If you had told me when I woke up Friday morning that Sam Calagione would be sitting in the back seat of my Honda later that evening, I would have figured that several dozen of North Carolina’s finest would be in hot pursuit, rivaling something out of the Blues Brothers.
Dogfish Head Founder and Brewer, Sam Calagione, in the back seat of my car.
What an awesome day. Friday evening was the kickoff to the Dogfish Head Mountain Weekend, hosted by Bruisin’ Ales in Asheville. Sam Calagione, the brewmaster of Dogfish Head and one of the greatest innovators in craft beer, came to Asheville for three days to spend some time with us down south and get up close and personal with his faithful customers.
As part of Bruisin’ Ales’ Dogfish Head Mountain Weekend, Sam would be kicking off the weekend’s festivities with a two-session Dogfish Head beer tasting, featuring Burton Baton, Raison D’Etre, Indian Brown Ale and Black & Blue.
A little background before I move along with the story: A couple months ago, Nicole and I committed to attending a retreat with Lasting Impressions (LI), a teen support group for kids that are going through, or have beaten, cancer. I became involved with the group through Camp Kemo, where I have been a counselor since 2001.
The LI retreat was this past weekend, so we were sad that we would miss the DFH Weekend. However, God threw us a bone, and the retreat was being held at the Clear Creek Ranch, about an hour northeast of Asheville. After a call to my main man Julian, we were able to arrange that we would arrive a bit later on Friday evening so we could swing by the early beer tasting session. (Don’t worry, we didn’t leave the kids out in the cold while we drank beer. The group was coming up from Columbia, so we were going to meet up with them separately anyway.)
Friday afternoon Nicole and I were running a bit late. The tasting started at 5:00, but we didn’t leave Greenville until 4:00. By the time we got to Asheville and found parking, we didn’t get to Bruisin’ Ales until 5:30. However, upon arrival, there was a sign on the door that said Sam’s flight into Asheville was canceled, so he would be getting in about an hour late.
Luckily, as we were staring at the sign, a guy was next to us looking in the window, so Jason from Bruisin’ Ales noticed him and opened the door to let him in. Turns out it was Devin Arloski, Dogfish Head’s regional sales manager. Jason also let us in, either out of pity or because he was so impressed by my Mike Wallace-like interview skills that I displayed a couple weeks ago in my interview with Julie.
Once we got inside, we got the scoop on what happened. Sam’s flight arrived in Charlotte, but the connection to Asheville was canceled due to mechanical issues. So he caught a shuttle bus from Charlotte to Asheville and would be arriving around 6:00. Julie called the taxi service, but they were running an hour behind and could not send a car out to him until 7:00.
At this point, I was visiting the facilities, so Nicole seized the opportunity, “We can go pick him up!” Once I returned and caught up, we reiterated, “No, really, we can go pick him up.” Due to the dire circumstances, Julie and Devin shrugged and put their professional lives in my hands. After quickly making up a “Sam Calagione” sign from a Dogfish Head poster, so I could stand there like one of those limo drivers at the arrival area and have proof that I wasn’t some deranged stalker, they set us off on our mission.
Let me tell you, I haven’t felt that much pressure driving a car since my dad was giving me my first lessons when I was 16: I’m under is a tremendous time crunch, I had never been to the Asheville airport so I didn’t exactly know where I was going, I’m going to pick up a craft brewing icon, and there are dozens of people back at the store that will be really pissed if I screw up.
Fortunately, I had seen Beer Wars a few weeks ago, so I had a pretty good idea of what Sam looked like. On the second pass through the arrival area, I spotted him getting his stuff out of the airport van. I parked the car quickly and got out to introduce myself. “Sam, I’m Brian Cendrowski. I’m here to pick you up to take you to Bruisin’ Ales.” I felt a bit shady, like I was some guy offering candy to a little kid. Perhaps it was my disarming beard, but he hopped in the car and we took off back to the store. He saw the sign with his name on it in the back seat, so I’m sure that put him at ease.
There is always a certain amout of fear when you have to spend time with someone that you’ve never met, like when you’re out with a mutual friend, that friend has to step away for a bit, and you’re left alone with that person, that the conversation will be awkward or there will be long silences. Especially when that person is the head of some organization who you know meets new people all the time, will they just stare off into space thinking about all the important stuff they have to deal with and barely acknowledge you?
Well, Sam disarmed that fear right off the bat. As soon as he got in the car, he asked us our names twice so he’d remember. Then he asked us all about the Asheville beer scene, where we were from, did we have any breweries in Greenville? He was very genuine and engaging. He seemed geniunely interested in getting to know us, and he didn’t talk much about himself unless we asked him a direct question.
One short illustration, which didn’t even occur to me until a couple days later, was that I mentioned I was reading Tasting Beer by Randy Mosher and made a reference to something I read in there. Sam never said, “Oh yeah, I know that book, I wrote the forward for it,” or anything. We simply continued the conversation. Within a few minutes, we felt like we had picked up a long-time friend that had just moved away for a few years.
I was able to safely navigate the intense Asheville rush-hour and had him to Bruisin’ Ales by 6:30. After an agonizing 15-minute Odyssey trying to find a parking space in downtown Asheville, I was finally able to join the tasting.
Since Julie now owes me her second born, we got to stick around between tasting sessions and were able to chat a bit more with Sam as the first crowd left and the second came in. For my troubles, he gave me a copy of his book Brewing Up a Business: Adventures in Entrepreneurship and signed it for me. Nicole and I briefly mentioned our aspirations to get into the beer industry, and he gave us some good words of encouragement and a couple good tips.
“To Brian and Nicole, Thanks for not kidnapping me…”
Finally, about 7:45 rolled around and I knew it was time we had to leave. The kids needed us. Well, that might be a stretch, but I had to tell myself something so I wouldn’t back out. I felt like I was giving up backstage passes to the White Stripes. So we said our goodbyes to Sam, Julie and Jason and headed out.
I am very grateful to Sam, Julie and Jason for the awesome and unexpected experience, but it went by so quickly. Part of me would have loved to have been there for the rest of the weekend to get to hang out with them and the other insiders in the Asheville brewery scene, but I also wouldn’t want to trade the time I spent with the LI teens.
Jason Atallah, Sam Calagione and Julie Atallah
Besides, I have a feeling I haven’t seen the last of Sam Calagione. I have some lofty dreams, and I have an idea that our paths will cross again.