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Dogfish brewery always learning new tricks

Sam Calagione pours a glass of Dogfish Head beer at The Dirty Truth in Northampton in 2008. Sam Calagione pours a glass of Dogfish Head beer at The Dirty Truth in Northampton in 2008. (Steve Miller for The Boston Globe/file)
By Ann Luisa Cortissoz
Globe Correspondent / April 15, 2009
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'There isn't a single ingredient we wouldn't consider putting into our beer," says Sam Calagione, Greenfield native and founder of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery in Delaware.

Many of the almost 2,000 craft brewing professionals coming to the annual Craft Brewers Conference, being held here April 21-24, have probably been inspired by Calagione's fearless use of unusual adjuncts. "Sam routinely makes stuff that makes people in the industry say 'Huh?' And then, 'Why didn't I think of that?' " says Ray Daniels of the Craft Beer Institute. American craft brewers in general are an innovative, experimental lot, not tied to any specific style of beer or tradition of brewing, and Calagione is the epitome of these traits.

Among other ingredients, Calagione adds vanilla beans, chicory, cocoa, raisins, and maple syrup to various brews. But, he says, they don't do it just to be different. "Each ingredient has to add something beneficial to the liquid." (The maple syrup comes from the Western Massachusetts farm Calagione bought from his parents last year.)

Suzanne Schalow, general manager of Cambridge Common outside Harvard Square, which is hosting a beer dinner with Calagione on April 23 (it's already sold out), relates his philosophy. "Sam says, 'If I can catch up to it in my truck and run it over, I'll put it in my beer.' "

When the irrepressible brewer started Dogfish Head in 1995, the company sold 350 barrels of beer. This year it will sell just over 100,000.

Calagione gets ideas for his brews from far and wide. One is Midas Touch, which, according to the Dogfish Head website, "is an ancient Turkish recipe using the original ingredients from the 2700-year-old drinking vessels discovered in the tomb of King Midas." Another, Theobroma, "is based on chemical analysis of pottery fragments found in Honduras which revealed the earliest known alcoholic chocolate drink used by early civilizations to toast special occasions." A third, Palo Santo Marron, is a brown ale that gets some of its complexity from aging in a huge cask made of Paraguayan Palo Santo wood.

The brewery motto is "Off-centered ales for off-centered people," and the company's prime directives seem to be to make good beer and have fun. Calagione and his crew are mad scientists when it comes to fabricating machinery to affect the flavor of its beer. One example is a contraption called Randall the Enamel Animal. It's a setup of tubes and a canister filled with hops that allows Dogfish to run its popular India Pale Ales out of a keg and through the hops into a waiting glass at beer festivals, supercharging the beer with hop aroma and flavor.

When Dogfish Head and Calagione take their brews on the road, people line up 10 and 15 deep to sample them. It's the flavors, the entertainment value of Randall, and the enthusiasm and charisma of Calagione that draw the crowds. "We've always been an experimental brewery," says the boyish 39-year-old. "It's our raison d'etre." Raison D'Etre is also the name of a brew that's made with beet sugar, green raisins, and Belgian-style yeast.

Schalow of Cambridge Common is well aware of the enthusiasm Calagione generates. The dinner with the brewer sold out in less than a week. "We like it when we can get a star," she says.

But Calagione "isn't a surly rock star," says Daniels. He's warm and friendly. "He's an irresistible force for promoting craft beer in the United States."

In an effort to convince consumers that there's a lot more to beer than generic, industry-produced light lagers and that brews can be every bit as complex, flavorful, and diverse as wine, Calagione has embarked on a series of beer vs. wine dinners with sommelier and wine educator Marnie Olds. Calagione pairs dishes with beers and she chooses wines. Diners vote on the winning pairings, and the votes are always very close, both say. The two put their experiences into the book "He Said Beer, She Said Wine."

Calagione is also the author of "Brewing Up a Business," about the early days of Dogfish Head (the cover features the brewer in front of the aforementioned truck). He has been part of a Discovery Channel "How Stuff Works" episode, and the brewery is featured in the film "Beer Wars," about the struggle of craft brewers against industrial producers.

Calagione seems to be on a roll. Watch out for that truck.

Ann Luisa Cortissoz can be reached at alcortissoz@gmail.com.