The idea of racking up more than six-figures in credit card debt is enough to make even the most intrepid small business owner have second thoughts about continuing with a venture.
But not for Shipyard Brewing Company founder Fred Forsley.
”Before I knew it, I had eight credit cards going with over $600,000 in credit card debt,” Forsley mentions of Shipyard’s arrival in Portland, Maine in 1994. He and his partners were in the process of expanding after outgrowing their original Kennebunkport Brewing Company operation.
Getting access to a new credit card was as easy for Forsley as responding to one of the many offers he received in the mail. At the time, the credit card companies provided the lifeline the brewery needed because, as Forsley notes, “People weren’t as excited as they are today about investing in beer.” He would pay one credit card off, then another one, just so he could apply for a new one.
”It became a real art of trying to keep that balance,” he adds.
Getting Shipyard, now one of Maine’s most successful craft breweries, off the ground was no easy task.
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Forsley had been working in real estate. He entered the world of brewing, with no experience to speak of, only because of a real estate deal that had fallen through for some of his friends. The friends had been looking at purchasing a piece of land with a small shopping center in Kennebunk that happened to be the former site of the town’s historic shipyards. When the friends decided not to, Forsley jumped in.
He had become interested in brewing and the brewpub industry after making a stop at McGuire’s Irish Pub during one of his visits with his brother in Florida. When that piece of land in Kennebunk came up for sale, Forsley took the opportunity to jump into the brewing industry. “I needed a good tenant for the property,” he says. “That’s why we put a brewery there.”
In 1992, Forsley and his partners used the site to establish the brewery and a restaurant to serve food and beers. Inspired by the piece of land’s shipbuilding history, they decided to call the new restaurant Federal Jack’s, named after one of the most famous ships ever built on the site. They chose to call the brewing endeavor Kennebunkport Brewing Company and started with a small 7-barrel brewhouse. Remaining true to the theme of shipbuilding, Forsley and company came up with a fitting name for one of their first handcrafted beers: Shipyard Export Ale.
That is the moment that Shipyard Brewing was born.
Initially, Shipyard Export was only served at Federal Jack’s, but Forsley saw an opening for distribution. He started selling and distributing other Shipyard-branded Kennebunkport products out of his Chevy Blazer, landing accounts at several Portland locales. The Great Lost Bear, Free Street Tavern and Three Dollar Dewey’s were some of the first bars to sell Shipyard. Soon, Nappi Distributors relieved Forsley of having to sell beers out of his own vehicle. Today the company works with several other distributors to get Shipyard into the hands of its many fans.
Being able to produce a quality product early on only helped to propel growth at Kennebunkport Brewing and later Shyipyard Brewing. According to Forsley, he would not have been able to achieve that level of quality if it wasn’t for some help from a trained English brewer, Alan Pugsley.
A scientist, Pugsley was brought on board at Kennebunkport Brewing as a partner early on, due in part to his mastery of chemistry and his passion for brewing beer. Pugsley was responsible for perfecting some of the brewery’s earliest and most popular brews, including the now-iconic Shipyard Export Ale and Blue Fin Stout — beers that Forsley proudly considers “world class.” To this day, those varieties and others are brewed in unique open fermenters at Shipyard and Federal Jack’s, with the same care and detail as Pugsley’s original batches.
As the distribution side of the Kennebunkport Brewing business grew, Forsley recognized there was a need to expand the brewing operations. In the early 1990s, Portland’s India Street neighborhood was far from thriving. The Thomas Laughlin Company property, encompassing four acres and 11 buildings along Hancock and Fore Streets, was abandoned and offered ample opportunity for an expanding brewing company. Continuing to operate Federal Jack’s, Forsley opened his new Shipyard Brewing Company in the old Thomas Laughlin buildings in 1994. He opened Shipyard in 5,000 square feet of the property with a much larger 50-barrel brewhouse, a handful of fermenters, and 350 barrels of fermentation capacity.
With the opening of the new Shipyard Brewery, Forsley began his credit-card-funded and larger scale craft beer career.
Now, 23 years after the move, the property has a 100-barrel brewhouse and a 100,000 square feet footprint, and the capacity to produce over 100,000 barrels of beer annually. They’ve also added cans to the Shipyard line, a move Forsley never thought would happen. And the number of employees has skyrocketed — at the height of the summer, 900 people are employed by the brewery.
“The nice thing we’ve been able to do is evolve as a company. It’s not without it’s challenges, but we try to have fun doing it,” Forsley says of the company’s growth.
Shipyard’s success became national when their Pumpkinhead beer burst onto the scene in 2002. The wildly popular spiced ale has gained a dedicated cult following and it’s now available in 46 states. Today the family owned and independent Shipyard Brewing continues to be Maine’s largest-producing craft brewery and is now the 28th largest craft brewer in the United States.
But, as Forsley explains, crafting a nationally known product from Maine isn’t easy. Maine’s geographic location essentially puts it at the end of the line for distribution, plus it takes a little longer for necessary ingredients to arrive. Forsley adds that the state’s taxes and regulations can make doing business even more challenging. Regarding the latter, he says he has seen improvement, but hopes to see even more.
Even with these challenges, though, Forsley would never consider leaving Maine. Why?
“The people are what’s good about Maine. We have a great work ethic. I love Maine, it’s a culture of unique relationships between the small towns and the big town in Portland now. The world visits Maine in the summertime so you get to show off your products to people from all over the world,” states Forsley.
Forsley used his business acumen, his relationships and his love for Maine and Portland to create and market a product that is nationally known. He and the Shipyard brand are ambassadors for Maine, telling the stories of men like Joshua Chamberlain and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow through their beers, as well as sharing the beauty of Maine’s autumn with the flavors of Pumpkinhead. He employs hundreds of Mainers, and his brewery has served as an anchor in a neighborhood that needed the economic activity.
That’s why Fred Forsley is a Maine Icon.Photo Gallery