Fred Forsley didn’t set out to become the Beer King of Maine. It just sort of happened that way.
Forsley is the co-founder and president of Shipyard Brewing, the largest craft brewery in the state – and one of the most successful in New England. If you’ve enjoyed Pumpkinhead Ale, Monkey Fist or Island Time IPA, SunFish or Sea Dog Blueberry – all available here in the Sunshine State – you have Fred Forsley to thank.
Shipyard is also the parent company of Sea Dog Brewing, which has a brewery and tasting room in Clearwater, and a nine-month-old brew pub on Blind Pass Road in Treasure Island (there’s a pub in Orlando, too).
Forsley is, by his own admission, a beer fan, a beer drinker and a sociable guy (he’s also a pretty shrewd businessman). Twenty-seven years ago, however, he was a real estate developer looking at a vacant property in Kennebunk Harbor (yes, it’s just down the rustic road from the Bush compound). The tenant had pulled out, and Forsley was stuck with the place.
While he pondered this, he traveled to Florida to visit his brother. They stopped into a Pensacola craft brew pub called McGuire’s – and Forsley found he just couldn’t get enough of that small-brew stuff. “I said ‘Jeez, this would work in Kennebunk,’” he recalls. “If the product is this good, other people are going to love it.’” Soon his own brew pub, Federal Jack’s, was doing turn-away business.
With business partner Alan Pugsley, a biochemist and dedicated master brewer, Forsley opened Shipyard Brewing, in the city of Portland, in 1992.
Startup money was an issue. “Back then, there weren’t a lot of breweries in the country, so bankers really didn’t understand our potential model,” Forsley says. “There were only a few in New England.
“We had to borrow $800,000 to get it open. But I had no additional money for additional renovations, no money for raw ingredients, no money for all these extra things. I’d run out of friends and family, so nobody really to turn to there.”
The solution appeared in his mailbox one day: Credit cards. “At the time, with the application, they’d send you 12 checks,” Forsley chuckles. “If you qualified, you could just open an account by paying off other credit card debt.
“Today, you probably couldn’t do it, but I ended up with nine credit cards, and $600,000 in credit card debt. I had good credit, because I never missed a payment. And we had good accountants. We were a small company, making money on paper. But we didn’t have liquidity.”
What they had was good liquid product. Unique product. “I’m a marketing sales guy,” Forsley explains. “It’s just like real estate – the first thing you learn is location, location, location. The first thing you learn in products is – if it’s a quality product, you’re going to get a certain marketing following … truly, all I did was fall in love with craft beer.”
He worked hard to convince his fellow New Englanders, at restaurants, bars, grocery stores and other retailers, to “go local.” British-made Bass was the brew of choice at the time. “I went right at that Bass drinker. I said ‘Listen, this is local. We use similar malts, and similar yeasts.’” They tried it, and they liked it. And they bought it.
“And at the time in those early days, there was a lot of bad craft beer starting to come out, which really hurt the industry. But we were lucky to have consistent quality products. We were able to grow rapidly.”
And all the credit card bills got paid off.
In 2002, Forsley and Pugsley rescued Sea Dog Brewing Company – a smaller Maine brewery – from bankruptcy. Today, most of the nine Sea Dog locations (six of them in New England) combine a state-of-the-art microbrewery with a family-friendly pub restaurant.
Sea Dog acquired the former Captain Kosmakos restaurant, on the western side of the Blind Pass Bridge, in 2016. The location opened for business last October.
So far, Forsley says, it’s been a resounding success. He recently added six boat slips, so that boaters can have direct access to the restaurant and brew pub from the water.
In the works: Another set of docks, to the south across the main road (Forsley owns the parking lot over there). He’s hoping the Florida Department of Transportation will grant him a permit to build a pedestrian underpass, underneath the Blind Pass Bridge.
“Florida’s very progressive, and I think this is a solid solution for getting people across the street, not just to the restaurant,” he says. “We’re hoping that gets done – we’re just waiting for the engineer to get us the final plan back.”
Forsley, who enjoys snow skiing (almost) as much as he enjoys a good beer, makes his home in Portland – but Florida has a very special place in this New Englander’s heart.
“I love Maine, and I love the people of Maine,” he declares. “There’s a strong work ethic – a strong work hard, play hard mentality.
“I’m a Mainer – but at the end of the day, nothing beats walking the beach at Treasure Island while talking on the phone to somebody in Maine. And they’re saying ‘Doesn’t this weather suck?’”