Earlier this week, the James Beard Foundation announced the finalists for this year’s James Beard Awards, frequently described as the Oscars of the culinary world. Though the list features a familiar, high-profile cast of returning characters — Anthony Bourdain, Ina Garten, Peter Meehan — the least surprising name you’ll find there is Sam Calagione, founder of the Delaware brewery Dogfish Head.
You see, Calagione, a pioneer of the craft beer movement, was nominated last year, too. And the year before that. In fact, this is his seventh consecutive nomination for “Outstanding Wine, Spirits, or Beer Professional,” an achievement that, even before the reveal of this year’s finalists, has become somewhat of a running joke in craft beer circles.
Calagione didn’t even attend last year’s ceremony, where the award was given to Ron Cooper of Del Maguey — a deserving three-time finalist, truth be told. But Calagione’s streak has gone on so long that the brewer’s even compared himself to the actress Susan Lucci; Lucci was nominated for 18 Emmy awards before she finally won. Of course, this isn’t the first time the James Beard Foundation has strung a finalist along: It took distinguished bartender Dale DeGroff nine tries before he finally won his award. That’s shouldn’t happen to Calagione, and here’s why.
The James Beard Foundation claims that the award for “Outstanding Wine, Spirits, or Beer Professional” is a given to a “professional who has made a significant national impact on the restaurant industry.” Well, you’d be hard pressed to find a “wine, spirits or beer professional” with more impact than Calagione, whose brewery, Dogfish Head, hasn’t just contributed to the landscape of the American craft beer, but significantly altered its parameters.
Calagione founded Dogfish Head in 1995, an era when American craft beer was still very much in its infancy. His specialty was brewing “off-centered” beers, making use of stone fruits, blue-green algae, even boiled lobsters; Dogfish Head’s Ancient Ales series, which debuted in the late ‘90s, was made using recipes inspired by the chemical analysis of residue found on pottery from archaeological sites around the world. This kind of experimentation, however extreme it may still sound to the casual beer drinker, has since become commonplace, almost necessary, for new brewers competing for recognition in the saturated marketplace of craft beer.
His most iconic creation, meanwhile, the 90-Minute IPA, pushed the boundaries of what a so-called “imperial” IPA could be. Not only did it contain 9% ABV (unheard of at the time), it made use of a technique Calagione called “continuous hopping,” whereby hops are added to beer at different stages of the brewing process. At the time of its launch, Esquire called it the best IPA in America. It was so successful that Dogfish Head went on create an entire line around continuous hopping. They now sell 60-minute, 75-minute and 120-minute variations of the beer.
Of course, Calagione has some stiff competition come May 1, the date of this year’s James Beard Awards ceremony. Other finalists in his category include Aldo Sohm and fellow brewer Rob Tod of Allagash Brewing Company, a celebrated Belgian-influenced brewery based in Portland, Maine. It’s not the least bit surprising that Calagione was considered among them, and, given his track record, it wouldn’t be surprising if he lost. Let’s just hope the James Beard Foundation still has a few tricks up its sleeve.