Al Dente Road Trip: Dogfish Head Brewery, Milton, Del.



But for the distant hum of machinery, the wood-aging room is the most peaceful — and possibly the most beautiful — spot on the factory floor at the Dogfish Head Brewery. Tucked in the corner of the fermentation area, it takes a badge swipe to get into this cramped space of floor-to-almost-ceiling wooden towers.

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Palo Santo Marron Tank #1, made with Palo Santo wood

“The only glue in the oak tanks are in the staves. Everything else is held together just by banding,” Tim Hawn said while slapping the side of the three-year-old barrel marked Oak 3. The brewmaster for Dogfish Head Brewery, Tim was there when Oak 3 was delivered, and Oak 1 and 2 had to be reassembled. The six-year-old tanks were moved during a plant expansion in 2013 and relocated to this space. Across the temperature- and climate-controlled room are two tanks made with Palo Santo wood, specifically to age Dogfish Head’s Palo Santo Marron.

“If it’s a Palo Santo or Red & White, it’s going to come in here and hit one of these big wood tanks,” Tim said. “We have the three oak tanks and all of them are still 10,000 gallons. One Palo Santo tank is 10,000 and the other one is six (thousand). We wanted to make this one a 10,000 gallon tank but we could not get it to go back together,” he says with a strained laugh.

READ OUR Q&A WITH DOGFISH HEAD BREWMASTER TIM HAWN: After the tour, Tim answered some of our questions.

While most Dogfish Head beers take 21 to 22 days to make, wood-aged beers can spend 35 to 40 days in the wooden tanks alone. Sometimes, it can be longer.

“This one has been in here since December,” Tim says of a special project due out in 2016. “It’s Noble Rot that’s been sitting on oak for a year. I brewed a batch of it in ’14 that we didn’t release any bottles for. None of the oak barrels are toasted, they’re all raw wood, so I also have another chunk of wood floating on top of it for an extra release.”

The wood-aging room was one of the minor, but important additions in Dogfish Head’s 2013 expansion. A 200-barrel brewhouse came online, as did the massive, state-of-the-art bottling line and packaging system. Most importantly, Tim said, was the gain in space.

“We doubled our under roof capacity between the two buildings,” Tim said. “We added a ton of brewing capacity. We added a bit of fermenting capacity, but not everything we need to get to our ultimate goal.”

The first thing you noticed when parking your car at Dogfish Head’s facility in Milton, Del. is its vastness. Maybe because it’s a craft brewery and the perception of craft breweries are small facilities, where men with beards bottle beers by hand a few dozen barrels at a time. You don’t picture a brewhouse that churns out 175,000 barrels per year with massive stainless steel tanks lined up all in a row outside.

You don’t picture pipes pushing beer from the main brewery to along a high-pressure line to the bottling facility on the other side of the property. You aren’t expecting to see a German-made bottling line with the ability to fill 39,000 bottles an hour. But, for all of the automation on its brewing floor, Dogfish Head still maintains the aura and craft of the burgeoning industry it has helped shape during its 20-year history.

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I saw this, yet still missed the turn.

Every bottle and keg made by Dogfish Head is brewed and shipped from its 100,000 square foot brewery in Milton. The historic plant was once the Draper-King Cole cannery, a massive canning operation that was once a major employer in South Central Delaware. Tim said that anything that could go into a tin can was packaged by Draper-King Cole at the plant, primarily vegetables and fruit. Much of the building’s original structure, built in 1927, provides the shell for Dogfish Head’s brewing operation. Kegs and 750 mL bottles are filled in the primary building, while beer flows to the bottling annex about 100 yards away.

Dogfish Head’s permanent residence is the brewery’s third iteration of its homestead. Sam Calagione opened his first commercial brewery in the city of Rehoboth Beach, where the Dogfish Head Brewings & Eats brewpub stands. In 1995, his 10-gallon homebrewing-kit-on-steroids made Dogfish Head the smallest commercial brewer in America, the culmination of a legislative fight to overturn Delaware’s arcane Prohibition-era prohibition on brewing. As the business grew, so did the need for space. He opened a brewing facility in Nassau, just north of Lewes off Route 1, before settling in on the Milton facility in 2002.

Tim says that Milton will remain home for quite a while, as there is ample room for expansion. The brewery still has work to do in order to reach its goal of 500,000 barrels annually, and there is plenty of space for expansion.

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Cold storage, where every batch of beer and booze made by Dogfish Head starts

“This room, if we were doing a half-million barrels, during a hop harvest would be full of hops.” We’re standing in the cold storage space near the main delivery area as he makes this declaration.

“We bring all of the hops into one place,” Tim said. “It gives us a unique advantage that our hops truly are stored cold for when we are ready to use them.”

It’s in this space that every bottle of 60-Minute IPA, every bomber of Bitches Brew, and every liquor recipe begins. Palettes are built individually for each batch based on orders sent in from the factory.

“So whether it’s lemon peel or lime peel,” Tim says as he motions to the palette, “this is for the distillery. This is juniper, lime peel…this is gin. I was looking at it and wondering why we have juniper berry. This is all gin here. Anyhow, he’ll build palettes. If we’re making Sah-tea with teas and such, he’ll build things into buckets for the brewers so that they are pre-staged for the day.”

Efficiency is of a pretty high order for Tim, especially given the volume of malt and grain that comes in. A truck is currently waiting to drop its load through a duct in the floor that feeds the silos. It’s one of seven trucks carrying 50,000 lbs. of malt that will pass through the plant each week, on average. As the brewery has grown to this level, so has the need for a tightened process.

“If you were a brewer at Dogfish in 2011, up until about 2013, the only thing we kept in silos was base pale malt. Everything else was 50 lb. bags, so if you were hurting already and you hit a a Palo Santo Marron day as a brewer, you could dump 15,000 lbs. of 50 lb. bags by hand. That was your day, along with brewing.”

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Super Sacks all in a row, waiting to be loaded with malt

The brewery has since changed over to a Super Sack system that moves malt in 2,200 lb. quantities, slightly more than the 50-pounders, which still figure into play if odd quantities are needed for a recipe.

“It’s allowed the brewers to be more safety conscious. Brewing can tend to be a younger person’s sport for the lack of a better way to say it. If we need 15,000 lbs. in the 100-barrel brewhouse, take that to the 200-barrel brewhouse and that’s 30,000 lbs. in an 8-hour shift. Not really smart to have our folks doing that.”

The 200-barrel brewhouse came online in 2013 and produces 2,000 barrels a day, which is roughly 28,000 cases of beer. It’s designed to get Dogfish Head to its half-million barrel goal while running one shift of brewing. Right now, the plant runs three shifts.

“Right now we don’t have a capacity need,” Tim said. “We run three shifts to keep our yeast spread out. Being a living organism, you have to spread it out a little bit, so we might run, typically away from peak summer, for a shift and a half, shut it down for four or five hours, and start it back up again to keep the yeast spread out.

“To hit a half-million barrels this thing would run 24 hours a day for 5 1/2 days a week. And the 100-barrel brewhouse would sit in standby.”

Oh yeah, there’s still another brewery on the floor. We’ll get there in a minute.

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This 200-barrel GEA Brewhouse is the focal point of the free tour that runs multiple times each day. It primarily handles Dogfish Head’s most popular brews — in order, 60-Minute IPA, 90-Minute IPA and Punkin Ale. The specialty beers still run on the 100-barrel system, again due to yeast and risk management. For instance, a full batch of 120-Minute IPA is produced on the 100-barrel system in six cycles.

“If we do it over here,” Tim said. “We’ve only got two shots at it. Over there (on the 100-barrel system) we can manage our risk a little bit better.”

Again, efficiency.

Punkin Ale waiting to be shipped to stores

Punkin Ale waiting to be shipped to stores

The smell of brown sugar and cinnamon lace the air outside of the plant and on the ground floor of the factory, the lingering scent of the day’s Punkin Ale batch; brewing of the fall seasonal begins in July and is held in the climate- and temperature-controlled warehouse until nationwide distribution on September 1. While kettles from the 200-barrel brewhouse tower into the showroom that the tour sees, the factory was built to do all of the heavy-lifting (literally and figuratively) on the ground floor.

What the general public sees in the showroom is the new and old Dogfish Head. Sam Calagione’s original 10-gallon SABCO brewing system is on loan to a local museum for the summer, so the 10-barrel research and development system sits in its place. When Calagione got into the brewing game, his arrangement was much simpler.

“Sam used all kegs for fermenting and had no temperature control. It was a much different world than we live in,” Tim said. The R&D system on display is one of two still in use. “We typically started our R&D process here as much as we can, particularly if it’s something that Sam has dreamed up that it’s so esoteric that I’m spending most of my time on Google trying to figure out what it’s going to taste like. We try to start that process here and make a 10-gallon batch of it or a 5-gallon batch of it to prove we can do it. Then we’ll go down to the pub and brew a 4-barrel batch using the two fermenters.”

Continuous Hopping, brought to you by Sofa King Hoppy (say it fast)

Continuous Hopping, brought to you by Sofa King Hoppy (say it fast)

Also missing from the showroom is the first of Dogfish Head’s three continuous hopping systems: Sam’s tabletop football game. Tim tells the story that Sam was watching a TV cooking show where a chef talked about layering in spices and other components to develop flavors. He wanted to know if he could do it with beer, so he rigged the timer on his electric tabletop football game as a reminder to manually dispense hops each minute over a time period. From there came Sofa King Hoppy (say it fast), which automatically blows hops into the 100-barrel whirlpool at designated times, and now, Sir Hops A Lot, which dispenses hops every 15 seconds into the kettles of the 200-barrel system.

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Kettles from the 100-barrel system

Across a catwalk from the showroom is the less celebrated 100-barrel system with the more colorful origins that was the source of all Dogfish Head beer until the 2013 expansion.

“This is the system Sam that bought from Old Dominion when they were still in Ashburn, Va,” Tim said. “The story behind it is that we were still pretty small and Sam was doing self-delivery and self-distribution back then. The people that owned Old Dominion also owned the distributorship and they were behind in payments. They had bought this system when they got into the Anheuser Busch network for distribution thinking, ‘Hey we’re going to grow up. We need this big system.’ And of course it sat out in a field. “So at some point in time Sam said, ‘Hey, I’ll forgive your debt and give you $40,000 if you let me have it.'”

Ideally, Tim would pull the smaller brewhouse offline and automate much of its functions. “I would like to be able to shut that (100-barrel) brewhouse down at some point in time and completely automate it. (The 200-barrel brewhouse) is fairly automated. That brewhouse has about two vessels automated and the rest is very much a point-and-click from a brewer’s perspective. So they have a screen but if they don’t tell it to open, it won’t open.”

Tim Hawn shows off the control room for the 100-barrel brewhouse

Tim Hawn shows off the control room for the 100-barrel brewhouse

The automation system is, again, very much about efficiency. Tim automated the grain handling, mash mixer and water flow in the larger system. “The rest of it may look automated, but it’s all point and click,” he said. “So, if I want steam to turn on, I have to click and tell it how much I want to turn on. It’s not like a lot of the craft brewers that are on the floor running valves. The brewer can sit in here and run the valves but they really have to know what they’re doing. They may be watching two or three brews in process. They may be cooling one down and starting to boil one.”

While some scoff at automation, brewers creating the volume of a Dogfish Head have little choice. While the functions are automated, it’s still up to the brewers on the floor to think and act.

“Our automation system isn’t one that is push button. If (the brewers) don’t know how to interact with it they can’t really brew. And the other thing is that if they really want to do something and the system says, “Are you sure,” it won’t stop them. They can still do whatever they want to do. When I worked at Pabst and (the computer) said no, you are calling three programmers to get permission to do what you need to do even though there may be a process for it. So our brewers are still very much in control of the process,” Tim said.

“The funny part is this is our least automated portion but this is where we put all of our high-dollar stuff. Our most expensive beers are done where it’s least automated, so our brewers really have to be talented and think about what they’re doing. It’s kind of backwards of most places, but we’re a little bit backwards on that side.”

Again, it’s about efficiency. And growth, for that matter. The next step in the process is a new robotic keg line that will go online in the 125,000 square foot packaging facility. High-pressure hydraulic lines run along a footbridge from the brewery to the the jewel of this building, a Krones packaging line that fills, labels and boxes 39,000 bottles per hour. It’s one of two in the United States — I think Abita Brewing Company has the other — and runs three times as fast as its predecessor.

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From sterilization to packaging, the system monitors everything from bubbles and imperfections in the glass — Tim said, “All of our glass is new, but we use recycled glass. So, if someone throws Pyrex in it, it doesn’t melt at the glass temperature that we use. So, it’s looking for bubbles in the glass, peaks in the glass, any defects. It’s making sure it’s parallel and square and the right dimensions. The technology was important because even though the glass company does it, we wanted to do one last inspection.” — to fill heights, as the government frowns on overfilled bottles.

The bottling line occupies more than a third of the floor space in the packaging center. The opposite side of the building is a same sized pad of concrete holding what Tim estimates is a 10-day supply of beer. But, it’s still not enough room to reach the half-million barrel goal. He said the back wall of the packaging center has plenty of room to move out and accommodate.

“Everything in our design was to get us to a half million barrels,” Tim said. “The new packaging line and running two shifts five days a week will get us there. A new keg line will get us there. What we don’t have enough of is fermenters. So, from an expansion plan, we have plenty of room to set a bunch of tanks. We probably have a year, year and a half before we get there.”

Fermenters all lined up on the factory floor

Fermenters all lined up on the factory floor

With the brewery’s growth comes the need for more people, but Tim’s last meeting of the day is with human resources on how to retain the staff at the plant. The growth of craft brewing has turned talented brewers into free agents, switching brands like baseball players switch teams. Keeping talent is a challenge of every industry, but in one experiencing such explosive growth, jobs are plentiful and the desire to keep trained staff is high.

One of Dogfish Head’s more unique ventures into preserving employee morale is Beer30 and the staff brewing contest. Teams of employees come together, with some assistance from the brewing team, and create their own recipes on one of the R&D systems. The staff brews are served at Beer30 each Friday at 4:30 p.m. Think of it as the office happy hour with a more personal twist. Office staff clock out early and brewers coming off the line will actually go home, shower, and come back from the revelry. Employee beers are served and rated by the staff and the best scoring beer from each quarter graduates to the Rehoboth Beach pub, where it goes on the small system there and is sold. The team behind the best performing beer of the year earns a trip to New York City and some quality time at Eataly, Mario Batali’s temple of all things Italian and home to beers developed in conjunction with Calagione and Dogfish Head.

“It gives all of our folks the chance to be commercial,” Hawn said. “Actually, last year’s winners were the IT team. So we have all these brewers and it was the IT team that won. There was Sanka coffee and I don’t remember what. I didn’t know you could find Sanka coffee still.”

Dogfish Head Brewery is located in Cannery Village Center in Milton, Del., about 40 minutes from the heart of Rehoboth Beach on Delaware State Route 1. Tours are first-come, first-served daily beginning at 10 a.m. The gift shop, tasting room, and growler filling is available daily from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Dogfish Head Brewings and Eats, the company-owned brewpub, is open seven days a week for lunch, dinner, beer, and growler fills on Rehoboth Avenue in Rehoboth Beach. Dogfish Head beer is distributed to 31 states and the District of Columbia

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