Book Review: ‘Delaware Beer: The Story of Brewing in the First State’

In 2014, local author and journalist Tony Russo explored the history of brewing on Maryland’s Eastern Shore in Eastern Shore Beer: The Heady History of Chesapeake Brewing. Now he’s back with what is not so much a sequel as a companion volume, Delaware Beer: The Story of Brewing in the First State, published by the History Press.

Outsiders might expect such a book to be all about Dogfish Head, the state’s largest and best-known brewery and the thirteenth largest craft brewery in the nation. But Delaware Beer is, instead, the story of brewing in Delaware, and Dogfish Head is only one (important!) part of that story.

Russo covers the colonial era in a few pages, briefly summarizing the activities of the Dutch and the Swedes along the Delaware River, and referring interested readers to the more in-depth Delaware Brewing by John Medkeff, Jr. Readers might chuckle over the written request of Johan Classon Risingh, governor of New Sweden, for a wife who could make malt and brew ale, in addition to keeping up with other chores. The first chapter covers the 19th and early 20th centuries as well, when there was far more homebrewing and cidermaking going on than commercial brewing, although Delaware’s very own Diamond State Brewery, located in Wilmington, had its roots in the Nebeker brewery founded in 1859, and produced beer of one kind or another (including so-called “near beer” during the Prohibition era) until it closed in 1955.Delaware Beer by Tony Russo

Delaware Beer – at least the part of the story that most readers are probably most interested in – begins in earnest with the founding of Dogfish Head and Stewart’s Brewing Company in 1995. Russo credits their founders, Sam Calagione and Al Stewart, respectively, with setting “the standard for the way beer would be done in Delaware right from the start.” By focusing on quality rather than quantity, and growing sustainably, both survived the craft beer bust of the late 90’s. In addition to crafting innovative beers, Calagione crafted legislation that chipped away at the remnants of Prohibition, and arguably paved the way for the numerous breweries that have sprung up during the last two decades, not only in Delaware, but throughout the nation.

Following a rather extensive examination of Dogfish Head and Stewart’s, focusing particularly on their roles as pioneers in Delaware craft brewing, Russo takes readers on a tour of the breweries currently operating throughout the state, most of which opened during the last decade. Iron Hill, Fordham and Dominion, Blue Earl, 16 Mile, 3rd Wave, Mispillion and others – all have unique stories, as well as unique strategies for succeeding in an increasingly crowded market. However, these stories are presented as parts of a greater story; the individual breweries are not so much separate subjects as they are characters interacting in a plot that continues to unfold.

Delaware Beer is an entertaining, informative read for craft beer fans, but it’s also an important chronicle of an emerging industry. It offers a rare look into the inner workings of numerous competitors (which, admirably, seem to regard themselves more as independent partners) as they evolve from shaky start-ups into stable, young companies. Whatever the future may hold for craft beer – whether the boom gives way to another bust, or the existing breweries continue to prosper – Tony Russo has performed a vital, valuable task in documenting the local movement’s early years.

– Chris Slavens

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