The chef sprinkled tiny pinches of cracked pepper into the barely boiling broth. As Dogfish Head Co-Founder Sam Calagione watched on a TV in his nascent brewpub in Milton, DE, in late 1998 (or early 1999; Sam isn’t quite sure), he said the chef on the show said something significant as he continually seasoned the simmering soup, “The flavor of the black pepper would be woven in with more subtlety and complexity,” recalls Calagione. “And it got me thinking.”

What if he could apply that technique to brewing?

Like Leonardo DiCaprio twisting and spinning a top in Inception, that thought changed everything.

Without it, we might not have ever tasted the mind-blowingly bitter 90 Minute IPA—now one of the most iconic beers in American craft beer.

Making One of the Most Iconic American Craft Beers Started With Football

dogfish head 90 minute ipa
Photography courtesy of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery

Boosted by his cooking show revelation, Calagione set out to find a way to evenly distribute hops while brewing.

He had a sound idea: continually “seasoning” throughout the boil (much like a soup) would create a complexity of bitterness, flavor, and aroma.

Chefs have been following this technique for a long time. Why hadn’t brewers followed suit sooner?

“No one had attempted it,” says Calagione. “It was literally a figuratively and physically digestible concept that had not been tried yet.”

Rules create structure, but simultaneously, that structure can also confine creativity.

“Traditionally with beers like IPAs, [you add hops] once early for bitterness and then once late for aroma,” Calagione explains.

No one had thought about doing it differently.

Fitting, then, that a brewery built on the rallying cry “Off-Centered Ales for Off-Centered People” would be one of the first.

Since nothing existed, Calagione had to build something from scratch.

In a Salvation Army store out by the highway, “where I used to get my flannel shirts,” Calagione laughs, “I remembered seeing a 1960s or ‘70s-era vibrating football game on the shelf with other dusty Monopoly boards and outdated stereo equipment.”

Sam bought the game and that very same day took a drill, punching out different circumference holes and duct-taping a bucket on two-by-fours to the game in a way that left the playing field like an open runway.

“I put it on a step ladder over the boil kettle of my five-barrel brewing system,” Calagione explains. “Just by changing the angle of the football game, I could figure out the right angle that the hop pellets would vibrate out of the bucket, down the football [field], and into the boiling beer.”

Calagione says he got pretty lucky, nailing what he wanted to do on the first try.

The goal? To create a steady stream of Amarillo, Simcoe, and Centennial hop pellets hitting the top of the boiling beer for the whole ninety minutes of the boil.

“The first time we brewed it, we were like, holy shit, this really works!” remembers Calagione. “When you continually hop a beer with little doses the whole time, you can make a beer that’s magnificently hoppy and pungent with beautiful hop aromatics.”

Hence the name: 90 Minute IPA.

“It was continually hopped for the entire 90-minute boil, 9% alcohol, and 90 IBUs. “I figured that’d be a really concise way to describe what made the beer special.”

Today, You Can Find Dogfish’s Original Invention in the Smithsonian Museum

dogfish head 90 minute ipa
Photography courtesy of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery

The beer came out awesome, but as Calagione quickly learned, small Salvation Army-shelf-1960s-era electronic football games aren’t made for a steamy brewhouse.

“The third time [we went to brew], all the mechanics, little parts, and motor in the electronic game were ruined from being so wet,” he says.

For the next year and a half, brewers sat on a platform dosing the boil every minute with hops from a Tupperware bucket, “cursing me the whole time because they had to stand by the boil kettle for ninety minutes,” laughs Calagione, who eventually fashioned the second generation of Dogfish Head’s continual-hopping device, affectionately nicknamed Sir Hops-a-Lot.

A third version earned the moniker Sofa King, while Dogfish Head uses a yet-to-be-named 4.0 version today. “When you’re on tours, you’re invited to name the new sort of futuristic system,” says Calagione, explaining how the current iteration includes four big hopping pods in a room next to a brewery with a big pneumatic cannon that shoots hops down a tube every minute.

Dogfish Head has come a long way from that dusty, vibrating football game, which you can now find in a permanent collection recognizing American inventions at the Smithsonian Museum.

“No other IPA brewer can say they have an invention that makes their IPA special [sitting] in the Smithsonian … along with the Wright Brothers’ planes, the Apollo rockets, and next to Betty Crocker’s Kitchen,” says Calagione. “We’re really proud of that distinction.”

Calagione and Dogfish Head have much to be proud of with 90 Minute IPA.

However, as with other revolutionary inventions (and beers), the gently and yet assertively hopped double IPA wasn’t an instant success.

The Bracingly Bitter Beer Had a Few Bumpy Starts

dogfish head co-founder sam calagione delivering kegs 1997
Dogfish Head Co-Founder Sam Calagione delivering kegs in 1997 | Photography courtesy of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery

Calagione started distributing 90 Minute IPA in 750mL bottles to help pay off a “used, rusty, crappy” (his words!) bottling line he bought from Napa Valley to package Midas Touch, an ancient ale brewed with grapes, honey, and a special yeast that had gotten a ton of attention in the press.

“I bought this champagne-bottle-filling system, so we might as well use it for two different beers,” explains Calagione. “We’d just done this small batch at our brewpub with a vibrating football game; let’s take 90 Minute IPA and put it in a big bottle, too.”

To make the label, Calagione xeroxed a photo of a circus freak hammering a nail into his nose, which he found in an old magazine he bought from a used bookstore.

The handmade labels even included the word “imperial” IPA, which Calagione says Stone Brewing Founder Greg Koch once told him might have been the first labeled beer approved by the TTB with the word imperial next to IPA. “He told me he did the research because he thought Arrogant Bastard was the first,” says Calagione.

After the first bottling, Calagione loaded up his box truck and drove three pallets at a time up to D.C., Philly, and New York in 1999, distributing the beer to stores but also to another somewhat unlikely source.

“I would take a cooler around and bring it to magazines and publications I respected,” says Calagione, a former English major who loved storytelling and journalism. “I’d always try to find somebody there to connect with and say, ‘Hey, I got cold beer. Can I come in and create a little impromptu happy hour for your editorial team?’”

In 2000, Esquire Magazine called 90 Minute IPA the best beer in America.

“Wow, here’s a publication that Ernest Hemingway and so many of my heroes wrote for,” exclaims Calagione.

Three weeks later, he received an email. “‘Hi Sam, I’m the artist whose circus freak art you stole for your can design. I saw your bottle design at Esquire,’” says Calagione. “I emailed him back, ‘Oh, I thought you were dead!’”

The not-dead artist basically asked Calagione to send him every current bottle on 90 Minute IPA to share at his next art opening and kindly asked Calagione to stop using his artwork.

“Those are the kind of bumpy starts that 90 Minute IPA had,” laughs Calagione.

Ratebeer and BeerAdvocate Played a Crucial Role in 90 Minute IPA

But the beer persevered. Esquire’s ranking came out at the turn of the century, a pivotal turning point in American craft beer. With the virtual community taking shape, sites like Ratebeer and BeerAdvocate became crucial.

“I remember mowing the lawn when my wife and co-founder, Mariah, came out into the yard saying these two brothers started a beer review site, and 90 Minute is now the best-rated beer on their website,” says Calagione. “I don’t think today’s drinkers recognize how critical [Ratebeer] and BeerAdvocate were in that era to spread the word of small regional beers nationally.”

Although Calagione would get in his truck and drive pallets of 90 Minute IPA all up and down the East Coast to Pittsburgh, New York City, etc., the virtual community helped spread the word in a way he couldn’t. Eventually, Midwestern cities like Chicago and Madison started calling.

“They’d say, if you can get three pallets out to this distributor, we want to start carrying it,” says Calagione. “I would just get in my truck.”

Slowly but surely, word spread. And not just across the country but across the world.

Many Breweries at the Time Thought 90 Minute IPA Would Sink Dogfish Head

dogfish head co-fonder sam calagione rowing 1997
Photography courtesy of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery

With one word: bitterness

When 90 Minute IPA came out, the IBU Wars of the early 2000s hadn’t started yet. The industry remained skeptical about whether a beer as bracingly bitter as 90 Minute IPA would succeed.

“I remember, generally, other brewers started saying, ‘Dogfish Head, that’s the one-and-done brewing company,’” says Calagione. “People are going to open one champagne bottle of 90-IBU 9% ABV IPA and never want to drink a second one.”

Perhaps the closest comparison came out almost twenty years earlier when Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. Co-Founder Ken Grossman released the now-legendary beer called Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.

The then-also-bracingly bitter Pale Ale was unlike anything anyone had ever tasted.

Even at just thirty-eight IBUs, “Our Pale Ale was a shock to most people’s systems,” Grossman once told me.

Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA had almost three times the bitterness!

“I’m not going to say the first time I tried [90 Minute IPA] I claimed to like it,” laughs the Leeds, UK-based Northern Monk Head Brewer Brian Dickson. “That level of bitterness, that level of intensity, even those hop flavors, like nobody used Simcoe or Columbus like that in the UK before.”

But Dickson, who only got his hands on some 90 Minute IPA after a local distribution company brought it over from the States around 2008 or 2009, emphasizes the beer stuck with him.

“It certainly made a hell of an impression on me because … from that first try, it was so different,” he recalls, remembering the exact fridge at a pub where he worked called the Grove where he first picked out a bottle for a shifty (beer after work). “Definitely, it was an intense experience, but the fact I can still remember the first time I drank that beer fifteen years ago means it made an impact.”

Dickson says beers like 90 Minute IPA are one of the reasons he got into brewing.

Similarly, while Northern Monk Founder and Managing Director Russell Bissett doesn’t specifically recall the first 90 Minute IPA he drank, Dogfish Head, in general, greatly influenced his career.

“I remember my next-door neighbor knew that I’d harbored this dream of starting a brewery, so she actually bought me Brewing Up a Business,” says Bissett, referencing Calagione’s book on starting the brewery. “Sam and Dogfish played a pretty pivotal role in Northern Monk in many ways.”

So much so that twenty-six years later, the now-established craft brewery called Calagione up, asking if he wanted to collaborate on a beer to headline their epic IPA festival, Hop City.

dogfish head co-founder sam calagione x northern monk founder russell bisset 90 minute ipa collab
Dogfish Head Co-Founder Sam Calagione and Northern Monk Founder Russell Bisset made a 90 Minute IPA clone for Northern Monk’s Hop City festival

“We did a 90 Minute clone; we did 91 IBUs and 8.9% ABV and called it One Up, One Down,” explains Dickson, who says Calagione sat on Zoom with him for an hour to come up with the recipe. “My inner beer geek was absolutely screaming!”

Dickson says Calagione had a few things he wanted to try out. He’d been making all these teas with white sage, a super niche herb that only grows in the southern region of California. After the call, Dickson says a week later, “a bunch of white sage showed up in the post straight from Sam Calagione’s kitchen to lob in the whirlpool. I couldn’t believe how enthusiastic he still was about everything after all these years.”

Calagione even came over for the festival. “He was first up on karaoke, came for roast dinner on Sunday, and even went to a cafe in a little village to do a beer and cheese pairing,” laughs Dickson. “It’s quite nice when your heroes turn out to be pretty sound.”

Tasting 90 Minute IPA Is Like ‘Tongue-Kissing Mother Nature’

dogfish head 90 minute IPA
Photography courtesy of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery

Unlike Dickson, The Veil’s Head Brewer and Co-Founder Matt Tarpey fell in love with 90 Minute IPA immediately.

“I always thought in my head that I didn’t like hoppy beers/IPAs, [but] that’s when I discovered 90 minute IPA from Dogfish,” Tarpey wrote to Hop Culture in an email. “The hop character was just explosive both from an aromatic and taste perspective.”

Tarpey, who always dreamed of becoming a brewer at Dogfish Head before actually opening up his own spot, was struck by 90 Minute IPA’s “huge notes of candied oranges, sticky and dank, with some nice bright citrus character, as well,” he says. “What wasn’t to love?”

You can’t drink this beer without being punched in the face by Pacific Northwest hops in all their glory.

“Just that big piney, resiny, marmalady kind of flavor,” says Dickinson.

Calagione chuckles when he reminisces about catchphrase he first used: “It tastes like tongue-kissing Mother Nature.”

He also picks up a lot of orange marmalade character and “sweet honey notes from the unfermented sugars in the barley,” he says. “But then that beautiful, woodsy, mother nature blend of hop aromatics and tastes.”

Dogfish Head sent us our own 19.2oz can (from 750mL to 19.2oz can; we’re coming almost full circle!).

We agree with both Dickson and Calagione, this DIPA walloped us with a jammy citrus before punching us on the backend with an assertive bitterness. This is the kind of beer that wakes you up. If we were a cartoon character our eyes would be popping out of our heads and little thought bubbles would just be full of words: Pow! Wham! Bam!

Two Decades Later, 90 Minute IPA Is Still the Punk Rock of American Craft Beer

dogfish head 90 minute ipa
Photography courtesy of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery

Dogfish 90-Minute IPA struck a chord—maybe a dissonant chord at first—not often heard before through craft beer.

One whose twanging echo still reverberates today.

“Still to this day, my love for all things hoppy knows no bounds,” says Tarpey, noting The Veil has released over 550 hop-forward beers, making up seventy percent of the brewery’s annual production. “All thanks to Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA!”

This boundary breaking DIPA did what no beer before it had with an invention no one had ever made.

“In those early years … it just kind of expanded your lupulin threshold,” says Bissett. “And the horizons of what we thought beer could be.”

Calagione likes to think of IPAs in terms of discordant notes and clashing chorals. “I think IPAs were the punk rock and hip-hop of the American beer movement. … In the same way that punk rock and hip-hop started on the margins and the popular music community wouldn’t acknowledge them,” says Calagione, “But then consumers were like, f**k that!”

90 Minute IPA was like hammering a nail into your nose (if you get our drift). The freak of the circus. The assault on your senses. And the little punk on the street.

But today, it’s the icon and the legend.

“Dogfish head and their amazing hoppy beers will forever be an inspiration to me and plenty of other craft brewers,” says Tarpey, who actually swapped recipes with Calagione as a part of their Freaky Friday series, giving a 90 Minute a go himself (he says he got close but the original still “took the cake!”). “I am grateful for the spark that their beers ignited for my love of hoppy beers.”

You may not have liked 90 Minute the first time you tried it, but you never forgot it. When you turned on the radio twenty years later and heard 90 Minute IPA playing through the radio, you sang every lyric in that song. Or when 90 Minute IPA showed up on your doorstep after ages, you welcomed it warmly with open arms.

“It tastes really familiar, like it’s your old-school friend,” says Dickson. “Maybe you’ve all matured a little bit and changed slightly, but you’re still connecting over the same thing..and it’s been really nice to have you back in my life a little bit.”