When Sam Calagione opened Dogfish Head Craft Brewery in Delaware in 1995, craft beer was considered something of a novelty. In his decades of experience, he watched it grow from a drink popular among Wall Street types to a consumer-driven movement that's inspired new breweries of all shapes and sizes.
The U.S. now boasts more than 3,400 craft breweries nationwide whose products are served alongside (and sometimes in lieu of) household names like Bud and Miller. In 2014, craft beer accounted for 11 percent of all beer sales.
"It's really like a classic David versus Goliath story, where the consumer voted with their wallet to support the Davids," Calagione says. "I'm really proud of where we as an industry have come in the last 20 years."
Calagione, who was recently in Dallas for a Dogfish Head beer dinner at gastropub Meddlesome Moth, is the former chair of the Brewers Association Board of Directors and one of the most reputable names in craft beer. To celebrate American Craft Beer Week, May 11-17, we spoke with him to get his take on where the industry stands and where it's headed.
American craft breweries leading the way in experimentation
Ever looked at the ingredients in a new beer and thought, "Man, they'll make beer with anything these days"? Well, you're not alone. American brewers are leading the charge in experimentation, or a trend Calagione endearingly calls "beer without borders," namely those that ignore militant stylistic parameters.
"We used to get made fun of in the mid-'90s for putting coffee and pumpkin and apricots in our beer," he says. "Now it's awesome to see hundreds of breweries coloring outside stylistic guidelines."
Calagione maintains that the India pale ale, a style characterized by the use of pale malts and a strong hops profile, is the fastest growing style of beer in America. And that it's not going to change anytime soon, he says, especially as brewers become more creative.
"Dark IPAs, imperial IPAs, session IPAs, fruit-infused IPAs -- I think even within the IPA category there's lots of ways to innovate," Calagione says.
The most underrated beer style award goes to ...
Amidst the uprising of innovation, Calagione says there's one style that goes under appreciated: The good ole fashioned pale ale. Although he admits, session IPAs are like the new pale ale.
"Maybe I'm biased because we'll never release a session IPA. We say 60 Minute is a session IPA for non-wuss bags," Calagione says with a laugh.
Guess which craft beer scene has impressed Calagione lately. Oh yes, Texas.
When asked where in the country or world he's been surprised by the quality of craft beer, Calagione said none other than the Lone Star State. OK, he could have been playing to his audience, but Calagione recalled Texas as a state that was passionate about craft beer before it had a local scene to be proud of.
"Watching the speed with which Texas went from loving indie craft beer to also making awesome indie craft beer has been cool to watch," he says.
On the subject of market over-saturation
Despite the momentum behind craft beer, there's a long standing argument that the market won't be able to support the roughly 1.7 new commercial breweries opening every day. Calagione is "hopeful and confident" that craft beer will reach 20 percent market share in the next five years, but he says he's not naive enough to think closing rates will remain steady.
For a brewery to be successful in this booming era, it needs to "fire on all three cylinders of quality, consistency and being well-differentiated," he says. "It doesn't matter how big you get, as long as you do all three of those things at world-class levels."