At the Great American Beer Festival, Popular Brewers Get the Rock Star Treatment

Long before the doors open to the general public at the 2019 Great American Beer Festival, the line starts forming at the Dogfish Head booth. Brewers, who have access to the show floor before the general public, wander over, hoping to get a minute with Sam Calagione. 

They come for selfies, high fives, hugs, advice, and to say thanks for making the beer he makesalmost everyone says thanks. 

Next come the waves of beer drinkers, seeking the same. 

“Can you just take a selfie of yourself?” asks one fan. “My wife doesn’t care if I’m in the picture.”

Another, who recently started his own brewery and is showing at the festival for the first time, hovers to the side, eventually working up the courage to approach Calagione and jumping in to pump his hand and tell him how inspirational Dogfish Head has been to him as he started brewing and launched his own business. 

“Congratulations!” Calagione says enthusiastically, after they’ve talked shop. “Good luck on your brewing journey.”

Dogfish Head Brewery founder Sam Calagione
Chris Morris/Fortune

The scene plays out again and again as GABF continues. Calagione, along with Boston Beer Company’s Jim Koch and Sierra Nevada’s Ken Grossman, is one of the icons of the craft beer world. Before its recent merger with Boston Beer, Dogfish Head was the country’s 13th largest craft brewer, according to the Brewers Association. But it was arguably better known than some of the companies that top it on that list because of its history of creating unusual beers that competitors often wind up imitating.

Dark IPAs, fruit juice IPAs, coffee stouts? They all got their start at Dogfish Head. Among the beers being poured this year are Suddenly Comfy, an imperial cream ale with fresh apple cider, Saigon cinnamon, and Madagascar vanilla beans, and In and Of Itself, a barrel-aged sour with raspberries, Buddha’s hand, and etrog (the latter two of which are both yellow citrons). 

Over at the Russian River Brewing Company booth, the scene is a bit less chaotic, but the adulation is just as strong. While there aren’t a lot of selfies, fans line up 40 people deep to grab a Pliny the Elder and chat for a minute with Vinnie and Natalie Cilurzo. Like Calagione, the couple are brewing royalty, and even outside of the festival floor, beer lovers will approach Vinnie to express their appreciation for the company’s beer. 

“We’re very fortunate to have a reaction like that,” he says. 

“Vinnie’s more the rock star,” says Natalie. That could be changing, though, as he focuses on the brewery and she takes a more prominent public role at the company’s brew pubs and events. 

“I personally wanted that to happen so people didn’t just think Russian River was me,” says Vinnie. “Russian River is definitely us.” 

This is the 25th GABF for the Cilurzos. Calagione has been coming since 1999. And in the early days, the reactions were much different. Russian River (and Blind Pig, the Cilurzos’ previous brewery) was advocating hop-intense beers long before people were used to them. Calagione was using culinary ingredients in beer, which was unheard-of at the time. 

At his first GABF, Calagione says, people made fun of him and dumped the beer out on the table.

The persistence paid off, though. Now, there’s someone who has made it a point to get a GABF selfie with him for the past 13 years. And the brewers at DeadBeach Brewing have shown up to present him with a special bottle of their beer for the past three years and counting. (This year it was a wax-sealed bottle of Velvet Rosé, an imperial red velvet ale brewed with white chocolate that’s aged for nine months in Buffalo Trace bourbon barrels and finished on cocoa nibs.)

Being that social does take its toll. By the second day, Calagione says, he has usually contracted laryngitis. He still pours and takes selfies, but he wears a badge that reads “Sorry I lost my voice. High five?” so fans don’t feel snubbed. 

“One fun part of my job is saying ‘thank you’ to people who care about my brand,” he says. “When I don’t want to do that … shit, punch me in the face.”

The Cilurzos say they, too, love to see people who make a point to seek them out at GABF every year, but they’re especially grateful when it’s other brewers. 

“It’s gratifying when a brewer says ‘Thanks for all you’ve done,’ because there’s not as much of that anymore,” Vinnie says. “Whether we like it or not, there’s a generation of brewers that’s not sharing as much as we did, but I suppose that’s to be expected.”

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