Brewing Up a Business:
Adventures in Entrepreneurship from
the Founder of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery
By Sam Calagione
Wiley Books
256 pages, $24.95

Reviewed by Jack Curtin
Aug/Sept 2005

Let's face it, Sam Calagione is a superstar among superstars in the craft brewing industry. Who else among all the familiar faces can lay claim to having influenced a state legislature into changing its laws to allow him to start his brewery? To having created, for better or worse, craft brewing's first, and only, rap group? To having been paid to model men's slacks as a means of promoting his beer? To having been named "Small Businessman of the Year" by the Small Business Association? And, most importantly, to currently heading up the fastest growing brewery in the nation? That latter achievement is, of course, the raison d'etre for this very interesting, very readable book.

I'm not a fan of the business genre. Such books are usually self-congratulatory in the extreme, painfully obvious in much of their advice and, well, downright boring. Let me also note that Sam Calagione is a friend of mine, which alerts readers that this is not an unbiased eye (then again, I've offered Sam enough less-that-complimentary remarks about certain Dogfish Head beers that he'd probably assure you there's no danger of my showing any overt favoritism) and partially accounts for my overcoming that aversion to business books in this instance.

Fortuitously enough, Brewing Up a Business is basically aversion-proof. From the opening page, it's obvious that Sam will recount his pursuit of his dream in a direct fashion which never obscures where he made mistakes or attempts to shift blame anywhere else. Throughout, but especially in the early going, he uses amusing anecdotes to draw the reader in, stories which have become local legends, such as his crashing a delivery truck not once, but twice one afternoon-one crash happening "live" while he was on his cell phone with the brewery. Another tale, of a 20-nautical mile, 5 1/2 hour trip by Sam in a hand-built rowboat from Lewes, Delaware to Cape May, New Jersey, carrying a six-pack to promote the opening the original Dogfish Head brewery in Lewes, which drew only a single beer writer and left them drinking warm beer, underlines one of the book's principal messages: be clever, but also pay attention to the details.

It helps considerably that, aspiring writer that he once was, Sam tells his stories and makes his points very effectively, often employing the clever technique of building up to a implied denouement and then shifting off in another direction, coming back to finish his point later on when it's almost slipped away, so that the rush of recaptured memory renders it even stronger than it might have been if stated directly. And the very personal tone and flow of the narrative, right down to the periodic love notes to his childhood sweetheart and wife, Mariah (the too-often unsung heroine of the Dogfish Head saga), also holds the reader's attention.

In terms of its value as a business guide, the strongest sections of Brewing Up a Business are those on branding and leadership. Much of the advice might be relatively standard stuff you've heard before, but the personal stories once again carry the message admirably. The story in the first of those chapters of Sam affixing labels to bottles with rubber bands is priceless, if wince-making, for the early naivety about customer expectations which it revealed. His tale in the second of his ultimately failed relationship with original brewpub manager and former college roommate John and his later, more successful, if difficult, confrontation with head brewer Bryan Selders serve as reminders that a leader need not be infallible, but he must definitely lead.

Brewing Up a Business is, most of all, a book for the truest of true believers, for the guy or gal who is more interested in achieving and living the dream than in cashing out somewhere down the line. Further, with a grateful nod to a writer who quotes de Tocqueville, Warhol, Emerson and Miles Davis rather than the Usual Suspects, I'd even go so far as to suggest that it might actually serve any thoughtful reader as a useful meditation on the raison d'etre of our lives, about how to recognize yours and embrace it.

Copyright (c) 2005 Jack Curtin

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