Calagione’s marketing savvy and publicity stunts helped him to market the company on a shoestring in the early years. When Dogfish Head expanded to New Jersey, Calagione dressed as George Washington and rowed a handmade boat across the Delaware River. The publicity stunt caught the attention of Levi Strauss which selected him as one of six American entrepreneurs to launch its Slates clothing line. The marketing campaign allowed him to promote Dogfish Head to a larger national audience at the time.

Dogfish Head shares its success by giving back to the community. It is a strong supporter of The Center for Inland Bays, The Center for Marine Sciences, and the YMCA. The company was also recognized by Kent & Sussex Industries as an Outstanding Employer of special needs workers.

Its recycling practices have been recognized by the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Wastewater Program. One of the company’s initiatives involves recycling all of the spent barley grain into cow feed. This innovative program creates over 150,000 pounds of feed a year.

The creative writing didn’t go to waste either. Calagione has authored three business books, including the infamous “Brewing a Business.”  He credits the books for helping him articulate the off-centered, yet creative, independent and do it yourself business. Cheers!