I & most people I know have a love/hate relationship with listicles. Most of the time it’s lazy writing &, in a way, insults the reader’s intelligence. Many of the lists are redundant (how many times do we need a “Top [x] Beers to [fill in the blank]”) or arbitrary (what makes these the “Top [x] Beers to [fill in the blank]”?). They usually incite disagreement & reaction, part of what makes them such good clickbait. They exploit our natural attraction to organization & hierarchy, & are easily digestible - just fun head-candy. I’ve certainly been guilty of putting out listicle-type posts before, so who am I to point fingers? I’ve been addicted to lists & rankings since long before I got into beer, & years ago would eagerly pore over lists from Pitchfork, VH1, & Rolling Stone.
So it often occurs to me list whom I consider to be the most important or influential brewers in the roughly 50 years of craft brewing in the U.S. A few no-brainers would be the pioneers - Anchor, the original alternative; Sierra Nevada, whose pale ale ignited a palate & paradigm shift; Boston, whose marketing & business sense arguably paved the way for craft to become mainstream; & New Albion, who was kind of the Velvet Underground of craft (Brian Eno said that not everyone bought VU’s first album, but everyone who did started a band). These are just a few off the top of my head.
These are all first- or second-wavers. Among the wave that emerged in the 90’s, three immediately come to mind: New Belgium, who ventured out with an all-Belgian-style portfolio as early as 1991; Russian River, who popularized the double IPA & American-made sour beer; & Dogfish Head.
Dogfish Head turns 20 this year. While I think there are more-than-personal reasons for Dogfish Head’s significance, of course I’m going to start with a personal anecdote. Dogfish Head was probably the first craft beer I’d heard of. I was in the apartment of an older friend (this was before my drinking days), who was telling another buddy about this beer he’d found while on vacation in Delaware. The name was cool, & the idea of a smaller brewer was completely new to me. The name & idea stuck with me, until several years later when I was able to order my own beer & met with a deluge of names & options. Dogfish Head was familiar, & I liked their beer.
I think Dogfish Head has represented a threshold for a lot of people just getting into a craft, while still maintaining their appeal beyond “just” a “crossover” brewery. They spearheaded the “extreme beer” movement with 120 Minute IPA, Fort, & World Wide Stout, tipping the scales in high double-digit ABVs. If you were to list all the ingredients that have ever been employed in their brewery, it would likely be the longest of any American brewery, & would include among many others wasabi, rose water, scrapple, & human saliva. They’ve collaborated with dozens of partners - not just brewers, but also musicians (including a favorite, indie gods Guided by Voices). They’ve plumbed the depths of brewing history, creating beers based on recipes & anthropological findings millennia-old. They broke ground on beer-wine hybrids way before the trend a few years. And they still do very accessible stuff - amidst all the crazy stuff going on, I often forget that their flagship is an IPA.
They’re sometimes dismissed among the jaded geeks for being “gimmicky”. I can see how their processes & recipes might be construed as marketing stunts (it’s cool to think of a beer made with ingredients from all seven continents, but is that conveyed in the taste?). To me, though, Dogfish Head is the most effective embodiment of the freedom possible in brewing - the value of freedom depreciates if it’s not used, & they continue to execute whatever they feel like. Sure, I don’t love everything they make, but that’s part of experimentation. Even owner/founder Sam Calagione has admitted that they’ve released more than one faux pas over the years. That’s part of the draw, at least for me - I saw in Dogfish Head all the crazy outsider stuff that could be attempted & accomplished in brewing, & it was like a world of possibilities was opened.
Speaking of Sam, he seems to be a polarizing figure. His persona is large, broad. He had a TV show, & is one of the most high profile characters in the biz. He may come across as showy to the relatively critical, conservative crowd that comprises the beer-geekery. He’s definitely got a kind of Joey Tribbiani vibe, goofy & endearing. That surfer-with-the-rugged-good-looks thing is balanced by what appears to be a sharp business & creative mind. The interests conveyed in Dogfish Head’s marketing dovetail with a lot of other niche popular culture - I mentioned GbV before, but he’s been spotted wearing Basquiat shirts, making Leonard Cohen references. A scan of the brewpub’s in-house-only beers includes a crazy imperial stout/saison blend with Bordeaux grapes, aged in Buffalo Trace barrels, called “The Owls Are Not What They Seem” (look that one up). Though the jaded may brush him off, dude’s literary.
I also can’t think of a better spokesperson for craft beer. With the TV show, his role in the movie Beer Wars, & other media appearances, he’s been a public face & frequently delivers a very positive message about the business. Dogfish Head seems to have a record of playing well with their peers, & making craft beer a better place. And Sam’s rebutted interest from the big guys, just this summer rejecting an offer from A-BInBev to sit down & talk turkey.Though I’m writing all this fanboy stuff honestly, it’s not for nothing - I’ve long held these kinds of opinions & just needed a good reason to sit down & articulate them all. And that reason [trumpets] is that The House is doing a small part in helping this groundbreaker celebrate their 20th with a slew of events - last night was the first of two sold out pairing dinners with Dogfish Head & our Chef Brian. We’ll also hold a tap takeover of Dogfish Head’s brews this Friday, followed by a cupcake & beer brunch featuring further wizardry from Brian & Dogfish Head. So yeah - we’re taking part, but my applause is still from the heart. Happy 20th to one of the greats.