Meet the woman behind Mandarin & Mango Crush and Punkin Ale.
In Elite Daily’s I Have The Job You Want series, we tell the stories of people working in the most ridiculous, unbelievable, and totally envy-inducing fields you never thought possible. In this piece, we talk to the woman running the brewery producing your favorite craft beers.
Mariah Calagione of Dogfish Head always has to laugh at what people think her job running a beer brewery entails. “They think that we just hang out at bars and restaurants and drink all day,” she says. But while Calagione’s 27-year-long journey with Dogfish Head — the acclaimed craft beer brewery founded by her and her husband, Sam — includes plenty of fun, travel, adventure, and beer-tasting, there’s a lot more to her work life than meets the eye.
The truth is Calagione is Dogfish Head’s multitasker-at-large. As the main logistical support for head brewer Sam, she coordinates with staff, puts together marketing materials, takes photos, and writes captions for social media. Even beyond that, she coordinates with local nonprofits to build and promote Beer & Benevolence, Dogfish Head’s philanthropic initiative. The work has her running between Dogfish Head’s Delaware-based brewery, restaurants, and hotels, along with the corporate office in Boston. “I never have a ‘typical’ workday, and I love that,” Calagione says.
Unlike commercial breweries, which make massive quantities of beer using inexpensive ingredients and lower-quality water, craft breweries like Dogfish Head produce beer on a smaller scale and put an emphasis on excellent ingredients and unique flavors: Dogfish Head is known for funky flavors like Festina Pêche and Mandarin & Mango Crush. “We have brainstorming meetings at the brewery with our teams, and we share crazy flavor ideas that come from people visiting us in the tasting room, from our co-workers across the company, from the magazines and books we read, from art, and even from music,” Calagione says. “I love that there isn’t a lot of structure [in brewing]; we can try anything.” Dogfish Head also makes rum, vodka, gin, and whiskey at its Delaware distillery, and they use their spirits to make canned cocktails like the Lemon & Lime Gin Crush and the Cherry Bergamot Whiskey Sour. But smaller scale doesn’t mean smaller reach: Dogfish Head sells their brews in all 50 states, plus Washington, D.C.
The entire brewing system was about the size of my desk.
When the Calagiones first launched Dogfish Head in Delaware in 1995, the craft beer industry was far smaller than it is today. “When we first opened, there were 600 craft breweries in the United States. [In 2022], there are over 9,000,” Calagione tells me. She says the idea for Dogfish Head first started to brew (lol) between herself and Sam after her husband had the classic post-college job — bartending — at a craft beer spot. “He started learning about beer there, then he got into home brewing.” From there, Sam and Calagione, who had worked restaurant jobs in high school and college, decided to open a brewpub, “or a restaurant with a brewery in it,” as Calagione describes it.
To get the brewpub off the ground, Calagione and Sam got loans from friends and family, and pitched the idea to local banks — sweetening their appeal by handing out samples of their now-famous Punkin Ale along the way. The bottles had “DIY pumpkin labels made from a potato stamp,” Calagione says, “so potential investors could truly ‘drink in’ our vision.” They raised the funds to open their restaurant “with a really, really, really small brewery in the corner.”
“The entire brewing system was about the size of my desk,” Calagione says. “We were actually the smallest commercial brewery in the United States at the time.”
Starting off as an on-site brewery for their restaurant helped Dogfish Head develop a reputation among local beer fans for inventive brews that pair nicely with food — largely because the Calagiones could try out new brews using their own bar taps. “We were making a lot of beers to supply the taps,” Calagione says. It gave them the chance to experiment, which set the stage for weird, fun Dogfish Head releases like Beer for Breakfast (a stout brewed with cold-pressed coffee, maple syrup, and scrapple), Camp Amp (a s’mores-inspired milk stout brewed with marshmallows, graham crackers, and cocoa nibs), and SeaQuench Ale (a session sour brewed with black limes and sea salt).
“[Sam] would tinker around with every batch, and they’d all be different, featuring different ingredients. And that’s where we really got our focus on brewing with culinary ingredients,” Calagione says. This focus gave Dogfish Head the chance to build up a unique identity that set them apart from other competitive brewers and ultimately led to the expansion of their beer empire, which now includes a tasting room, two restaurants, and an inn in Delaware, along with a brewpub in Miami.
Growing up, Calagione never imagined a future as a beer-industry impresario. As a student at Brown University, she studied media’s impact on public policy and interned with TV news stations. “I thought I’d stay in the media business,” she says. After she and Sam got together and moved down to Delaware, Calagione stuck with her college path by taking a position as a TV news producer for a local station in the area. But “on the weekends,” she says, “I would bus tables at the brewpub, paint chairs or walls before we opened, or do whatever we needed to do to get going for the day.”
When the business took off and Calagione made the choice to come on board full-time, she sought out ways to apply her previous work experiences to her beer career. “First, I said, ‘I’m going to do marketing.’ Because that’s what news producers know how to do, right?” she says. Among her first steps were “taking people on tours of the brewery, getting print ads to the local papers,” and getting acquainted with other members of the craft beer community — which she considers a crucial element of Dogfish Head’s success, and of her own identity as a brewery owner.
Find other women that are in the industry, and connect.
“The community aspect of a craft beer industry is pretty awesome. All these people are doing something because they’re passionate about it, and when you get a group of these people together, it’s a fun time,” she says. She notes a lot of breweries are small and local, meaning it’s important for a brewer to invest in their community. “Tap rooms become almost like community gathering spaces.” The communal nature of the business also means that what could be professional rivalries instead turn into opportunities for collaboration: “You’ll tell another brewer, ‘Hey, I’m low on this ingredient, can you help out?’ Then you run down to the restaurant or the brewery down the street, pick some of it up, and then you make sure to have their back another time. I really like that collaborative attitude,” she says.
The community of her own brewery is a huge priority for Calagione. She and Sam always strive to make Dogfish Head “a brewery that’s dynamic, that’s doing fun stuff, and that’s treating our people well. We want to be somewhere that you’d be proud to work with,” she tells me.
Calagione insists the key to finding your foothold as a woman in the beer industry is to “find other women that are in the industry, and connect.” The industry’s masculine reputation, she says, isn’t as much of a barrier as it seems. “It’s not about commiserating [about the difficulties], as much as it is about working together to find new paths and to form a network of people who you look up to who you want to learn from.” She recommends organizations like the Pink Boots Society and the Brewer’s Association for women and femmes interested in getting started with beer, as well as home brewing clubs and beer appreciation clubs.
Also, don’t underestimate the value of good, old-fashioned bar chats with other beer enthusiasts. “Just go to your local tap room and just start talking to people that work there!” she advises. The point is to put yourself out there and make your connections. “If you look at all of the breweries in your city or all of the breweries in your state,” she says, “you’re going to find that there are people who want to connect just as much as you do.”