Book Review: Brewing Up a Business

(Adventures in Entrepreneurship From the Founder of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery)
By Sam Calagione

Too bad I don’t like beer. Some people have told me it’s an acquired taste, but other things I’ve eaten and drunk were supposed to be aquired tastes, and I liked them from the get-go. Like coffee. I started out on almost the worst coffee you can imagine, and I still enjoyed it right away. Beer smells weird to me, and I try not to ingest anything that doesn’t smell actively yummy.

This book is the story of Sam Calagione, who went from a punkish childhood to an unconventional college, where he studied English and dreamed of writing the Great American Novel. Naturally enough (at least, the way he explains it), this led to beer. His first restaurant started out with what was essentially a home brewing kit on steroids (brewing something like 30 gallons a batch–not fermenting, just brewing–versus the 6,000-gallon tanks used by “real” microbreweries).

The Dogfish Head motto is “off-centered ale for 0ff-centered people.” Blah, blah, blah, I thought. Then I moved on to research into other microbreweries and realized that he probably wasn’t kidding. I was just taking for granted that all microbreweries were just like Bristol Brewing Company, and that Dogfish Head wasn’t pushing the limit all that much. Errt. I got the buzzer on that one. Most microbreweries are about as inventive as chain restaurants, from what I was finding. It’s the same beer as Coors and whatnot, just “fresher” and with “better ingredients.” Fine, fine. Like I said, I don’t like beer. Maybe it’s like the difference between truckstop coffee and a fine pot of coffee where you’ve cleaned everything yourself, used filtered water and fresh-roasted and -ground beans, etc. But here is the offering listed on the website:

Midas Touch Golden Elixer
Raison D’Etre
Chicory Stout
Immort Ale
Golden Shower Imperial Pilsner
Verdi Verdi Good
Espresso Bock

And the descriptions, in the book, of the ingredients and techniques…well, it’s too bad I don’t like beer. I get the feeling this is the kind of beer Tim Taylor would come up with…lots of mistakes along the road, but done with a good heart and the kind of geekiness that you have to love.

The book is a good read if you like business-type stories or are interested in the brewing process at all. “What happens if you do X?” “At first we weren’t sure about Y, but then we realized…Heee!” That kind of thing. It’s contains a few little gems about learning how to be happy. Not especially deep or anything, but you can’t have a truly good beer story going without a little philosophizing in there.

When I see a corner pizza store with some wrinkled banner hanging lopsided from its awning that reads “Ray’s Pizza: The Best in the Universe,” I think they have no respect for their customers. If they did, they would attribute the quote to somebody. Odds are the quote can be attributed to an egomaniac named Ray. Does anybody really read a sign like that and think, “Well damn, if it’s the best pizza in the entire universe I better hurry up and order because there’s bound to be a spaceship full of little green men flying in from Mars to clog up the take-out counter”?

The book wasn’t engrossing or anything (although it doesn’t deserve to be damned with such faint praise). It just wasn’t the kind of book that demanded your attention so much as presented tidbits for interest, amusement, and edification. I wouldn’t want you wandering into this book thinking it was going to Change Your Life; instead, wander into this book the way you would wander into a brewery itself, saying “Huh…so that’s how they do that” and “Heh.” That’s it. This is a “heh” book.

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