INTERVIEW : CRAFT BREWERS SAM CALAGIONE & “DR.” BILL SYSAK
We love beer culture, so we’re bringing some of our brewer friends together for our first annual Craft Beer Weekend at Ace Hotel & Swim Club. The two-day celebration of microbrewers, hop heads, cask masters and malsters goes down August 3 and 4. You can get a bucket of craft beers and a bunch of other cool stuff with your room — call us and mention code BEER to book. And check out the beer menu — we’ll be posting a food pairing menu soon; for now we’re still obsessing over it with Bill Sysak…
We sat down with two godfathers of micro-brewing, “Dr.” Bill Sysak of Stone Brewing Co. and Sam Calagione, founder and president of Dogfish Head Brewery, to talk about what they do and the unique and radical culture of the craft brew industry.
Both of your sites have this really robust background about your brands. There aren’t a lot of major beer brands that care that much about the company culture also. It seems like both of you are part of this larger movement. How did you both get into brewing? What makes you feel so passionately about it?
Sam : Stone Brewing Co. and Dogfish Head started around the same era in the mid-to-late 90s, and we’re kind of considered second generation breweries on the timeline of craft brewing. The industry is about thirty years young if you look at Sierra Nevada as the original start up craft brewery. The second-generation came around and had these awesome forefathers, but we decided to take another tact and brew very intensely flavorful, very personal beers designed to offend as many people as they are to excite. If a brewery like Dogfish or Stone makes twenty or thirty different beers, we know a person might hate four or five of them because they don’t calibrate well to that person’s palate, but we know they are probably going to fall in love with five or six of them too.
Dr. Bill : That first generation — they were coming off of macro-physiology. By the time we came around in the 90s, we were able to get as crazy as we wanted to be because there was already a palate set for basic beers, so people like Greg, our founder, and Sam are able to make these amazing beers that are so outside the normal bounds of possibility. Either you like it or you don’t, but definitely we get a lot of converts from doing that.
Bill, you’re a Certified Cicerone. Does that background come from outside or within brewing, and this particular culture and craft?
Dr. Bill : I was in a unique situation because my father got me into good, fresh beer when I was 15 — right at the time when the craft beer revolution was starting. I was kind of that first beer aficionado or beer geek. I built relationships with everybody as a civilian while I was working in the medical field because of my passion for beer. I became known as an expert in food pairing and cellaring beers, and always had a really good palate. When it was time for me to retire from the medical field, Greg jumped on the chance to have me come work for them and be their Cicerone — the equivalent of a wine sommelier.
Sam, you bring an interesting background too because you actually have an English degree. You got into this when you were working at a bar that served microbrews, right?
Sam : Yes, in New York, not far from Ace Hotel actually. I fell in love with beer while working at a first-generation craft beer restaurant. The owner and I started home brewing in our kitchens and the hobby spun out of control. We opened Dogfish in ‘95. Our focus from day one was off-centered ales for off-centered people. We look at the entire culinary landscape for potential ingredients in our beer. If you look at the culinary world today and the locavore and artisanal movement, that’s what craft breweries have been doing since before it had a name.
Just the fact that your passion is based around an intoxicant is probably a huge boost for the level of connectivity and creativity that’s possible around your work. It seems like when you’re out there promoting your products, connecting with your cohorts and your colleagues, everyone is drinking beer so everyone is happy…which is pretty cool.
Sam : Exactly. We have a saying in this industry that the craft brewing community is 99% asshole free.
Dr. Bill : There’s a lot of comradery in craft brewing. We’re all riding the wave together. If somebody runs out of hops, they’re going to contact one of the other brewers to borrow some.
Do you feel that there is a larger value system among brewers that everyone wants to work toward together — a similar cultural or social aim?
Dr. Bill : Definitely. One of the main goals is to get the gospel of craft beer spread out to all the people. There are 2,000 breweries in America today, but there’s still only a small percentage of people that have tasted craft beer and know what true flavor is all about. So it’s important to us to have a united front so that we can promote craft beer to the masses and give them the opportunity to decide for themselves.
Sam : I always say the craft beer drinker is blissfully promiscuous. So we all kind of band together. We know that if they are going to drink our beer, it’s because they are adventurous drinkers and we love that. It’s a pretty weird thing, and it really captivates the consumer because they see us working together in this very authentic, grassroots, natural way.