6 Things Churches can Learn for Dogfish Head Craft Ales

Over Memorial Day weekend I went to Rehoboth Beach, Delaware with a few friends from seminary.  It was somewhat of a pilgrimage to the birthplace of our favorite beer company.  Dogfish Head Craft Brewery began as the first brewpub in the state of Delaware.  Soon it opened a brewery and began making flavorful and unique beers.  As I visited the pub and toured the brewery I could not help but notice some of the stand-out things that make this company so great.  Here are six things that I think churches can and need to learn from Dogfish Head.




1. Ignore the Status Quo  


When Sam Calagione started Dogfish Head, there were not a lot microbreweries in the USA.  The beer market was totally dominated by the big breweries.  They used massive marketing to say that beer had to be a certain way, was best served cold, and had to be made with certain ingredients.  They tell the customers what to like instead of asking the customers what they like.  To compete with them at their own game would have been suicide.  Calagione had a dream to do it differently.  He started small–building a brewpub before moving to a brewery.  He began in Delaware because he could be part of writing the brewery laws for that state.  He used a wider range of flavors and ingredients.  Dogfish built their market with social media and with grassroots efforts.  They used YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter to find new customers.  Happy customer by happy customer Dogfish created a small but very loyal following that became advocates for their product.  They did not compete with the big companies but instead made their own path.

Churches have been doing things the same way for a long time.  There are a great number of established ideas about what a church should do and how a church should work.  Some churches function like big business and build their church around marketing.  Other’s struggle because they don’t have very much flavor and cannot win on marketing.  The status quo of churches is, for the most part, not working.  We need small, grassroot efforts to do something different.  We need new flavors of church.  We need to reconsider the ingredients that make up church and be willing to try some new things.


2. Live out your values


The motto of Dogfish Head is “Off-centered Ales for Off-centered People.” This phrase oozes out of every pore of the company.  It is central to all that it does.  It is core to business decisions, marketing, hiring practices, and even their flavors.  They certainly make off-centered ales.  They do not make boring beer and they do not fit in a normal beer mode.  They use different flavors like pumpkin, peach, and saffron.  Palo Santo Marron is aged in handmade containers made of Paraguayan Palo Santo wood.  Such off-centered ales are not for everyone.  In fact, this off-centered ales have not choice but to attract some quirky customers. In my visits to the brewpub and the brewery, I noticed  a lot of different people that felt free to be themselves (even before the help of the alcohol).  Everyone, no matter how off-centered, was welcome to come and have a good time.  In fact, Dogfish Head tries out new flavors in the brewpub specifically so their customers can have a say in the new beers.  Dogfish even puts their values into their architecture.  They recently put in a separate bottling building back behind the main factory.  The sidewalk between the building (shown in the picture I took) did not have evenly spaced cracks but was actually made to have every line be off-centered. The beams holding the pipes to bring the bear from the brewery to the bottling building was also made with off-centered steel beams.

I bought a shot glass before I left that was also off-centered. It slants sideways and is uneven on the bottom as well.  I am going to keep it on my desk to remind me of the values of Dogfish Head. Our churches have a much more compelling center value.  We have the life and work of Christ to drive us.  We also have our own particular corner of the kingdom that our church is meant to minister in.  Do we know our core values?  Do the people in our pews?  What if we began to make decisions based on a core understanding of who we are?  What if we planned our church architecture around our own motto?


3. Get the right people


Dogfish Head is not just about off-centered ales. They are also about off-centered people.  They hire off-centered people that fit with their values.  The guy giving the tour spoke about the company and the beer as if it was his own and cracked a number of jokes along the way.  The bartenders giving out beer samples were very willing to talk about the beers and the order he poured them in even though there were constantly people waiting.  Every server we had at the brewpub were fun, enthusiastic about the company and the beer.  We found out that the brewpub employees get a free beer with every shift and the brewery workers get a fee case every payday.  All employees get good benefits and profit-sharing.

Dogfish hires off-centered people, but they also appeal to off-centered people.  By creating such flavorful beer, Dogfish Head appeals to certain people but does not appeal to others.  They know this reality and live into it.  They also know how to take care of their customers.  At one point during our stay the manager of the brewpub can and talked to us for about 10 minutes.  He talked to us about the pub, about our tour of the brewery, and what a group of pastors was doing on vacation there.  In the end he bough us a round.  

When I look at the Bible I get the impression that Christians ought to care about people. Somehow, we mess it up.  We tend to care about the people that are the complainers.  We tend to want to attract to our churches those who have already left.  We think that if we could get those people back then everything would be ok.  We should instead try to connect with the people that fit with our values.  We tend to hire staff and recruit volunteers based on skill-sets rather than value-sets.  We need instead to get the right people on board with our church and our mission as we follow God’s plans.


4. Experimentation


I was amazed in my experience with Dogfish Head how much experimentation is part of their culture.  They are constantly trying new beers with new flavors.  They have made beers with raisons, saffron, peaches, and pumpkin to name only a few.  They have made several beers through partnerships.  They make a beer called Bitches Brew that was created with Sony Records for the 40th anniversary of Miles Davis’ album of the same name.  Dogfish Head also has an “ancient ales” program where they use archeology to discover ancient brewing ingredients and processes.  Midas Touch is a great beer made from a recipe 2,700 years old.  They also try making beers from around the world.  Chicha, for example, is a beer from Central and South America that is made with pre-chewed corn.  Human saliva is necessary for the beer process.

We also found out on the tour that employees at the brewery are encouraged to work in groups to create new beer recipes.  Every month there is a competition for teams to share their new brew with other employees.  The winners every month get to brew a larger batch at the brewpub to be sold as a special.  The best brew of the year wins a team trip to New York City for the weekend.  Dogfish does everything they can to keep a pipeline of new brews so that there are always new ideas.  They always serve specials at the pub so that customers are part of the research and development process.

Where is this kind of innovation and experimentation in the church?  I think we need to try new things because what worked in the 1960’s is not going to work tomorrow.  We need to continue to keep our edge as Christian leaders.  We need to keep the pipeline full of potential places for God to work new miracles among us.  The church has always had to do this.  For the church today, this might mean going back and rediscovering some ancient ways of doing things.


5. Quality


Everything that Dogfish Head does is of incredibly high quality.  They constantly monitor their brew process. They have a whole team of chemists that check the beer periodically throughout the brew process.  Their facilities are state of the art and have represented a big investment in the last few years.  Dogfish employees are trained to taste beer and do daily taste samples.  In fact, some of the samples are occasionally spiked with contaminants to make sure people’s senses are attuned to what the beer should taste like.  I watched an episode of the show about their company called Brewmasters in which they dumped a huge tank of beer because it did not live up to the standards they had for the beer.  The cost to do this was estimated to be a half a million dollars.  In another episode they did not send a batch of their seasonal Punkin Ale because it was accidentally put in screw-top bottles.

Their quality also shows up in their branding.  The Dogfish logo can be seen on everything they do.  They have trademarked the font that they do all of their titles and signs in.  They have cool paintings on thick paper labels for each of their bottles.  The have a very user-friendly website with a ton of material on each of their beers.  Even the food at the brewpub is made with their beers as feature ingredients.

The church needs to think more about quality.  Most churches do not have the money or the people to do everything as a world-class production.  Still, we should strive to do the things that we do well to the glory of God.  It can be difficult, but sometimes we need to dump what is not working well in our churches.  I also think that churches to not pay attention to their own brand.  What do people in the community say about your church?  What do people assume about you when they see your buildings and read your publications?  Most importantly, when our church members are in public what do they say about our church and our Lord?


6. Grow the right way

Dogfish Head went through a time when they were growing by huge leaps every year.  At some point owner Sam Calagione decided that they needed to have slow controlled growth.  He did not want to see the company grow so fast that it lost  its values.  Dogfish has made a few things clear.  They will not sell to a bigger company or have a public stock offering.  They have moved to more automated systems but have not let employees go.  The employees whose jobs are not needed are always moved somewhere else in the company.  They have intentionally kept the output of the brewery below the facilities capacity.  Some seasonal beers that always sell out continue to be made in limited batches though the market could handle more.  Dogfish is growing slowly by building radical customer loyalty and holding true to its values.

Churches feel the temptation of growth.  We would all love a bigger and better facility and to pay all our bills.  I have seen churches that would sell their soul for growth. Many have lost their identity and their vitality in the pursuit of more full bank accounts and pews.  I think Dogfish challenges us to pursue growth in a way that is slower, more sustainable, and more true to the grassroots movement that Jesus started. 



It may seem odd to ask the church to consider a brewery for inspiration, but I find their story and their culture incredibly moving.  I am now reading Sam Calagione’s Brewing up a Business and really enjoying it.  I dream of an “Off centered church for off centered people.”  I want to see a church were people can come and be themselves.  I want to pastor a church that stays true to its values and tries new things.  


2 thoughts on “6 Things Churches can Learn for Dogfish Head Craft Ales

  1. I really liked that line (“Off-centered ales for off-centered people.”) as well, but I’d push back on the notion of intentionally moving the Church off-center. I think part of the problem is that we’re too often off-center. If Jesus really holds, and is, the center of our worship, we dare not depart. Where else could we go? I don’t think you were espousing that as much as playing with the idea of off-center worship, but, while catchy, is easily misunderstood.

    Labeling all of us as off-center, though, absolutely hits the mark.

  2. Ben- Good point. Jesus is the center. I think that a problem in a lot of churches is that their traditions, languages, and habits become more center than Jesus. Perhaps we should be “On-centered Church for off-centered people.” My point was just to say that we need to try new things where we can.

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