British-born and raised Alan Pugsley of the Shipyard Brewing Company is an American brewing icon.            

After working his way through the ranks under the tutelage of famed British brewer Peter Austin, Pugsley traveled the world setting up brewing systems in China, Nigeria, Belgium, and Russia, among others. In the last twenty years, Pugsley has helped design and install dozens of breweries in America, including Geary's, Magic Hat and Middle Ages. His brewing systems, and the famous Ringwood yeast strain Pugsley carefully cultivates, produce a range of well-known English-style ales.

While his success is undeniable, Pugsley's influence is not without controversy. Critics often charge that "Ringwood beers" are one-dimensional products loaded with buttery, diacetyl notes which overwhelm the contributions of other ingredients. When asked about these comments, Pugsley merely shrugs them off. To him, the Ringwood yeast strain is a thing of beauty. To hear him talk about it is to hear a professional stock car mechanic sing the praises of his finely tuned, high-performance V-8 engine. His work as a brewer and biochemist is an ode to Ringwood and the beers it produces.

I recently traveled to Portland, Maine, to speak with Alan Pugsley and tour the brewery. Located in a mammoth, 125,OOO square foot facility on three floors, just outside of downtown Portland, the Shipyard Brewing Company produced almost 5O,OOO barrels in 2OO4. During our interview, Pugsley spoke about the early days of the craft brewing movement, why brewers should personally thank Boston Beer's Jim Koch, and whether Pugsley is really out to take over American brewing.

ANDY CROUCH How did you get your start in brewing?

ALAN PUGSLEY I'm English and I've always loved English pubs. My first ambition was to actually run a pub myself. But being young and without any money, I ended up getting directed into the brewing side, the technical side of which is all biochemistry. In England, breweries can own up to 2OOO pubs. Actually, brewing is everything that I loved about biochemistry so it worked out perfectly.

My first job was at the Ringwood Brewery in Hampshire, England, owned by a man called Peter Austin. He was one of the first brewers to set up a small brewery in the late seventies. In England in the sixties, the large breweries basically decided to discontinue what we call cask-conditioned or real ales. They put a real squeeze on that, shutting down some of their plants and really forcing the publicans away from that. A body called CAMRA (the Campaign for Real Ale) got set up as a lobbying group. They were very successful in getting the word out and so the attraction to cask-conditioned beer grew more and more. So Peter Austin set up the Ringwood Brewery in 1978 to produce a couple of different beers, cask-conditioned bitters and so forth, and he was very successful with that. And then he started getting calls from other individuals interested in doing likewise. Peter had been a professional brewer for 25 or 3O years so he knew exactly what he was doing when he was building his plant. He started a consulting business to use his expertise and to design and build equipment. I joined Peter in 1982 to learn the practical side of brewing and then worked with him building, designing and installing breweries all over the world, which is eventually how I got to the United States in June of 1986.

I was contacted by David Geary, of the Geary Brewing Company, to setup their brewery and design a beer called Geary's Pale Ale. I had a two-year contract there. This was at the stage where there were only about 5O breweries in the country, very few micros. Anchor Steam was out there, Sierra Nevada just got started. Geary's was the first craft brewery to open in New England. Commonwealth beat them to the punch as a brewpub, but Geary's was the very first microbrewery in New England at that time. So it was pretty exciting, but it was right at the forefront in a pioneering role to see if craft brewing would work in America. It obviously has, and did, and so I started getting inquiries at that stage, like Peter had five to six years previous, to help design and build breweries in this country. So I started a company called Pugsley Brewing Systems International - working in alliance with Peter Austin back in England. We had all our equipment made in England and then I received and installed all the equipment on this end.

I finally came back to Portland in August of 1992 to really focus on the consulting side, which was really starting to boom. In January of 1991, I received a call from Richard Pfeffer from Gritty McDuff's, which I had set up in 1988. He said he had a friend who was interested in doing something in Kennebunk. I flew down from Canada and that friend was Fred Forsley. Fred signed a contract with me a month later and we opened Federal Jacks in June. At that time, I needed somewhere to train people and have a brewery to show people as I was getting all of these inquiries. So I asked Fred if he wouldn't mind if I used Federal Jack's facility for that. And he said, "No, not at all, provided that you look after the entire brewing operation." I said, "That shouldn't be any problem." And that's what we did on a handshake.

AC From the early days, what did you think of the possibility of craft brewing taking off in America?

AP There was a lot of interest and some of the imports, like Bass Ale, were doing really well, particularly in this area in Maine. Sierra Nevada was making inroads in the West - so there seemed to be opportunity. With Geary's in the first few years, to be honest with you, it was a struggle. Everybody who was a large domestic beer drinker saw the color of the beer and thought it would be way too strong. In actual fact, the alcohol content was really less. So that was the big challenge. We were lucky in Portland. There are a lot of people and pubs who wanted to have something different.It was bit by bit, struggle by struggle to get more taps. And then the bottles came out about three months after the draft and that's when we started getting more visibility. It was steady, slow, hard, pioneering work. You had to sell every bottle.

AC How has that changed to now?

AP It's completely changed. The bigger market for craft beer exists now, obviously. The craft beer market since those days has grown every single year.The craft brewing segment of the market is not going away. Back when Geary's started, Sam Adams was just starting. Even though it really wasn't a microbrewery as such, it was a contract brewing operation where all the money raised went into marketing. Jim Koch is a very good marketer. He did a great job in getting it out there and turned it into a multi-million dollar brewery. So that brand in itself helped pull others with it. All of his marketing money was not only making people aware of the Sam Adams brand, it was making them aware there was something outside of Budweiser. And that's really what he did. Even though we're competitors, at the end of the day, you say 'well done' and if you're honest, you say 'thank you for doing it that way'. It certainly did help.

AC After outgrowing the Federal Jack's location, you opened a package operation called Shipyard Brewing Company in Portland, Maine, in 1994. What was the result of this move?

AP The odd thing is that as opposed to taking away from Geary's sales, it actually increased them. The reason being there was one little face of Maine-made beer on the shelf which was easy to miss. When you put Export Ale here and Geary's Pale Ale here, all of sudden you've got a billboard. If you look in the supermarkets today, you've got Shipyard with three or four shelves and Geary's with three or four shelves and that's how you sell beer. Ironically, our growth and establishment helped Geary's. Plus, I think it gave them a little bit of a kick in the pants and realized they had some competition. They realized they needed to do something else and that's when they came out with Hampshire Special Ale.

AC How important is it to have a brewery that is inviting for consumers and that is not just an industrial plant?

AP I think it's absolutely vital. That's why we love it here - we're right on the edge of downtown.We believe it is fully vital for us to be right where we are. If you took this whole model and put it out eight miles from here in a green field, it wouldn't be Shipyard. We're part of the fabric of the town.

AC Did you see yourself eventually settling down with one brewery or continuing the consulting.

AP I actually still do consulting. To be honest, no one had ever offered me an ownership position of any serious proportion until Fred did when we established this brewery.That really sealed that for me.

AC You've been pretty influential with creating a flavor of beer that is commonly found throughout New England. Can you tell me about bringing the Ringwood yeast to America?

AP Most people I built breweries for came to me because they like the beers we produced and they wanted to brew something, not equal to that or a copy, but in the fashion of what we did, which was basically English-style ales. That's the technology I brought from England, the open top fermenters, English malts, and creating nice, balanced beers. With West Coast, American-style beers . . . there's nothing wrong with them but they're very heavily hopped and there isn't a whole lot of balance in a lot of them. I always talk about a nice, pleasant, easy drinking, well-balanced beer where you take the malt and hops down the aisle and they get married and live happily ever after and have a nice life. In this case, they make a nice beer. Some breweries are making huge, big beers. Sometimes our brewers ask why we can't make huge, big beers. Well, number one, these companies tend to be fairly small. We're the thirty-first largest brewery in the country right now. If you don't have drinkable beers, you don't get there. You have the beer geek who loves to have an 11.9 percent stout or bitter or something, which to me isn't beer. You really don't get here from there. So, anyways, people wanted to buy into that and I wasn't just selling systems and equipment. That was the last thing I wanted to do. If you wanted to buy a brewery from me, we'll fashion it after a traditional, English-style brewery and we'll be producing English ales and we'll utilize the Ringwood yeast.

AC What has been your relationship with the Hampshire Brewery and using the yeast strain?

AP When I first did Geary's, they wanted an English-style pale ale. David Geary wanted a beer to be dry, crisp, smooth, and something like Bass. I was obviously very familiar with the Ringwood yeast and loved it and have built many breweries overseas, through Europe, China and Africa using that yeast. And it makes great beers and a diversity of beers. It's not just one flavor. It's a big span of beers and styles. I discussed it with Peter Austin and we agreed. So we brought it over in vials and grew it up and there you have it. Actually, the only two people who have access to the Ringwood yeast are myself and Hampshire. It's not only a good flavoring yeast but it's a great mechanical yeast. It ferments very fast, it flocculates very fast, it attenuates fast. Those are all great things and it means that our whole cycle is done in eight days. It's beautiful to work with. It's aggressive, it's vigorous, it looks after itself. Unless you are very unlucky or have a dirty, dirty brewery, it's going to keep trucking away. And those are the things in a yeast that any brewery would want.

AC How would you describe it and the beers it creates?

AP Well, it creates the beers and the styles that we produce the beers in. People who don't brew with Ringwood say you can tell every beer that is brewed with Ringwood. I don't buy that. We make a very, very light beer and I can't find Ringwood in there. On the other hand, we make Prelude, a strong ale, and there may be traits there. But there's no more of a trait there than in other yeast strains. The kind of yeast that Sierra Nevada uses, which way more brewers use than do the Ringwood yeast, on the west coast, that's all you can taste. It's funny, no one ever talks about that. It's because it's an English thing I think. 'Pugsley's taking over the northeast and created this Ringwood thing.' There are some brewers out there who wrote some really weird articles. One brewer said he'd rather get a sharp stick in the eye than brew with a Ringwood yeast. Actually, I take that as a compliment. He wouldn't say things like that unless he was jealous.

AC How do you respond to some of the criticism you have heard?

AP I counter it with all of the consumers who have loved the Ringwood yeast. We're not here to please everybody. We're here to please the people who like our beers and we've got lots of them.

AC What are the future plans for Shipyard?

AP We're now moving out nationally and getting great reviews. We're starting to fill niches in different areas where people can enjoy our beers and discover our styles of beer made with the Ringwood yeast. Our goal is ultimately to be available in all states. We're not out to conquer the world or be Sam Adams. We look for steady growth and on the beer side, consistently producing our world-class ales. We're here for the long haul and the Shipyard brand will be here long after Fred and I are dead and hopefully long after our grandchildren. We really believe in how this thing is branded.

We'd like to grow to whatever we can grow to. The only thing we have against us is that we're in the State of Maine and there is a very small population here. If we we're doing the same thing in Boston, San Francisco or Chicago, we'd probably be a 12O,OOO barrel brewery by now. But on the other hand, it lets us grow in a good, steady, controlled fashion. People like New Belgium in Colorado, I just have no idea how they manage that growth. They must have an ungodly amount of money. That's fairly unique. I'd rather growth less than that, profitably, and have a profitable family business.

AC Kim Jordan spoke a few months back and suggested that the craft beer segment could reach ten percent of the total beer market. What do you think the future holds for the craft brewing industry?

AP I don't know if we could reach ten percent unless something happens to the almighty Bud, and unless something clicks in the minds of all the people who are drinking the beers of large companies, and those people are the bulk of America. Those people who drink craft beers are generally those who have traveled and are educated and have discovered there is something outside of that. Maybe it'll reach ten percent but that is a big number, particularly when Bud is actually growing also. I think the volume itself, which is more important, will continue to grow at a steady rate. I think there will ultimately be a bunch of breweries that get into the hundreds of thousands of barrels. It's going to take a while. Our brewery is fairly typical of some of the other breweries that are doing well. Ten percent growth at 5O,OOO barrels, you do the math. It's going to take ten or fifteen years probably, unless you get lucky or get a break. We've got big hopes for Florida. We had a brewery there at one time and the brand is growing significantly there. You can't just do it by having the average consumer on the street just having an extra pint. And that's what we all face. I'm very positive about the industry and think it will continue to grow.

I think Sam Adams has found how difficult it is to reach one million barrels and stay there. They actually dipped under it last year. If you take Twisted Tea out of the operation and the malternative stuff, then the beer is down significantly. I think when you get to a certain level, it gets harder and harder and requires more and more money while the bottom line gets less and less. That's what breweries like Heileman, Schlitz and Pabst found. That's why they all went out of business.

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Article appeared in the February 2005 issue of Beverage Magazine. For information on reprinting any of the above articles, please contact Andy Crouch.

All materials, content, and articles remain under copyright held by Andy Crouch.  2002-2006 © Andy Crouch.