There was once a time when Sam Calagione, the charismatic face of Dogfish Head and avid supporter of the local arts and business communities, did judge an album by its cover.
He grew up on the sounds of Frank Sinatra and Barbara Streisand, music suited for a clean-cut business man sipping whiskey, rather than a flannel-shirt sporting craft beer maven.
But Calagione loved it just the same, he said.
At the age of 12, he got his first turntable and the preteen started exploring new genres by choosing his favorite vinyls based on the cover art rather than the contents.
But when he stumbled on Miles Davis' “Sketches of Spain” album, that was it. Calagione was hooked on jazz.
Years later, Calagione worked with Davis' family to create Dogfish Head's Bitches Brew tribute beer, and a Davis quote shared by his nephew has stuck with him ever since: “Don't play what's there. Play what's not there.”
“At Dogfish Head we've worked very hard to not copy what other distillers and other breweries do, but explore goodness for ourselves. The same spirit is at the heart of great improvisational jazz music,” he said.
Calagione isn't a musician, with the exception of a short stint as a rapper with The Pain Relievaz, but music has always been an integral part of his life. It's also been at the heart of some of Dogfish Head's best brews and has driven Calagione to provide space and support for local arts and original music.
That dedication to promoting creativity, the arts and original music has earned Calagione the title of this year's Producer of the Year at the Rehoboth Beach Jazz Festival, now in its 26th year.
“The balance between experimentation and collaboration, when you look at a jazz group, is the balance that we strike as a group of co-workers every day at Dogfish Head,” he said.
When Dogfish Head was still blossoming on the scene and Rehoboth Beach's off-season marked a quiet time in the Cape Region, Calagione said he was already working to support the arts in whatever way he could.
“We wanted to see the arts community thrive in coastal Delaware,” he said.
In the 1990s, when Calagione and his crew learned about the young festival, there was no question that Dogfish would be involved in its growth. For nearly 20 years, Calagione has supported the festival by providing space for original jazz musicians and donating beer as a fundraising tool for the event.
“We worked hard because we had a love of original music at our pub, trying to find other ways to promote the arts and celebrate the arts,” he said. “We're proud of our small role in the jazz fest, but it's really Denny, who runs it, his leadership and the other leaders that run that fest that have made it a world-class festival.”
After decades of finding inspiration among the notes, music has poured over into Calagione's home as well. Shelves upon shelves are lined with albums and CDs of every genre, said his wife, Mariah Calagione.
“He has an inordinate passion for all things music-related,” she said, and the Rehoboth Beach Jazz Festival has a special place in her husband's heart.
“In our early years, back before Rehoboth was as much of a destination as it is now, the jazz fest was a sort of beacon of business for the mid-fall horizon when a lot of people weren't thinking about coming down to the beach,” she said. “Over the 20 years, they've tried a lot of different things and we participate whenever there's any opportunity. We're honored that they think of Sam and Dogfish in this way. It's quite wonderful.”