Dogfish Head has taken crisp, clean, cleverly named beers, a truly unique company ethos, three towns in Delaware and in all has created much more than a company: It has created a culture.
One sunny, off-season morning, I set out to spend two days immersed in this culture while staying cozy in the Dogfish Inn in Lewes, Delaware.
In 2014, Dogfish Head expanded its craft brewing and spirits kingdom to include this inn. This unassuming, two-building property, formally known as Vesuvio Motel, includes 14 rooms with a mix of double, queen and king options. Adjacent to the main building is a cottage that houses the Cottage SWEET! featuring a king bedroom, a separate living room and a kitchenette.
The cottage serves as the inn’s lobby, gift shop, coffee hub and lounge, the latter of which makes use of every nook. Next to the sofa, for example, is a vintage record collection as you would expect from the Official Beer of Record Store Day and the brewery that has brought us market collaborations from the Miles Davis estate to Pearl Jam to the Grateful Dead. Equally thoughtful is the library curated by the staff of famed City Lights bookstore in San Francisco, who selected 50 classic American literary works especially for the inn.
Nearby is the Suite SWEET!, a beach house ideal for a bachelor/bachelorette weekend, a wedding party or a long weekend with close friends. The house carries through the same thoughtful design as the inn with records, cozy beach flair, a fireplace and an outdoor shower while providing expanded amenities for visitors who may prefer a bit more room to stretch out for their time at the beach.
With my retro hotel room keyring, I enter a darling double bedroom and immediately notice the artwork. Above each bed is a limited-edition concert poster, all music related from artists who have contributed to Dogfish labels or projects. Each room also features contemporary design elements from platform bed frames and large garment racks to mid-century-style desks and an amenities pegboard, all the work of New York-based design team Studio Tack. The rooms also have a complementary growler waiting for you to fill with a new favorite or trusty classic Dogfish Head brew.
(To caffeinate, you must find your way into the cottage to enjoy the signature DFH chicory stout coffee that I already miss and regret not buying by the case.)
Once settled, I decide to start with the obvious fan favorite and head to nearby Milton to check in for a Dogfish Head Brewery tour. There, I meet Kim Koot, a veteran guide. We don our safety glasses and dive into all things Dogfish. Koot starts with an explanation of the Eureka moment when founder Sam Calagoine added unwashed, over-ripe cherries to a homebrew, adding extra yeast and amplifying flavor. This happy accident would pivot Calagoine’s life from pursuing a writing career to blazing a trail in the American craft beer industry.
As we walk the halls of the brewery exploring classic beers and new expressions, Calagoine’s literary background shines through in all of the puns and word play that have help define Dogfish’s identity — and market share. The brand’s flagship expressions, the 60 Minute, 90 Minute and 120 Minute IPAs, found their names in the continual hop process, Koot says. Calagoine found inspiration for this process while watching a cooking show that taught viewers to flavor soup through a cycle of continuous seasoning. He then purchased an electric football game at a local thrift store and rigged the board at an angle to shimmy hops throughout the brewing process.
Inn guests have a few more tour options available as part of their stay. The Grain to Glass package opens normally off-limit parts of the brewery to inn guests, and the INNclusive package is available Thursday through Saturday for long-weekend visitors and includes roundtrip transportation from the inn to the brewery and later the to brew pub in Rehoboth Beach for $45 per person.
Not a beer drinker? Dogfish Head has spent the last 16 years cultivating a craft spirit line as unique as its beer. The base for all of its spirits is the same 100 percent brewer’s malt and its proprietary “doggie” yeast base used in its beers. This base provides not only a link to the beer-based heritage of the brand, but also a unique nose-and-mouth feel for its spirits. These characteristics are most prominent in the Analog Vodka, which makes it an ideal drink for folks who like other beverages, such as whiskey. The spirits line also includes a Roasted Peanut vodka, a Barrel Honey rum, a Compelling gin, and my unabashed favorite, a Sonic Archeology bottled cocktail. Cocktail flights and spirit samples are available in the brewery bar.
There is beer and benevolence here: All tips contributed to tours and at the tasting room are donated to various nonprofits throughout the year. During my visit, the Sierra Nevada Camp Fire Relief Fund was the featured nonprofit.
Also, be sure to ask about the Steampunk Treehouse that greets visitors when entering the property. Later, I head to the Dogfish Head Brewings & Eats brew pub. Brewings & Eats originated as the smallest commercial brewery in the U.S. The company and the location would expand and, as of early this year, employ nearly 500 team members across all of the Dogfish platforms. The current brewpub opened in spring of 2017 and offers a state-of-the-art house mixer and innovative concert space. While the focus is on local music, the venue also hosts national acts such as the Mountain Goats, who will perform there in April.
Music does not overshadow the creative pub menu. Classics like wings, burgers and wood-fired pizzas are updated to mirror the deliberate nature of the brand. I implore you to try the “Dogpile” nachos. While this combination of Flesh & Blood IPA beef chili, mozzarella cheese, spinach and artichoke dip, cured red onion, pickled jalapeño, fired tortilla chips, cilantro crema and cilantro itself may seem daunting and muddled, this combination of comfort foods comes together delectably.
Next door is a finer dining restaurant experience, Chesapeake & Maine. Sourcing seafood exclusively from the waters of the Chesapeake Bay and Maine, this Dogfish restaurant features a raw bar, seasonal sides, decadent desserts and 1¼-pound lobsters every Sunday for just $10. As a James Beard Award semifinalist nominee for Best Bar Program, the bar is a destination for locals and visitors alike.
Exit through the gift shop: Waggies by Maggie and Friends makes all-natural dog treats with Dogfish’s spent grain and employs persons with intellectual disabilities. Also on tap: beer soap and all the Dogfish-branded personal items and homewares you could want.
Two days with Dogfish was a dream trip for a beverage writer and business owner like me. My only wish is that it hadn’t gone so fast and that I could work for Dogfish when I grow up. Maybe one day.
What else can you do at the beach when it’s not July? A lot, as it turns out. The boardwalks in Rehoboth Beach and Ocean City remain open year-round, although some stores are only open in the summer. However, cyclists can bike on Rehoboth’s boardwalk in the off-season, something strictly forbidden during peak beach time in the summer. Cape Henlopen State Park is also open for hiking and cycling and offers beach scenery like no other Delmarva locale. The Seaside Nature Center has limited hours in the off-season but is open.
Still want more outdoor time? The Cape May-Lewes ferry is one of the oldest operating ferries in the U.S., and offers excursion trips and the chance to see dolphins in the Delaware Bay.
How about shopping? Rehoboth’s main drag has plenty of boutiques and shops that remain open, including the ever-popular Browseabout Books and nearby Bella Luna. Need more? Check out the shops in Bethany Beach and Berlin, Maryland, which is also known for its antiques.
In Ocean City, many restaurants are open, including Crab Bag, The Greene Turtle, Fager’s Island, Hooked and Pickles Pub, among others. In Fenwick Island, Harpoon Hanna’s has year-round hours, as does Twilley’s Willys, the hot dog joint with the funniest name. The owners of popular farm-to-table restaurant One Coastal took some time off in January but reopened last month.
Finally, the Ocean City Life Saving Museum is open year-round.