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Jan 16 / Josh

Head’s All Empty and I Don’t Care

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We are starting 2013 off with an absurdly awesome interview between Sam Calagione, the founder of Dogfish Head Brewery, and our friend Matt Leff, founder of Rhizome Productions in Nashville, TN. Today’s conversation is mostly concerned with Dogfish Head’s upcoming Grateful Dead-themed craft beer appropriately called American Beauty.

EM: What led you down the road to getting hooked up with the Grateful Dead for this beer?

Sam: They came to us probably five or six months ago now. They saw the Pearl Jam beer that we did. They’d seen the Miles Davis Bitches Brew beer we did which was part of our music series. Now obviously with Miles Davis, he’s dead, so we were interacting with his family. His nephew actually brought us to the studios and played us the original outtakes from when they were recording Bitches Brew. Miles wasn’t just a musical hero of mine, he was an entrepreneurial hero of mine. He painted, he was an awesome chef, and he was a musician. I learned from his family how he worked. That collaboration holds a really special place in my heart. Moments like these really inform the collaborative process.

One of our main missions is getting beer’s chocolate into music’s peanut butter and combining a love of our two favorite things. So they contacted us out of the blue and within minutes I was already entertaining a different music series collaboration for 2013. After a few days they said, “This is kinda weird but the band is not only into it, they want this beer to be a strong pale ale and they want to pick the base style.’ Then they said the band members each wants 20 cases of the beer!

The phenomenon that has kept the Grateful Dead in the public eye for decades isn’t driven by huge advertising dollars and billboards and TV ads. It is driven by a fan base that is super grassroots and energized to spread the word and keep the love for the Dead going. That is exactly how Dogfish Head has grown. We try to use grassroots events and social media, which is my wife’s job, to get the word out about what makes our company special. We saw that overlap and got the idea to hold a contest that would allow Dead Heads and Dogfishheads to submit one ingredient that they think would go well with a strong pale ale and a story and how that ingredient ties back to the Dead. It’s not just a contest, but its also a home for sharing stories about Grateful Dead moments. Three members of the Dead and three people from Dogfish Head will choose the winning ingredient and story, and six of us will invite the winner to come brew the test batch with us at our pub brewery. [Editor's note - the contest has now ended]

EM: Do you see this as being a bomber release maybe once or twice, or do you think that maybe the Dead or Further will put it on draft at their concerts in the future?

Sam: I don’t know what will happen with the concerts. It’s really hard for small breweries to get in, unfortunately. I know that they’re going to be getting cases delivered to their homes and sharing it with friends that way.

EM: Well that’s awesome! What was your first Dead experience?

Sam: When I was in junior high school, our teacher snuck us out over the weekend and we went and saw the Dead in Worcester, Mass. I also remember that I saw them in Washington DC, in 1991, with my wife Mariah when were in college, dating. And now of course she runs Dogfish with me.

EM: They’ve got quite a legacy. I think having a Grateful Dead bear on a bottle is probably going to hold a lot of value in the beer world and also the music industry as a whole.

Sam: I hate to use that corporate word ‘synergistic’, but I think we’re going to turn some younger beer folks on to the Dead, and certainly I think a lot of folks who have been with the Dead for decades are going to first learn about Dogfish Head when they buy this beer. So they’re complimentary, which is what all collaborations should be. They should come from an equitable place. Dave, the Grateful Dead’s archivist is into this project as well and I think we may look at doing some unique downloads at some point.

EM: So outside of the realm of the Dead, what other music in that general do you listen to or appreciate?

Sam: I would say the closest thing in that area would be My Morning Jacket and Miles Davis. I’m not so into Phish or String Cheese Incident. Other than My Morning Jacket, its a lot of jazz. I like Japandroids and the new Dylan album. Dylan is a big touchstone for me as a creative person. Velvet Underground I listen to a lot lately.

EM: So I’ve spent a lot of time in various breweries around the country and it seems like there’s always a soundtrack for the brew house.  How would you describe the brew house soundtrack at Dogfishead?

Sam: When we brew at the pub where we do experimental brews we just switch on and off iPods. The pub brewer down there, Ben, listens to a lot of electronica and hip hop. So a lot of higher energy stuff. Whereas when I brew, I kinda like it quieter. My favorite moments is mashing in the sound of the water hitting the grains. My favorite moment of any day. And I usually like mellower stuff for that, like Bon Iver, or Lenard Cohn, or Cat Power.

EM: You travel quite a bit obviously, you’re probably all over the country every month. In the past five years with your travels, what is your favorite city to eat and favorite city to drink?

Sam: We have something called Birreria at Eataly in New York City where Dogfish and two Italian brewers do the recipes, train the brewer and design the brewery. The restaurant is owned by Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich in New York City. We said, we’re going to make unfiltered, cask conditioned, naturally carbonated beers, 100%. We think we’re the first group to do 100% cask condition in terms of what’s produced in house. They decided to compliment their menu with rustic, Alps-inspired Italian food. So lots of mushrooms, cheeses, sausages, potatoes, etc.

EM: Yea definitely it’s a great synergy of food and beer there.

Sam: They do an awesome job.

EM: And the location in Rome, is it an Eataly, or is it just the beer concept?

Sam: Yea it’s the biggest Eataly in the world.We just opened one in Rome two weeks ago so I’m leaving here on Sunday to go to Rome. Even though I don’t speak the language, both of my parents are from Italy. Its where I feel the most at home other than in the States. I’ve been really lucky in the last five years I’ve gotten to brew in Prague, in Egypt, Peru, and New Zealand and Copenhagen, so I love that part of my job. Our brewery, before it even opened, it was in our business plan that we were not going to be beholden to existing beer styles but that we’re going to consider the entire culinary landscape as potential ingredients in our beer. When we opened, it was with beers like Raison D’Etre with beet sugars and raisins. Or, our chickory stout, incorporating chickory coffee and licorice root, or the pumpkin ale with brown sugar and pumpkin meat, etc.

EM: We saw you at this year’s Great American Beer Festival in Denver, CO. What is your go-to place for a beer or for a meal while in Denver?

Sam: I’d say the three I go to the most are Falling Rock and the Merry Monk. The other one would be Euclid Hall.

EM: Your go-to beer, and your go-to meal, on the fly?

Sam: I would probably say a steak frites with grilled onions and malt vinegar on the fries. And the beer would be an Indian Brown Ale, which is kind of roasty and hoppy and its kind of the dark IPA before dark IPA’s existed. We’ve been brewing them since ’96.

EM: Any other exciting Dogfish news coming up that we can share?

Sam: Speaking of blending the culinary and brewing worlds, we’re about one month away from releasing in champagne bottles, our latest ancient ale which is Birra Etrusca. We went to the tombs and the dig sites in the Etruscan region of Italy and found that ancient beverages that derived from grain there included pomegranates, tree resin, and hazelnuts. Those were the three key ingredients going into Etrusca.

EM: Sounds really cool. I look forward to hopefully getting a bottle of that.

Matt Leff, wearing a perfectly faded Dead t-shirt

Editor’s Note: Jerry is photographed backstage holding a vintage New Castle brown ale, at a 1976 Grateful Dead concert. The photo was retrieved on the Internet Archive at archive.org.

Many thanks to Matt Leff for holding it down with Sam. If you are in Nashville and interested in craft beer events, I am sure you have heard of his East Nashville Beer Festival, Nashville Craft Beer Week, Brews at the Zoo, or the 12 South Winter Warmer events. For more information on Rhizome Productions, visit his website by clicking here.

Additional thanks to Eden for being the transcriber-in-chief!

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  1. In politics I am growing indifferent — I would like it, if I could now return to my planting and books at home.

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