It was 2000 when Sam Calagione received a dire message before driving north to Philadelphia with beers for an event.
"You have to get a check for those two pallets of beer or we won't be able to make payroll," said his wife Mariah, who has helped grow Dogfish Head Craft Brewery Inc. throughout its 25-year-run.
Calagione, 30 at the time, had founded Dogfish only five years prior and was against the ropes.
Dogfish had just started brewing its popular 90 Minute IPA, which Esquire magazine would famously call "perhaps the best IPA in America."
That beer's success gave the brewery a much-needed shot in the arm, stabilizing the company and putting it on a path to success, capped earlier this month by a $300 million merger with Boston Beer Co. It makes the Samuel Adams beers.
Want to live longer?: Drink alcohol, new study says
But on that day headed to Philadelphia, Calagione had no clue about the heady days to come. And luck was not on his side.
First, his delivery truck caught a telephone pole wire, ripping the top off the truck. After renting a new truck and transferring the beer by hand, one of that truck's tires blew out in Chester, Pennsylvania.
The mad scientist brewer ended up getting the check that day and finished his night serving his brews made with exotic ingredients at a beer dinner in Philadelphia.
"I was covered in dirt and grease and desperately doing anything I could to get one check," said Calagione, who turned 50 in May. "I'm thinking, 'Is this dream about to die?' It was a pretty brutal day."
His dream stayed very much alive and in the years since, Delaware's king of beer has positioned himself as one of the fiercest defenders of independent craft beer.
Armed with enough charisma for two and a smile any salesman would covet, Calagione gained a cult following and has risen to become a major player in the industry.
Steve "Monty" Montgomery, co-owner of The Starboard in Dewey Beach, was still working as a bartender when Calagione came to town. He has watched him flourish up close.
"His passion and personality is just unmatched," said Montgomery, who began carrying Dogfish after his first meeting with Calagione in the late 1990s. "He's such a likable guy that I think people drank his beer in the early days just because they liked him so much."
Boozy school years
Calagione was born in the summer of '69. May 22 to be exact, in New York City.
His father Sam, an oral surgeon, and mother Mary, a special education teacher, moved to western Massachusetts when Calagione was 2.
It was in Greenfield where he would spend his formative years, attending Northfield Mount Hermon preparatory school in Gill, Massachusetts, about seven miles from home.
It shouldn't have come as a surprise to anyone that Calagione ended up in the brewing business considering his youthful love for the libation while attending Northfield Mount Hermon.
It's the reason why he was kicked out in March of his senior year for an accumulation of offenses, three months before graduation.
He didn't technically graduate from Northfield until he was given an honorary diploma last year, the same year his son Sam graduated from the school. (The couple also has a daughter, Grier, who is attending Northfield Mount Hermon, where Mariah is chair of the Board of Trustees.)
"My son wouldn't let me go on the party circuit with him. I was like, 'What are you talking about? We're in the same graduating class,'" Calagione joked.
No one was joking on the ride home in spring 1987 after Calagione's father Sam picked him up after the expulsion.
Calagione's classmates, on the other hand, thought it was funny. When Calagione's father arrived in his red pick-up truck to move his son, they were blasting Frank Sinatra's "That's Life" from the dorm windows.
Once packed and on the road, Calagione's father didn't rant and rave. He didn't have to. He knew how much his son looked up to him and only said eight words on the drive: "Sammy, sometimes you're a tough kid to love."
Calagione built up quite a list of infractions while at Northfield Mount Hermon.
There was the time he drove the family station wagon over the football field one night as a freshman.
And then there was his junior year when he wasn't allowed to attend prom. So he and a friend rented a Winnebago with a plan of acting as chaperones for some friends of theirs.
They never made it. They had too much fun drinking and driving around. At one point, Calagione was sitting on the roof of the Winnebago with his legs crossed as it hurtled down the road at 60 mph until police pulled them over.
Throughout his time at the school, his flair for enterprise shone brightly. He would drive home and find older people to buy him beer before heading back to campus, and then sell it for a profit out of his hockey bag to underage classmates.
"I was a beer entrepreneur since I was 15 years old, I guess," says Calagione, who lives in Lewes.
Calagione landed at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania, to study English, and the hijinx continued, although he wasn't expelled.
He still laughs thinking about the night college security officers were scratching their heads, unable to find any beer in a house full of college kids with their hands wrapped around red Solo cups.
Calagione had fashioned a compartment for a keg in a thrift store recliner and was the hero of the party that night after security walked away empty-handed.
Even with beer an integral part of his college experience, he managed to graduate in 1992.
His first brew
Calagione jumped in the used Saab his parents gave him as a graduation present and headed to New York City where he lived on the Upper West Side while taking free writing classes through the Columbia University MFA Writing Program.
While there, he earned his rent money working at Nacho Mama's Burrito. It just happened to be a first generation craft beer bar with everything from Sierra Nevada to Chimay Red.
It was there that Calagione fell in love with not only the different brews, but also recommending beers to customers and watching as they discovered new tastes.
Within a year, he was home brewing and within a year after that, he was creating his business plan for what would become Dogfish Head.
Calagione's first beer was called Cherry Brew, made with over-ripe cherries and boasting a name that Calagione admits is a "pretty sophomoric reference to losing your virginity."
His first pour was in his New York apartment. Mariah was there along with his now-famous actor roommates, Joe Lo Truglio ("Brooklyn Nine-Nine," "Reno 911!") and Ken Marino ("Wet Hot American Summer," "Party Down"). Future talk show host Ricki Lake was also there.
"As I watched my friends kick back and enjoy something I made, I experienced a sense of pride and accomplishment on a level never felt before," Calagione wrote in his 2005 book "Brewing Up a Business."
That's when the 22-year-old newbie brewer stood up and announced, "This is what I want to do with my life. I want to open a craft brewery."
Next stop, Delaware!
With Mariah originally from Milford, the pair had spent a few summers together at Delaware's beaches, leading the way for Calagione to choose the area as Dogfish's home.
Plus, he wanted to open a craft brewery in a state that didn't have an active brewery. When he was ready to launch Dogfish, Delaware was the closest state to New England without one.
It seemed like a great place to start small with hopes of building a national brand that reaches urban areas, thanks to summertime visitors from cities such as Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia and more.
He admits he was a little worried about his location when the brewery equipment broker he was using asked what state Delaware was in.
"I was thinking, 'Oh boy, I'm opening a brewery that I one day want to sell beer coast-to-coast from and other states don't even know I'm in a state,'" Calagione remembered.
He brought a piece of New England with him. The brewery is named after Dogfish Head, the peninsula on Southport Island in Maine, where Calagione's parents have a cabin that they all still visit each summer.
Soon, he was raising money for his endeavor, getting $110,000 from friends and family, which was matched by a bank loan of the same amount.
Calagione ended up opening Dogfish Head on Rehoboth Avenue in Rehoboth Beach, landing on a spot several blocks away from the ocean due to cheaper rent.
Montgomery says Dogfish as a magnet for beer tourists should not be underestimated.
"It would probably be astonishing to people just how many people come to Rehoboth Beach just for Dogfish."
Lasting impact on Rehoboth Beach
Calagione's decision to settle in on Rehoboth Avenue's more sleepy end has left a big stamp on the beach town, even 25 years later, says Rehoboth Beach Mayor Paul Kuhns.
The west end of Rehoboth Avenue downtown was not always a bustling extension of the first few beach blocks. It has morphed over the past quarter of a century into an in-demand location, which now boasts everything from The Cultured Pearl sushi restaurant to Dogfish Head's sister restaurant Chesapeake & Maine.
Over the years, the growing drawing power of Dogfish has attracted scores of beer tourists from across the country, strengthening the town as a destination and also helping Rehoboth's now vibrant "shoulder season."
Since Dogfish had to continue making beer in the winter, they always remained open, setting the stage for more businesses at the beach to switch to year-round schedules.
"He's brought a different demographic into town. The beer on his menu is a tourist attraction in and of itself," said Kuhns, who says he hears about Dogfish all the time while traveling when he tells people he is mayor of Rehoboth Beach. "People used to come to the beach, the boardwalk and a few restaurants and that was it. That's not the case anymore."
Calagione's decision to initially open a brewpub instead of a brewery was made because he thought food sales from his rustic wood-grilled pizzas would help insulate him from financial challenges.
After all, he was trying to break through with "off-centered" beers, which over the years have included ingredients such as doughnuts and chewed corn containing human saliva.
From around 1997 to 2000, that decision really paid off. Calagione said Dogfish would have gone bankrupt without the food revenue as more and more craft breweries began opening and demand started being eclipsed by supply.
He also felt there was a great brand-building value in interacting directly with consumers. In hindsight, it may have been one of his best decisions, considering the die-hard followers Dogfish (and Calagione himself) still have.
"Before it was called social media, it was called talking to your customers," Calagione said. "And that's what Mariah and I did inside that building, honing our brand's voice."
One day, while Calagione was first building the business, he was hanging their sign out front when a passerby saw Calagione and delivered some awful news: He needed a brewpub license to open.
With the spot 95% done, Calagione drove to Dover and started knocking on doors at Legislative Hall to figure out a way to open. He soon partnered with Wilmington attorney Dick Kirk.
Even though a neighborhood protest bubbled up after the public notice — the location had changed ownership several times and had hosted a stream of rowdy bars — they got the license.
Mariah said, "Neither of us had owned a business before. We had both worked at restaurants and that was about the extent of it. We were too young to know how many things could and did go wrong, but we had nothing to lose."
They had a liquor license and could serve beer, just not the beer they had made there. So the only beers sold at Dogfish Head in its first couple of weeks were beers from other breweries.
"When it was approved, I remember walking out and calling our bartenders telling them they can transfer the beer," Calagione said. "That's how tight the timing was."
He and Kirk soon helped draft legislation that would help craft breweries thrive in Delaware. Laws permitting take-out growlers and allowing craft breweries to sell their bottles and kegs to wholesale distributors have Calagione's fingerprints all over them.
"I don't remember ever sitting down with him and discussing a grand plan, but if you look at what he's done, it's pretty clear that he had one," Kirk said before turning his attention to Calagione's overpowering personality. "He's just a marvelous promoter and not only for his brand, but also for craft beer in general."
When Calagione started Dogfish, it was the smallest brewery in the country. He would brew 12-gallon batches of his ales two or three times a day, making about 180 gallons a week. These days, Dogfish's sprawling 180,000-square-foot brewery produces 225,000 gallons a week during the summer.
He and his wife were renting a home in Bethany Beach 14 miles away at the time, and Calagione often would sleep on a mattress he kept in the brewery's basement. His morning shower was a dip in the Atlantic Ocean.
Finances were harried.
Dogfish Head's Delaware beer distributor from day one, Bob Trostel, remembers the day Calagione had a truck full of beer going to New Jersey and stopped by his New Castle County office for a visit. It turned out he didn't have enough cash for the gas to make it, expecting to collect a check from a wholesaler.
Trostel gave him $20 and Calagione promised to come back with it after cashing the check. Trostel told him he didn't have to, but Calagione did anyway.
"About a week or two later, there's a knock on my door again and it's Sam saying, 'I need that $20 back again,'" he said, laughing at the memory.
Trostel, now executive vice president for Breakthru Beverages Delaware, said the key to Calagione's success is simple: He works hard and doesn't stop.
"The harder he worked the luckier he got," he said, pointing to Calagione's relentless direct marketing of Dogfish though beer dinners and other events paired with his heavy involvement in the industry. "It's the all-American story. He's like a founding father. He really went after it."
Together Trostel and Calaginone have grown Dogfish sales in The First State every year for 25 years, he said.
For the first three years or so, Calagione had some help from Millsboro homebrewer Doug Griffith, who used to own several homebrew equipment shops in the area before retiring.
In 1995, Griffith read in The News Journal that a brewery was coming to Rehoboth Beach and drove over to take a look. He met Calagione, offered his help and did everything from painting, electrical and plumbing work at the brewpub before helping to brew some of Dogfish's early batches.
Pay was largely in the form of meals and beer in those cash-strapped days, says Griffith, who Calagione called "the Johnny Appleseed of the Delmarva brewing community."
"I saw him out there all the time beating the bushes trying to get business," Griffith said. "I thought he was a success waiting to happen. And he's become a leader in the industry, really pushing the limits of beer styles."
More than just beer
Before the merger earlier this year, Dogfish Head was the 13th largest craft brewery in the nation, according to the Brewers Association. Boston Beer was No. 2 behind Yuengling.
These days, Dogfish Head is more than just a beer company.
Dogfish has its own line of spirits (Dogfish Head Distilling Co.), the Chesapeake & Maine restaurant and a beer-themed Dogfish Inn hotel in Lewes, which opened in 2014. Dogfish Head's brewery in Milton added a new kitchen last year following a $52 million expansion several years earlier.
In 2010, Calagione decided to add television personality to his growing list of titles. He starred in his own television series, Discovery Channel's "Brew Masters," making him an (even more) familiar face.
While the company has had its share of successes, like its 2016 release of the popular SeaQuench Ale sour, there have also been failures, such as the short-lived Dogfish head brewpub in Lewes, which was open from 1997 to 2002.
Dogfish's cramped, original brewpub was demolished in 2017 when the brewery moved to a $4 million, 6,300-square-foot state-of-the-art brewpub next door with a large 220-square-foot stage for free music concerts.
"If I worked for a corporation, I'd get fired for spending that much on a brewpub," Calagione told The News Journal at the time.
The dynamic duo
While Calagione was a day student at Northfield Mount Hermon, a teenage Mariah from a far away Delaware town called Milford was at the same school as a boarding student.
They began dating when she was a 16-year-old sophomore and he was 17, a junior. They met in a pottery class — "I'm sure you can picture me being like Demi Moore [in "Ghost']," Mariah jokes. The two also had the same school work job of cooking in the cafeteria.
It was the first meaningful relationship for each and the high school sweethearts have been together ever since.
"I was smitten from the moment I saw her," he said," and I spent all my energy trying to make her laugh, as I still do today."
She said she was drawn to his sense of humor, intelligence and, well, appearance: "He also wasn't hard to look at, which in high school is pretty important, right?"
When college time came, Calagione went to Muhlenberg and Mariah went to Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, nearly 300 miles away. Once a month, one of them would make the trip to spend a weekend with each other.
While Calagione's dynamic Type A personality is what makes him stand out — he's outgoing, ambitious and rigidly organized — it's also why Mariah is a perfect partner for him. She is less mad scientist and more grounded and practical.
In fact, when Calagione's sisters met Mariah, they couldn't believe he was dating someone so much more reserved and quieter than him. After all, he calls himself frenetic with "creative ADD."
Mariah is more than just Calagione's wife. She is Dogfish Head's vice president, a major player within the company who oversees the brewery's marketing and social media strategies.
She is also Calagione's filter. Any time he has a creative concept he wants to pitch to Dogfish's leadership team, he passes it by her first.
"She's great at telling me which four out of my five ideas are stupid and which one I should put more energy into fleshing out," Calagione said.
When do their personalities clash? Weekly, he admitted.
But it's more due to his habit of obsessively scheduling his days, even when he has a rare day off.
If it's a Saturday, you'll find him waking up, grabbing a pen and writing out his day: Paddleboarding from 9 to 10 a.m., reading the Wall Street Journal from 10 to 11 a.m., etc.
That's the time when Mariah has usually had enough.
"She'll be like, 'Get the f--- out of my face. I don't want to schedule every moment of my weekend,'" Calagione said with a laugh. "That's an area where we still have domestic tension, if you will."
But make no mistake about it, the pair are so tight that there are times when she knows what he's thinking before he opens his mouth.
Both say it's fun to be married and work together, even putting their desks across from each other at the brewery's headquarters in Milton. But with Calagione on the road often for official Dogfish events, they don't spend every waking hour together.
That happened once when he had a back injury and couldn't travel as much. It threw off the relationship's balance, Mariah recalled.
"He remembers me going at one point, 'Don't you think it's time for you to get back on the road and selling some beer?'" she said. "Even though we work together, we're also very independent of each other. It's a perfect fit."
In May, Calagione surprised the craft beer world by agreeing to a $300 merger between Dogfish and Boston Beer, which closed earlier this month.
Calagione, who will join Boston Beer’s Board of Directors next year, and his family received approximately 407,000 shares of Boston Beer stock based on a share price at the time of $314.60, worth a total of about $128 million then.
The Calagiones have said they are "reinvesting nearly all of the proceeds back into the combined company."
"Mariah and I didn't take any money personally out of his," he said. "We didn't cash out stock. We're the second largest owners of Boston Beer and still owners and leaders in the combined company. I haven't even looked at the stock price since."
Calagione says growth was the reason why the merger happened. He believes both Dogfish and Boston Beer can grow their brands better together as a company with a combined workforce of 1,800. (Dogfish Head employed nearly 400 before the merger.)
Even though Boston Beer is a publicly traded company — complete with a "SAM" ticker symbol — it's not required to maximize shareholder value since founder Jim Koch controls the company through Class B common stock.
It's an important distinction not just for the company, but for Calagione.
In "Brewing Up a Business," he boldly wrote, "I have promised my co-workers that the day Dogfish Head goes public, I will dive into our largest fermenting vessel and tread beer for an entire eight-hour workday."
Calagione says a co-worker brought up that quote following the merger, but he said Boston Beer's unique set-up has saved him from taking a dip: "I'm off the hook on that one."
Calagione's main concern these days is not about how the combined company will run or his role in it: "From the moment we agreed to do the merger, I slept better than I have in the last few years."
Now, he's looking at national trends and that's where he finds reason for concern. Overall beer sales are flat nationally and craft beer sales volume growth has slowed, nearly to a halt.
He still feels like the combined company is a David against the Goliath of major commercial beer companies, such as Anheuser-Busch InBev. But now, they can put up a better fight.
"We were a marginal superhero like Robin. We had good intentions and some superpowers with a tiny dink-ass utility belt," Calagione said. "Now, we've joined forces with Batman and we have some sick tools and weapons at our disposal."
This article originally appeared on Delaware News Journal: Dogfish Head's Sam Calagione on being a leader in the beer business