This content was originally published by The Hop Review, a digital magazine that joined the Hop Culture family in March 2020.
This piece was written by Tom White.
INTERVIEWED MAY 16, 2016
AT hopleaf bar – CHICAGO
Saison du BUFF is an ode to a simpler time in American craft beer. The tongue in cheek “Brewers United for Freedom of Flavor” concept was founded in 2003 by craft pioneers Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head, Bill Covaleski of Victory, and Greg Koch of Stone. Their ongoing struggle against the “mass-conglomeratization” of their beloved industry is brought to the forefront each year with the release of the Saison and a promotional tour, this time stopping at Hopleaf in Andersonville.
Here’s where things got…unexpected. We’d arranged in advance to pull aside Sam for his perspective on his craft and the BUFF tour. In true collaborative fashion however, he immediately invited Greg, Bill, and eventually even Deschutes founder Gary Fish over to talk with us. Despite being faced with such enormous brewing influence without warning, we quickly discovered when you put together four men such as this, the conversation carries itself. Tucked into a quieter corner of Hopleaf, we touched on the importance of collaboration, Chicago’s place in the brewing world, and some very strong opinions on the heart and soul of brewing.
We’re all at Hopleaf for Saison du Buff, a collaboration between your three breweries. Taking a step back, why is collaboration important to you and craft beer in general?
Sam: Well to start with, collectively our breweries represent about 1/5 of 1% marketshare. So, big is relative. And for us as indie craft breweries, we believe that a rising tide floats all ships. We’re still very very small, but we’re beer lovers first and business people second. We love seeing the other brands we love succeed. We love seeing those brands grow.
Greg: Not to spin our wheels in the mud of the business, but the fact that breweries like ourselves have all gotten together and done collaborative projects really pisses off the largest breweries in the world. They just want everything to be combative at all times. I think we’ve shown that there’s another way to connect with the consumer and do it in a much more positive fashion.
Chicago’s brewing scene is still relatively new compared to each of your home bases. If you were starting out today, what hurdles would you have to jump that weren’t there back in your early days? What would be easier?
Sam: Oh, Greg’s got that one…
Greg: So I have to be the one that says it? ‘In order to start today you just go to the Craft Brewers Conference, pick out a couple vendors, and they’ll do it for you. Then you can show up with your zero percent financing.’
Sam: You didn’t have to be the person who answered it that way. You chose to be that person!
Greg: Well it’s a little bit of a cautionary tale, because when you grow up in an age of adversity, you learn lean business practices—you learn how to be scrappy and fight for every single morsel. When you grow up in time of plenty, it’s a different mindset and a different set of learned skills. You can create something wonderful or something not so great in either environment. But it’s the latter environment that can sometimes create a bandwagon effect. You don’t have to grow up in diversity to create something that’s real and authentic, but it’s a little bit of a cautionary tale—today we know there’s some…
Sam: Less than perfect beer?
Greg: And so said, ‘Sam from Dogfish Head craft brewery!’ That wasn’t my voice.
Sam: Back to it…all these guys distribute other small breweries’ beers. We’ve done collaborative beers with breweries way smaller than us.
Greg: At all three of our restaurants, we have guest beers on tap as a normal part of our business.
Sam: What makes a brewery great, does not have anything to do with scale. Breweries that are obsessed with quality, consistency, and being well differentiated will make it whether or not they choose to stay small or go to the scale we’ve been lucky to get to. We don’t really give a shit about scale—we give a shit about intent.
Sam: Hey–it’s Gary! Gary Fish from Deschutes. Jump in here, Gary.
Greg: Gary, Sam was just bemoaning the new entrants into craft beer.
Sam: No, no. (laughs)
Greg: I want to look at this a little differently. Selling out is a natural thing for a lot of people. But, the fact of the matter is, independence is–to use a musical reference–the harmony that makes it all work. It used to be that we had two, three choices. It was all variations on the same thing. There was no music, there was no art.
Sam: Gary, how many breweries opened in Oregon before Deschutes opened?
Gary: McMenamins, Widmer, Portland, Bridgeport–and Full Sail opened just before us.
And what year did you open?
Sam: And how many are there now?
Gary: Well, there are 25 in our town [Bend] right now. A town of 85,000 people.
Sam: And you’re still growing.
Gary: Oh yea, our business is up in Oregon. We’re the largest selling Oregon brewery in the state of Oregon.
Greg: Well that’s like us when we learned we were the largest American-owned brewery–not craft brewery–brewery, in the southwestern United States. Eventually those statistics come around to benefit you. I don’t actually share that much because it doesn’t even sound like us.
Gary: Oh come on, you’re huge!
Bill: Hey, you’re bigger than us.
This is the first time we’ve ever heard a who’s smaller competition. We’re embedded in the Chicago scene, but what is Chicago beer to each of you? What is it’s place in the country?
Sam: Well, we started distributing here maybe 12-14 years ago. I come from the East Coast. Philadelphia has always been a great beer city, but Chicago for me was the first major city where the highest-end chefs embraced craft beer. It took New York and LA forever for that.
Gary: Well, what is Chicago’s position in the food world? Because that informs so much of what we do. I mean this is all about individual experiences, quality, uniqueness, creativity, and all those adjectives, but it kind of follows the food. What are the chefs doing?
Greg: Ok, I’m going to be the one voice here that might not make me the most popular person in the room. I’m surprised at Chicago’s tolerance for being lied to and being obfuscated. The big guys who report to be a Chicago “something,” but it’s really brewed states away by an international conglomerate. Chicagoans are, by and large, just looking at sales numbers, saying, “We don’t care. This doesn’t matter to us.” I think that’s horseshit. I think a lot of Chicagoans do care and it does matter.
Sam: You think the average person just getting into beer is aware of what breweries are affiliated with what brands?
Greg: So here’s the thing Chicago. You have amazing beer being brewed in your town by real craft brewers who are authentic and artisanal, and have a heart and soul. There’s something behind their eyes. There are brands out there with nothing behind their eyes. There’s no soul, it’s gone, the light is out. And yet, they look to an average person like they’re the same as before. Why is it important to know the difference? Because one supports vibrancy in your community and one saps it. That’s the difference. It actually means something to the average consumer to learn this detail and respond accordingly in the marketplace, no matter how much somebody is dangling the keys over the baby’s crib, saying, “We’re going to give you something aged in a bourbon barrel.”
We can’t imagine who you’re talking about.
Gary: It’s interesting what he says, and it’s really true. For 23 years we ran a charity event and brought in chefs from all around the world. We had a local hydroponic gardener come and describe the herbs he was growing. They were beautiful. I tried them, I thought they were wonderful. Later, I talked to some of the chefs, and asked them if they liked it. The best I heard was, “Oh, it was fine.” There’s a big difference in the flavor of something that’s grown in the dirt, that has that natural flavor, as opposed to something that was just grown in a PVC pipe with water running through it. The earth is a living organism and you’ll get a difference result versus a soulless environment. It gives you the technical nutrients but not the end result. I don’t want to diss some small guy who’s doing hydroponic systems, but you cannot compete with mother nature. There’s a difference between the real and the fabricated.
Bill: So you brought us to a question that has a lot to do with why we’re here this evening. In 2003, we created this Brewers United for the Freedom of Flavor (BUFF) concept, which was an absolute failure in it’s first incarnation.
Greg: Did it ever become a success?
Bill: Well, it will after this interview. This is our opportunity, let’s dig it out of the trenches! But this is sort of the soapbox we live and breath everyday. We talk about, what is integrity? What has value, and what doesn’t? We’re not the arbiters of that. We want the public to listen to us and make good decisions on their own. BUFF was that first cry in the dark woods to say, “Hey, this shit matters.”
Sam: Part of consumers being able to make decisions for themselves is being told who makes the beer that they’re drinking. Unfortunately, the level of transparency across the beer industry is not to the level it should be for the consumer’s stake.
We’re starting to see greater awareness of that in Chicago, but it’s probably not there yet.
Greg: It’s a very simple question. Do you like to be lied to? Does it piss you off when you learn you’ve been lied to? The BI (Beer Institute) is pushing for better beer labeling—fat, calories, etc. The BA (Brewer’s Association) has asked, “Well, what do we do?” Well, we’ve always advocated for more information and more power to the consumer. We welcome them to the fight and since they’re going to that extent, why not go all the way and tell the consumer who owns it. If you want to be open, let’s be really open.
What else are you drinking that’s not your own?
Sam: Well, I’ve already drank Arrogant Bastard out of a can today. Yesterday in Dallas, I had the Kirsch Gose from Victory. Recently, I had some ciders from Michigan in fridge. I’m a beer geek, not a beer snob.
Greg: Oh, he’s a total snob! I’m a snob by popular standards. You’re called a snob if you have certain standards and you refuse to go below those standards. I only drink beer that has a certain qualitative level that is being brewed by authentic companies who speak the truth. If you want to call that snobbery, then I’m a snob.
What about you, Gary?
Gary: All of the above. The fridge is full of Deschutes. We live on a golf course so golfers come by all the time and I give them all the regular stuff. But we’ve had some old rare things in there for a long time. I’ve got a growler of cider still in there from a Brett fermented cider project we had. It’s really good.
Greg: Oh, how can I get some?
Gary: Well, let me find out when the next batch is coming out.
Greg: I would love that.
Gary: I’m not a big cider fan, because most of them make it too sweet, too fruity. But this stuff is really really good.
Greg: The last time I had Brett cider was in the UK up in this small town and it was really funky.
Gary: I don’t care if it’s a big commercial project for us. We serve it in our pubs and hopefully one day it will become commercial. But I won’t let them make it the way everyone else makes it and they’re a little frustrated with that.
Bill, what are you drinking at home?
Bill: It may sound a little contrived but I’ve got Saison du Buff from Stone in there. At this point in time, to have all those fresh herbs in your beer, it’s really pretty phenomenal.
You rotate the brewing of this beer each year. We’ve gotta ask—who’s is best?
Greg: Oh, that’s irrelevant. I genuinely believe that. Each one is a variation with some differences. But it’s never been a very popular seller for us.
Bill: No, for us either.
Greg: My sales team rolls their eyes and says, “Why do we have to sell this?” Do yours say that yet?
Bill: I don’t think they’ve grown the balls to say that yet.
Greg: Well my team does have those balls and they do say it. I say, “Look, we’re brewing it anyway.” I really, genuinely, personally love this beer. A lot of people do, but it’s not for the masses.
Bill: Someday, we’ll be right.
Photography by Jack Muldowney.
A huge thank you to Sam, Greg, Bill, and Gary for taking a little time during the packed Hopleaf Saison du BUFF event to talk with us.