Calagione one of beer’s true entertainers

Words like ‘superstar’, ‘hero’ and ‘icon’ seem to have lost some of their true meaning in recent times, such is the flippancy with which they are overused. So much so that it’s often difficult to identify someone who has captured the title with merit rather than hype and assumption. In the beer world there are plenty of interesting people with interesting stories and an ability to share them with an audience but surely no-one who could claim to make a beer drinker swoon and sway before them as if transfixed by a talking cobra?

What, then, could explain why nearly 80sensible, mature and otherwise un-starstruck beer lovers chose to queue politely and patiently for a handshake, autograph and photo with a brewer who – by his own admission – hasn’t brewed a beer in quite a while? And this after sitting for the previous two and half hours transfixed as the aforementioned ‘cobra’ took them and thirty others on a journey through tales as diverse as private equity ownership, childish names for experimental brewing equipment, getting weird on wormwood and surf n’ turf as beer*.

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Sam Calagione, founder and spiritual figurehead of Dogfish Head Beer and the man credited with driving the ‘indie craft’ scene in the United States, has spent the past few weeks on a ‘family holiday’ in Australia to launch the new slightly-but-not-completely-beer-related quarterly, Pallet magazine.

Pallet, described as a publication aimed at “people who like to drink and think”, is the daring venture launched by Australian duo Rick Bannister and Nadia Saccardo. Sam is the executive editor, which was as good an excuse as any to get him and the family on the plane.

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So, while not strictly speaking a ‘launch’ (attendees received a copy but the mag won’t be available here this year) Sam was able to provide a solid three hours – four, counting the very generous VIP meet & greet beforehand – in which he captivated the crowd with anecdotes that provided an insight into why he is considered one of the key drivers of the craft scene at home and abroad.

It didn’t take long for Sam to find his groove and, with a genuine and unaffected enthusiasm, he took the room with him through the trials of beginning a brewery, marketing and selling beer, experimenting with ancient ale styles and fighting the continual battles against the bland and the boring. His style was as laidback as the flip flops he was rocking and, perhaps due to the fact that he was ‘off the leash’, the material was delivered with flourishes akin to those you’d attach to a casual front-bar chat with a small group of close friends.

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Questions from the 140-odd crowd were fielded with a friendly ease, the answers entertaining and uncomplicated. While many of the topics covered were obviously beer related, the overall ‘feel’ of the night was that of a stroll through the creative process of a man who sees opportunity in everything and is in a constant state of child-like curiosity. This has allowed his brewery and brewpub business to flourish in a constantly changing landscape and also provides hints as to how the man is in such great demand for other non-beer projects as well.

From music and art to literature and history, topics were dissected and explored at a steady clip, all the while the guests sat quietly – no small feat given the steady supply of Dogfish Head beers ranging from Midas Touch, 90 Minute IPA, Festina Peche and the flagship 60 Minute IPA, laconically and delightfully described by the guest as “a session beer for non-pussies.”

Every topic was greedily devoured by the crowd who often wondered from where the next subject would emerge. It’s a credit to Sam that, having told and retold so many stories so many times that he was able to make them sound as fresh as a first-run anecdote.

Here’s a further testament to his ability to entertain. It’s fair to say there aren’t too many speakers who could command a spontaneous round of applause by handing the mic to an audience member in order to execute a quick ‘comfort break’.

Those who couldn’t be there for the Melbourne or Sydney events would do well to catch up with some of Sam’s best work through either his broad catalogue of on-line videos or one of his dozen published books. Rick and Nadia hope to have Pallet magazine in Australia by next year. It’s not quite the same as being in the front row, but with the right beer in hand, it just might do.

*On ownership of ‘craft’ breweries by big brand breweries, Sam explained so simply; “(these companies) have a legal obligation to their shareholders to provide increasing value at the expense of flavour and diversity.” Something to think about when choosing which breweries deserve your hard-earned.

*The crew at Dogfish Head have crafted four generations of ‘hop delivery systems’ with which to ensure continuous hopping. From a re-purposed vibrating gridiron football game to ‘Sir Hops-A-Lot’ and the very funny-when-you-say-it-quickly, ‘Sofa King Hoppy Machine’.

*I don’t think many could retell the story so eloquently and succinctly as Sam. “We were trialling beer made with wormwood which is the hallucinogenic component in Absinthe. We canned the idea when we all started seeing the haloes around the lights!”

*As something of a tribute to his home state of Maine, Dogfish Head once brewed a beer made with lobster (Choc Lobster) as well as a Beer For Breakfast whose main ingredient is scrapple – pork, ummm,‘extras’. The brewpub in Rehoboth Beach made a Black N’ Tan with these beers leading Sam to claim the title of “World’s First Surf n’ Turf in beer form”.

More on Pallet mag hereand here.

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