Dave Benfield – Founder of DuClaw Brewing Duclaws-Dave-Benfield

There is a good chance you have seen some wild names appearing on tap handles near you.  When names like Neon Gypsy, Funk and Sweet Baby Jesus appear, you ask about them.  When you ask about those beer names you will find out that they are from DuClaw Brewing Company.  When you ask about DuClaw Brewing Company you will find founder Dave Benfield waiting with a pint for you.  I took that journey and got Dave to tell me about food, beer and why sugar isn’t always sweet. 

The BreweryWhat started your passion for brewing?

Dave Benfield – Well, back 1991 I was in college.  I went to Loyola College in Baltimore.  My roommate brought back a homebrew kit from Christmas break our junior year.  And basically, we came to the realization that you could brew two cases of beer homebrew-wise for 10 dollars which is what a case of Busch Light cost at the time.  Our need for cheap beer was so we could eat more food.  That was the primary driver, that’s how it all started.  So, we homebrewed throughout our junior and senior year.  By our senior year we were giving away almost all of the beer that we brewed to our friends.  That’s kind of how we started the idea that “Hey, we can do this a living.”

Where does the name DuClaw come from?

After I graduated which was in 92, I worked on it for years to kind of put all of the financials together and everything to open our first brewpub. It’s where you brew and have a restaurant in the same place.  They were coming up with names back then, it was a big thing that you were called by the location, so like Baltimore Brewing Company or something historic.  I’m from a town in Maryland called Bel Air.  It’s a suburban town, Bel Air Brewing Company didn’t sound good.  There’s something hyper-historic about it.  I didn’t like that idea anyway.  I said “look, if you’re going to come up with a name, it’s best to come up with a name that has some type of feeling but means absolutely nothing.  So each individual customer kind of has their own relationship with it.”  It was important for us, because when you look at the sheer number of beers even back then in the craft beer world somebody might love a pale ale but hate a porter.  So it’s not like they love all of the beer, there are styles that they like.  So we said it has to have a one on one relationship with each person.  So we actually came up with the name.  And how we did it for being 26 years old was, we wanted something that said cool and new and edgy and at the same time had a character and class and sounded like it had quality.  So we took the word “claw” which was our edgy, aggressive and then added the word “du” in front of it to come up with something that meant absolutely nothing and kind of represented how we feel about it.  Kind of play it off that way, that way everyone brings their own relationship and their own thinking to it.  Rather than have a freaking deep notion.  So if you were Lakeside Brewing, that means you’re by a lake.  That kind of goes into our company motto, and what we put out there.  Especially on the bottle caps “Craft be cherished, Rules be damned” and that kind of summarizes that for us.

Speaking of breaking the rules and naming, your beers also have interesting names, who comes up with those?

Primarily it’s me.  The brewmasters had a couple of names.  But usually when we develop a beer or a concept on a beer, we try to give it its own identity.  Sometimes I’m inspired by something somebody else says.  For example Sweet Baby Jesus, which is one that I actually didn’t name.  It had a different name and about a month before we launched the product, our brewmaster Jim Wagner was drinking one of our last test batches and he said “You know when I drink this, I don’t think of the name we had in mind, I think ‘Sweet Baby Jesus I really like this beer!’”  I thought “I really like that”.  We also realized that people tend to shorten longer names so we looked for the abbreviation SBJ, Sweet Baby and then one of the things that hit us was “Sweet BJ”.  And we thought that’s definitely going to get a lot of play.  So that’s kind of the names come up.  Sometimes we come up with a concept like “Retribution” and that name came pretty easily.  Back years ago we said we want to put this in the barrel for at least 6 months, you’re going to have to have a lot of patience with this beer.  We felt like it was just waiting their hiding ready to pounce.  That’s kind of how we decided to have that name, Retribution.  So, mainly me, though about 3 or 4 beers in our whole repertoire weren’t named by me.

Keeping in line with that, DuClaw has an incredible array of beers, what is your favorite?

Devil’s Milk, hands down.  I love all of the beers that we do.  We do our barleywine, we change the hops every year, Devil’s Milk.  We’ve had the beer since 98, and it’s just one of those beers that has the right amount of malt, right amount of hops, right amount of alcohol that I take one sip and I can’t stop.  I love the flavor.  I get asked that question a lot, and it’s easily the one that comes to mind.  Right now though the ones that’s vying for it is our new IPA, Neon Gypsy.  It’s been out for a couple months now.  I find myself going back to that beer.  So usually what I have is a 1A and 1B.  1A is always Devil’s Milk.  1B is usually the newest seasonal simply because it’s new and it’s out and it’s the time of year for it for the most part.  But Devil’s Milk, hands down.

Maryland is known for their crab cakes, what beer goes best with crab cakes?

It depends kind of on the mood.  Right now I’d tell you the one that would go best with crab cakes would be Neon Gypsy.  It’s got 7 different types of hops in it.  What’s good about it is, 6.5% alcohol, good body to hold up, not crazy over the top hoppy, though it is aggressively hopped.  It just goes well, still lets the crab cake come through but adds flavor to it.  After that, I think the one that I enjoy that we do the most would be Misfit Red.  There’s a bulkier more amber with a slight bit of hop to it.  Just two different perspectives, one’s the hoppy side, one’s the not hoppy side.

Has there ever been an ingredient in your beers that you had a lot of fun working with?

Ingredient wise… I wouldn’t call it the most fun, but the most interesting and challenging and rewarding, we do this beer called Colossus.  This isn’t too much of a different ingredient, but it’s a 21% alcohol, high gravity.  We use Belgium yeast, we have 3 or 4 different strains.  So the goal, we were trying to get up above that 20% alcohol and still make it a really tasty drinkable beer at the same time.  And to do that, you can’t just brew the beer and throw it in a tank and turn the yeast on it like you normally do.  You actually have to add sugar along the way.  If you have too much sugar from the wort when you brew it, it will damage the yeast and it won’t work.  So, coming up the best way to get the sugar in as the yeast continues to cook along is an area that no one’s ever done before.  So there wasn’t things you could research or see how somebody else did it, we basically had to figure it out all for ourselves.  Using a mixture of either corn sugar or candy sugar, we used that and kind of blended that in to kind of feed that yeast.  That to me is the most interesting, even though it’s not a crazy ingredient, it’s using an ingredient in a different way in a form to get to an area that somebody else might not get it to do.  For example Colossus, I believe is still the 3rd highest beer that is naturally brewed in the United States.  Sam Adams Utopias being the highest alcohol one.

There has to be something more fun than sugar.

After that it’s not the more flavorful ones that are the fun ones.  It’s the ones that give you a challenge.  For example, honey.  Honey is difficult to work with.  As far as flavor goes, we’ve used mint leaves, cocoa nibs, chilies, all different types of chilies and peppers.  We used this one pepper that had a tobacco-like flavor one time.  There’s too many of them.  I think this is the first time anyone ever asked me this question (laughs).  But I still go back to the sugar.  We brew that beer every 4 years so we don’t get a lot of repetition with it.  Actually, we’re getting ready to brew it again.  So we are coming up with new techniques to basically continually feed the yeast and not kill it off.  It’s almost like voodoo brewing.  And we’re about the only ones brewing beer at that level of alcohol, so you don’t have a lot of industry help to sort of help you figure it out.

Who’s the most famous person to ever eat in a DuClaw Brewpub?

We’ve had Cal Ripken in multiple times, locally he’s probably the most famous and his family.  We had Janeane Garofalo in one time.  I think, I can’t say this for sure because I wasn’t there when it happened, but House of Cards is filmed about 25 minutes down the street.  We’ve done a lot of to-go for them.  So someone said Kevin Spacey was in one time.  But I wasn’t there that night.  I was actually out of town.

DuClaw started “Pint Club” for “Real beer drinkers, who drink real beer and drink it often.”  What’s the first rule of Pint Club?

(laughs) To tell everyone about Pint Club!  We definitely modeled it after Fight Club and we were doing our Mug Club and everyone does a Mug Club.  We wanted something a little different, a little more fun.  As we were expanding into multiple units, we wanted to get away from the mugs themselves.  The club was actually getting too big to handle all of the mugs, we couldn’t add any new mugs.  We felt that Pint Club worked better.  We’re big movie time geeks, we did a little 2 to 3 minute trailer.  And we definitely played off of that.

The DuClaw menu incorporates a lot of dishes using your beer.  What’s your favorite beer dish?

We actually had done a marinated taco dish with Neon Gypsy.  Usually the ones that I like the most can play with the hops.  That was a really good one.  The other one we did that I thought was just amazing, it wasn’t on our main menu, but we did it for a beer brunch.  We took a New York strip and we marinated it Devil’s Milk for like four days.  The hop flavor of that, with the malt sweetness really came through on that dish and was just delicious.  We did like a steak and eggs dish for a beer brunch in the morning.  That was probably my favorite that we did, but it’s not on our menu all the time.  The other one’s that now on our menu is the one we marinated with Neon Gypsy.  I love it.  The citrus heat comes through with the hops.

What DuClaw offering would say is the fan favorite?

Our highest selling beer is Sweet Baby Jesus, our chocolate peanut-butter porter.  So I would say overall that’s probably the fan favorite just due to volume.  The one that really draws people out in that they are fanatical about it is Retribution.  In Maryland we do a single barrel version.  When we bourbon barrel age anything, we put them in our barrels.  For Retribution for example, we have 140 bourbon barrels worth of Retribution sitting around for 6 or 7 months.  But in Maryland what we do is we go through and taste each one and we pick our top ten this year, sometimes its sixteen but this year it’s only ten.  And we bottle just that barrel as a single barrel.  We don’t blend them all back together with the other 140.  And so barrel 1 through barrel 10 is what they will be called and we’ll label each label, this is barrel 1, or this is barrel 2 or this is barrel 3.  So, that’s a real small subset since we only release it in Maryland, but that’s a big time fan favorite for those types of beer drinkers.  So, I would say Sweet Baby Jesus due to overall popularity through our whole distribution network.  But if you had to take away volume, the one that probably gets the most visceral reaction, we’re they’re dying to try and grab it would be Single Barrel Retribution.

Alright, just one final question did becoming the founder of a famous brewery and brewpub get you chicks?

(laughs) I was dating my wife at the time.  When I opened the restaurant in 1996 we were already dating.  So I don’t know the answer to that because I was dating her before I opened the restaurant and so I don’t know.  I haven’t had the opportunity to find out.

That’s fair.

(laughs) I’m sure she doesn’t want me to.

I definitely want to thank Dave for his time.  I also want to thank him for his beer.  I recently had DuClaw’s Funk on tap over at the 9 Iron Grille in Paramus and was in love with it.  I look forward to seeing more from DuClaw and you should too.  See the uncut interview at brewerycomic.com