It Can Get There From Here: How Portland Craft Beer Wound Up In 900 Pubs In The U.K.

Jan 29, 2018

Whether it's lobsters bound for Beijing, Shipyard beer being sold in Sheffield, England or tongue depressors turning up in Thailand, Maine products are making inroads into world markets. For some entrepreneurs, there can be a big payoff. This is the first in a series we're calling, "It CAN Get There From Here."

Jennifer Mitchell visited the Shipyard Brewery in Portland where she found out that international beer success is driven largely by relationships.

Shipyard founder, Fred Forsley, is busy canning a beer that isn't even his.

Fred Forsley, founder of Shipyard
Credit Jennifer Mitchell / Maine Public

"This one is the Island Summer Ale, which is kind of a light refreshing - a light pale ale."

As the hissing machine spits ale into cans and seals them up, Forsley explains that Shipyard produces this beer for another craft brewery in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

"So they come up and do the recipes with us and we'll brew it and ship it down," Forsley says.

This is just one of several relationships the company has with other beer makers. While it may seem counterintuitive to cozy up with your competitors, doing so is the reason Shipyard is sold in some 900 pubs across the U.K.

Back in 1990 Forsley was slaving away over a desk, thinking about planning the next 25 years of his life.

"I've never had a plan,” Forsley laughs. “Which is scary to say as an entrepreneur."

In short, Forsley kind of blundered into the beer business. He'd been working as a real estate agent, and he found himself with a high value southern Maine property in need of a tenant. He'd already put a lot of work into the place when a couple of deals fell through.

"I got another tenant who was interested, I got it funded, and then at the last minute they decided they didn't want to do it, so next thing you know, as a real estate guy, I was running a brewery brewpub," says Forsley.

That would be Federal Jack's in Kennebunkport, where his first pints were produced in 1992.

Forsley did have some help from other brewers, like Geary's and Gritty's, who introduced him to a giant in the world of beer, Alan Pugsley. Pugsley has been called the Johnny Appleseed of Craft Brewing, and he's known worldwide.

Pugsley became a partner and the Shipyard Brewery was born. Pugsley brought with him not just the beer know–how, but a relationship with the Ringwood Brewery in England. After moving to a bigger location in Portland, Shipyard started brewing some of Ringwood's beer, much in the way that Shipyard brews the Island Summer Ale for St. John Brewers in the Virgin Islands.

Fred Forsley
Credit Jennifer Mitchell / Maine Public

"We were brewing Old Thumper under collaboration here and they asked us to do Shipyard over there," says Forsley.

While Shipyard had been cultivating its relationship with Ringwood for several years, in 2007 Ringwood was bought by the biggest cask ale maker in the world: Marston's, headquarted in Wolverhampton, England. Suddenly, Shipyard's fledgling foray into the U.K. seemed uncertain. The brewers were uncertain the new boss would even want to work with them.

"The group from Marston's visited Portland, probably I mean, 30 different individuals from the company over a three year period before they said, you know what, we want to work with you in the U.K. in a bigger, expanded way,” says Forsley. “And then I went over at least five or six times. It took a lot of energy to trust each other."

They reached an agreement and now, five years after launch, Shipyard is the best selling brand of kegged craft beer in the U.K., according to a Manchester data agency.

"It's easy drinking, it's fruity, it's got a sort of citrusy hop flavor, a lot of people get sort of gooseberry and pine aromas from it," says Sam Coles, Marston’s sales and marketing manager for craft beer in Oswaldtwistle, England.

Coles is describing Shipyard's flagship product in the U.K., American Pale Ale. He says all the preliminary visits back and forth across the pond helped strengthen the two companies' relationship. The process is set to continue, as Marston's really capitalizes on Shipyard's location.

"One of the biggest beer trends happening in the UK at the moment is New England IPAs, which is sort of really hazy, thick IPAs. It used to be all about west coast IPAs, that used to be the style,” says Coles. “But there's a real push over to New England styles at the moment, which is getting people looking at what New England, and Maine in particular, is all about a bit more."

This international marketing strategies appear to be paying off. Coles says sales of the American Pale Ale have grown 30%, year over year in the UK- 50% for the IPA. Marston's even has plans to lead a group of visitors from the U.K. to Portland later this year in order to visit the original birthplace of Shipyard.

So far, the U.K. is the only overseas market that Forsley has actively tried to tap, mostly because of the time and resources it takes to develop necessary relationships. But that doesn't mean there isn't more to come.

"You know we're interested in Asia,” says Forsley. “Not sure exactly how to do it."

But Forsley is thinking locally as a way to go more global.

"The world's gotten so small,” he says. “If you go to Boston– you go to some of these college campuses, and you have a strong Asian population from whatever part of Asia, and they're huge beer drinkers. And they're interested in American brands...so...it's doable. But we have to figure it out at some point..."

This story was originally published Jan. 26, 2018 at 4:15 p.m. ET.