It’s About the Beer
Master brewer Alan Pugsley has had a heady influence on Maine’s beer industry.
- By: Michaela Cavallaro
- Photography by: Jeff Scher
In many Maine social circles, the only acceptable beverage is a locally produced microbrew. Budweiser? Forget about it. Coors Light? You’ve got to be kidding. Even Sierra Nevada, the California pale ale that was one of the first nationally distributed craft beers, is a little too widely available to be cool.
Instead, even casual Maine beer drinkers ask for a Shipyard, a Geary’s, or a Gritty’s. “There’s a generation of people who grew up on these beers,” says Richard Pfeffer. He’s willing to take some responsibility for that fact, given that he founded brewpub Gritty McDuff’s in 1988. “If you’re drinking beer in Maine, you’ve probably been to Gritty’s,” he says.
However, says Pfeffer, the majority of the credit for the state’s beer boom goes to Alan Pugsley, a now fifty-year-old biochemist from Leamington Spa, England. If you’ve never heard of Pugsley, you’re not alone. He’s a soft-spoken guy whose interests center largely on beer, brewing, and Manchester United, the U.K. soccer team whose games reportedly turn him from a mild-mannered Dr. Jekyll to a profane Mr. Hyde.
Among the beer cognoscenti, however, Pugsley’s reputation verges on the legendary. “My former partner called him the Johnny Appleseed of craft beer,” says Bob Johnson. Now an owner of South Portland’s Scratch Baking Co., Johnson co-founded Magic Hat Brewing in Burlington, Vermont, in 1993. “Brewing is an almost magical mix of hands-on physical labor, art, and science. When they all come together, at the end of the day, you’ve got this beautiful glass of beer — and Alan Pugsley is the one who brought that aesthetic to New England.”
Consider the following evidence: The first craft brewery in New England was D.L. Geary Brewing Co. in Westbrook, where Pugsley installed a brewing system and helped David Geary develop the recipe for Geary’s Pale Ale. Maine’s largest brewery is Portland-based Shipyard Brewing Co., which Pugsley co-founded and co-owns. The state’s oldest brewpub is Gritty McDuff’s, where Pugsley installed the brewing equipment and trained the brewmasters.
And Pugsley’s influence goes on: Magic Hat, Long Trail, and numerous other beer brands were built upon the famed Ringwood yeast that Pugsley brought from England in the mid-1980s. “Alan has had a huge impact on customers’ palates for beer in this part of the world,” says Richard Pfeffer.
The middle child of an engineer and a homemaker, Pugsley grew up with an appreciation for old-fashioned English pubs. “It wasn’t just the drinking,” he says with a chuckle. “It was the history, the merriment, the conversation.”
Pugsley hoped to own a pub one day. In the meantime, he got a degree in biochemistry at the University of Manchester, with no clear career path in mind. After graduation, however, he realized that what he really needed was a job — any job. “Somebody suggested that I should put my interest in pubs together with my degree, and that led pretty quickly to brewing,” he says.
Pugsley made it to the final stages of job interviews at a number of major British breweries. Fortunately for New England, however, he met Peter Austin along the way. A longtime professional brewer, Austin, in 1978, founded Ringwood Brewery in England as his retirement hobby. At the time, major brewers in the U.K. and the U.S. were focused on filtered, carbonated beers that were mildly flavored at best. Austin, however, was trying to preserve the fading English tradition of cask-brewed beer made with living yeast. The CAMRA movement — the Campaign for Real Ale — had begun several years earlier, and Austin’s beer proved to be a hit among “real ale” aficionados.
Soon enough, Pugsley was working alongside Austin as ale fans beat a path to the Ringwood Brewery’s door. Under Austin’s tutelage, Pugsley brewed for the first time on January, 4, 1982. In the years following, the duo spread the gospel of live beer around the world, installing the “Austin system” and teaching brewmasters how to use it.
Their grassroots approach was significant, according to Magic Hat co-founder Bob Johnson. “Alan came up almost like you would in a French kitchen,” Johnson says. “You start by cleaning kegs and hauling bags of malt — and maybe one day you’ll be allowed to brew. It creates a huge amount of respect for the hands-on craft of brewing.”
Around the same time, Westbrook resident David Geary decided to take a similar approach to what would become New England’s first microbrewery. Serendipitously, he met Pugsley on a visit to Ringwood Brewery, part of a months-long research trip to Scotland and England. When Geary was ready to launch his own brewery in 1986, he hired Pugsley to help with the process, including creating the flagship Geary’s Pale Ale, which used Austin’s Ringwood yeast. (Pugsley and Austin are the only individuals who have access to the more than 150-year-old original Ringwood strain, which is a living organism akin to a sourdough bread starter.)
While Geary’s relationship with Pugsley would later turn acrimonious — more on that in a moment — it served to kick off the New England microbrew boomlet of the late 1980s and early 1990s. During the Geary’s startup period, Pugsley also met many of the men — and they are almost without exception male — who would form the core of New England’s craft beer industry, including Pfeffer, Johnson, and Mike Dickson, a longtime manager of the Great Lost Bear, the Portland pub that’s known for its astounding array of beers on tap.
As the years went by, Pugsley developed recipes based on the Ringwood yeast for a number of breweries in New England and Canada, each of which over time developed its own house style. “Craft beer in the Northwest is really more about the hops,” says Dickson. “In New England, though, Ringwood is definitely the standard — and there’s a quality there that’s number one, as far as I’m concerned.”
In 1992, Pugsley returned to Maine. He’d done a consulting job for Fred Forsley, a developer who wanted to start a brewpub on some land he owned in Kennebunkport, and realized that southern Maine suited him. Soon enough, he and Forsley were partners in Shipyard Brewing Co. In the cramped space downstairs from Federal Jack’s Brewpub, Pugsley created what would become the eight-hundred-pound gorilla of Maine microbrewing: Shipyard Export Ale. “Fred wanted to create a beer that would appeal to Canadian tourists,” Pugsley says. “So I took my favorite North American beer at the time, Molson Export, and gave it more color and more taste — more malt and more hops.”
Given that inspiration — making a mass-produced beer just a little heftier — it’s no surprise that Shipyard Export has converted many a Bud drinker into a microbrew fan. “I find it a tad sweet,” says Bob Johnson. “But it’s very well made. It’s well balanced and has great accessibility.”
In 1994, Shipyard Export landed on grocery store shelves — right next to Geary’s Pale Ale. Some in the industry say the competition actually helped Geary’s by creating a recognizable Maine microbrew section in the beer aisle. It seems, however, that David Geary sees the situation differently. When asked to comment on Pugsley’s influence on Maine microbrews for this story, Geary replied, “My mom always said, ‘If you can’t say something nice. . . . ’ So that’s a ‘no comment’ from me.”
Still, there’s no mistaking Shipyard’s — and, thus, Pugsley’s — dominance in the industry. The brewery produced more than 82,000 barrels of Shipyard beer in 2009, and it was the sixteenth largest craft brewer in the nation and the twenty-sixth largest American brewer of any kind in 2008, according to the national Brewers Association.
Pugsley also oversees production of a number of other brands, which contract their brewing and packaging to Shipyard. (Think Gritty’s six-packs, Peaks Organic beers, and even Virgin Islands Tropical Mango Pale Ale, produced for St. John Brewers.) While some of these products don’t suit Pugsley’s own palate — case in point: Shipyard’s wildly successful Pumpkinhead Ale — the master brewer is matter of fact about their value to the public. “There is no such thing as bad beer unless nobody likes it,” he says.
Last fall, Shipyard launched Pugsley’s Signature Series, a line of high alcohol, high-end beers available in twenty-two-ounce bottles and on tap. The series, which includes a powerful XXXX IPA and a smoky Imperial Porter, has been a hit with patrons at the Great Lost Bear, according to manager Mike Dickson. But even more than boosting bar tabs, Pugsley’s Signature Series has demonstrated what looks to be the enduring importance of the craft beer industry — and Alan Pugsley’s contributions in particular — to the state of Maine. “It’s like a whole other level of tourism has been introduced,” says Dickson. “It’s not just about lobsters and lighthouses — it’s about the beer.”
- By: Michaela Cavallaro
- Photography by: Jeff Scher