TV Review - Brew Masters starring Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head

Sam Calagione - Founder of Dogfish Head

Ever since I began working at WBOC, specifically in the southern Delaware office, I've heard the name Sam Calagione mentioned every now and then on air. Calagione is the founder and president of Dogfish Head, a beer brewery, which originated as a restaurant in Rehoboth Beach but is now anchored with a new facility in Milton right across from the WBOC office. Calagione's wife is the Vice President and also the daughter of WBOC's owner, so his major activities have always been on our radar. His new company-centered TV show is the latest.
The Discovery Channel began airing the series Brew Masters late last year and it follows the travels and day-to-day operations of the most notable beer brewer on Delmarva. If you have digital cable, the series is available on demand. You can also download the episodes from Amazon and iTunes. The episodes are stand-alone. You don't need to watch them in any sequential order. Each focuses on one specific type of beer being made with the difficulties, time-restraints or often the intriguing measures needed to get it brewed and put into bottles.
It's a documentary series that's told very subjectively, mostly through the point-of-view of Calagione who in fact narrates the episodes from beginning to end. When WBOC reported that Calagione would be doing this, I thought that he would be featured alongside other craft brewers, much in the same way he was in the film Beer Wars (2009).
After watching the first five episodes, it becomes apparent that the series instead focuses exclusively on Sam Calagione and his Dogfish Head company. That fact actually became apparent after watching the first episode. This in and of itself is fine, but my initial worries were that this series would be nothing more than a weekly, hour-long, beautifully-shot, glorified commercial for Calagione's company, something I wasn't willing to watch.
And, in a lot of ways, that's exactly what it is. Almost every episode centers on a new type of beer that Calagione invents, and, pretty much every episode ends in a montage of soundbites where people overwhelming praise that new beer, saying how great it is, which considering that Calagione probably has some creative control over the series makes it all pretty self-indulgent. In one episode, Calagione admits that his idea for resurrecting ancient ales isn't wholly original and that other brewers have tried it, but, instead of properly exploring what others have done, they're brushed over, making this episode exist only to stroke Calagione's ego.
At no time did I feel this the most than in the episode titled "Bitches Brew." In that episode, Calagione gets a visit from Adam Block of Sony Records who wants Calagione to come up with a new beer recipe for the 40th anniversary of Miles Davis' album "Bitches Brew." It leads to the funniest and perhaps the most delusional moment for Calagione, the moment when he performs a rap song for Block with the half-hearted hope of getting a Sony record deal.
Self-indulgent or not, this documentary possesses what any great documentary should, an interesting and compelling subject. In the case of documentary-type TV shows that somewhat expose men doing their jobs like Bravo's Flipping Out, it's an interesting and compelling job into which film and television haven't really delved with any kind of depth. It also helps that the men involved or even if just the one man involved, beyond being successful, is passionate about what he does and is ebullient-enough to carry us through watching him do it over and over again.
For Bravo's Jeff Lewis, his obsessive compulsion, perfectionism, and strict professionalism create a crazed and slightly paranoid personality that watching is entertaining almost regardless of his career. For Calagione, and specifically this show about him, it half doesn't matter that he makes beer. Yes, there are tons of programs about cooking and people making food. There aren't a lot about people who make beverages and I don't just mean bartenders but people who design recipes for new drinks.
This may be the only series about an independent beer brewer, which means this show has a lot of fertile ground, but I don't think it could work as a series, as something worthy of a weekly following, if Calagione weren't as magnetic as he is. Obviously, Jeff Lewis is magnetic too but for way different reasons. Calagione is magnetic in the traditional sense.
He's charismatic. He's humorous. He's very open and upbeat. You hardly ever see him not smiling. He's so laid back and down-to-earth that, outside work, he shuttles himself around in an old, red Dodge pickup truck that goes no faster than 58 mph, and, inside work, you see him leaning back in his cubicle in a T-shirt and jeans, his laptop in front of him, and his feet propped up on the desk with flip-flops on. It's indicative of how he runs his business, very open and relaxed, even playful. Yet, every person in his company, like him, is very dedicated to the craft.
Calagione is also very smart. On one hand, he could explain to you scientifically the fermenting process, and, on the other hand, he could quote Ralph Waldo Emerson. Yes, Calagione can come off at times as an overgrown, drunken, frat boy but his love for the people and his work as well as his spirit in general are the show's saving grace. Therefore, for someone like me who isn't a fan of beer and who personally doesn't enjoy Dogfish Head products, Calagione still manages to engage me.
It was so much so that I didn't mind spending time in his brewery, a place that I would never want to be otherwise, but he and his team made me want to linger there. Strangely though, Calagione himself doesn't linger there. Every episode, the off-center brewer is hitting the road and/or the air to some place as close as the east coast or as far as the Middle East. From Ethiopiatown in DC to New Zealand to Maine to Egypt, Calagione creates an impressive travelogue, searching the Earth for off-center ingredients, using the history and at times the archeology of each place as his guide.
Calagione on occasion even has an archeologist whom he describes as an Indiana Jones of beer tag along but a lot of the real adventures occur at the brewery. As successful as the brewery is, it does have its share of problems. Seeing this small company deal with monkey wrenches that stop the production line and/or cause them to have to pour thousands of dollars of beer down the drain is enough of a draw dramatically, or even comedically when it came to an episode where Calagione requires his employees' saliva.
With the help of really cool, animated graphics, we get step-by-step explanations of how the various beers come to be. Calagione's southern California timbre amicably holds our hands through it. He fizzes with all the technical jargon smoothly, making a fart joke seem appropriate. The informational aspects of each episode where we learn things about the craft are nice touches too.
Four Stars out of Five.
Rated TVPG.
Running Time: 1hr.


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