You may have noted a more than passing interest in beer around here. I do tend to drink a bit of the stuff, but I am also intrigued by the emergence of smaller, craft brewers in recent years.
While in Copenhagen back in 2007, I stumbled across this book at an excellent microbrewery that I frequented on more than one chilly afternoon. I raced through the front half over a couple of visits, and subsequently ordered my own copy on my return to Oz. And finally I got back around to finishing last week.
The book is an autobiographical account from Sam Calagione, founder of one of the US’s most successful small-scale breweries, Dogfish Head. This brewery (motto: off-centered beer for off-centred people) was, at one point, the smallest commercial brewery in America. It has subsequently expanded considerably, with a strong focus on extreme beers (which can mean high alcohol, lots of hops, odd flavours or all of the above). Such a story is certainly worth hearing.
Calagione is a one-time college lit major, and clearly has an inquisitive mind, an ability to digest and apply ideas, and a strong capacity to weave a coherent tale. This book thus becomes much more insightful than the typical business bio one sees on airport bookstore shelves.
I’m not usually one for motivational stories of entrepreneurship, simply because I find such works tend to lean towards mis-attribution of cause and effect (especially through the lens of hindsight e.g. I did this and I think it worked, so you should do the same) and often showcase highly idiosyncratic experiences.
This book falls for few of those traps and instead offers strong analysis and a clear message for budding brewers and niche businesses more generally. Calagione integrates a lot of pretty mainstream strategic management concepts (environmental analysis, the importance of unique resources, value chain decisions, specialisation, diversification) and explains them in a non-academic, non-technical fashion, fleshed out with fascinating (and often outlandish) tales from the brewing coalface.
Calagione has a pretty neat take on his experience, and the lessons for entrepreneurs. He considers what he does alt.commerce (as in alternative, like alt.country music). His business is all about expanding a niche. The firm succeeds by delivering a truthful and resonant product and experience (i.e. customers become fans and advocates). By the end of the book, Dogfish Head is still fielding more orders than they can supply (despite considerable expansion), and has certainly become a cult producer of beer, rum and soap(!), as well as running three restaurant/brewpubs. Offering $20 beers becomes viable!!
I can highly recommend this book to budding entrepreneurs, strategic management professors and beer-nuts (the aficionados, not the snacks). For more on Dogfish Head’s extreme brewing see this excellent article from the New Yorker magazine, and this video interview: