The first brew of WORK ipa in Summer, 2015
I wasn't always a brewer. It just happened. I've been working since I was 12. I've mowed lawns, shovelled snow, vacuumed sawdust, painted houses, docked boats, taught snowboarding, bussed tables, sorted letters, door-to-door sales, some sound engineering, produced music, waited tables (with a cowboy hat-no lie), bartended, and even was the general manager of a bar in New York City. But somehow the one that really got me was brewing.
I did my first home brew in a 1 bedroom apartment in Long Island City, Queens, NYC in 2008. I got the standard "do it yourself" extract kit online. When I cracked the first bottles (1 week premature) they weren't bad enough for me to not want to do it again. I always wonder if the first batch was awful would I be here in London to this day. I did a couple more batches in bottles, then when bottling became tiresome - I started kegging. When you keg home brew, you need a way to dispense it. So I started buying used refrigerators and turning them into keggerators. When I had read all the books and brewed a shitload of beer - I wanted to learn how the real breweries did it.
In 2010 somehow I ended up in Denver, CO and when I arrived I made a plan to show up in person to every brewery I could find and ask if I could volunteer. They all said no. I got a bar job for 6 months or so, then tried again. I finally weaseled my way into Wynkoop Brewery. Eric Erman took pity on me after harassing me for applying for a job at their brewpub and asked "what do you really want to do?". I told him I wanted to brew, and he took me down into the brewhouse. Wow. It was the first time I ever saw tanks like that. And barrels. And their tiny little 1 head can filler and seamer.
It was the coolest thing ever. He let me come back every week and do the grunt work for him and the brewers. Thanks Eric!
After that I sold my car and moved out to London in 2012. I got a job at a young London Fields brewery and plumbed a used kit together with 2 other guys (James and Omar). 8 months later I showed up for a trial shift at Camden Town Brewery - with a mohawk and a jar of pumpkin porter homebrew. Ben Landsberry (the Kernel) was the brewer on shift. He gave then head brewer James Garstang the green light - and just like that I had become a shift brewer at a 2 year old Camden. It was awesome.
Class of 2012' Camden Town Brewery. From left: Pete Brown, Ben Landsberry, James Garstang, Mark Dredge.
While I was at Camden I completed 2 brewing diplomas with the IBD and enrolled in a BSc Biochemistry Degree at the University of Westminster. Things went from reading books and home brewing in New York to being a shift brewer at an amazing brewery in London in just a span of 3 years.
And here's how I got tangled up in Forest Road.
It was Spring, 2015.
I moved into a house on Forest Road in East London after finding my ideal home on Spareroom.com. Tired of management cutting corners on beer quality, I had made the decision to leave my senior brewer position at Camden Town Brewery in search of a bigger challenge to make beer better, or make better beer. When I showed up on the doorstep of 97 b/c Forest Road, I wooed my new would-be British housemates with a case of Camden Hells. But by the time I was ready to move in, I showed up with beer from Siren Craft brewery, where I had just been picked up to work as a brewing consultant.
Marcus, Freddie, Pippo and Joss seemed very happy to have landed a rogue American brewer into their comfy home on Forest Road. After a couple weeks in, I invited myself to housemate Joss’ birthday weekend in Amsterdam and after an innocent dinner party turned into a 7am swim in the canals - we all knew this friendship would last a lifetime. A couple weeks later, I had quickly convinced them how awesome it would be to brew our own beer for the house - and how with little attention to detail, it could be done better than most of the beer available on the off-license shelves.
Toffee Porter Recipe in Denver 2011.
So I showed my new best pals how to make beer right there in the garden behind our house on Forest Road. I called the first batch “WORK” to make sure it had nothing to do with the “type” of beer, tired of trying mediocre commercial beers that tell you how the beer should taste like. I wanted to make the beer speak for itself. That's why you would have seen for the first year or so there was no style description on any of the labels. So it was born: WORK, a malt-heavy, low-bitterness india pale ale - my go-to style of beer.
The first home brew setup at 97b/c Forest Road
Checking the pre-boil gravity. Note the can of Camden IHL.
Pete and Fred cooling in to the laundry room where the beer would ferment
The batch was 60L and split into 2 separate fermentation tanks to test the effect of using different custom yeast blends on the finished batch. After the first batch was ready - we threw a party. We even gave the neighbors a weeks’ notice.
It was time to try the first batch.
The party was awesome and by this point travelling by car 2.5 hours each day from Forest Road to Siren Craft Brew was becoming tiresome - although I did get a lot of one-on-one time with my pal Gordon discussing our dreams to open our own brewery one day (hes just opened Newbarns Brewery - check them out). I wondered what I could do as I needed to be back in London that Autumn for my final year of Biochemistry at the University of Westminster. I tried to find any breweries that were looking without luck, and that's when I thought - Why not start my own?
So Freddie, Joss, Marc and Pippo and I started to lay out what it would cost to start our own brewery in London. The total cost of the project became quite big quite fast, and there was one major problem: We had no money.
Seeing as how a brewery requires a lot of money to start - I hatched the idea to brew on someone else's equipment, and that way if I could sell some beer then maybe one day I could find the money to invest in my own.
I reached out to a brewery called Brouwerij Van Eecke in Boezinge, Belgium - their flagship beer is called Hommel Bier - it's amazing. Joss and I went on the Eurostar to meet the Karel Leroy and his multi-generational brewing family to discuss brewing a batch of WORK on their kit. They said they could do it no problem - even with my planned signature yeast blend. The only problem was that their batch size was 15,000L. That's a lot of beer.
A month or two later Marcus and I were headed over to Belgium for the first ever commercial brew of WORK at a 500 year old brewery. We brought 75 kilos of American hops over on the eurostar - Hops smell like marijuana and when they are in vacuum sealed foil bags in a suitcase, it tends to look quite suspicious to customs officers. They took a knife into it. “We’re brewing beer”, we said. All clear.
Pete and Tomas Dwyuck in front of the brew kettle at Brouwerij Van Eeecke (Leroy Breweries) during the first commercial batch of WORK.
Marcus hugs the first batch of WORK in tank.
The first ever batch of WORK arrived on UK shores after one failed import attempt and a two week episode of scrambling to find a warehouse to put all the beer into (we forgot about that part). I missed a statistics test on the day of arrival because I had no forklift to take the batch off the truck, plus every single keg had fallen over in transit, so Joss and I had to load the whole thing down by hand.
I took out as much student loan as I possibly could and used all of it to pay for the first batch. (I am still repaying this)
The first batch of WORK in kegs on the day it arrived in London. Every single one of the 350 key kegs needed to be handed down one by one.
We got the beer in - and then the real WORK began. Now I had to learn how to sell beer.
I set off innocently with a backpack full of beer to pubs, restaurants and shops in London, determined to break my way into the beer industry on my own. It was more difficult than I thought - not knowing how many licensed premises are tied to big corporations through backdoor deals and "listing fees". With nothing to lose and everything to gain - I kept at it. I sold about 60% of the first batch before it started to stale. I brewed another 2 batches that year.
After the first 8 months of selling WORK to London, I had to move warehouses because of planned refurbishment work from Network rail. I found a place next to London Fields: Arch 355 Westgate Street - and after giving the letting agent some beer and offering over market rent - Forest Road had its new E8 warehouse. Rent was much higher than I anticipated so I applied for and got an alcohol license there to serve beer there as a taproom.
I built the taproom out of pallets and crates from the first beer delivery - and started to sell beers on the weekend. The front half of the building was a taproom and the other half was kegs and the first company computer. Now a team of three, we had our first taproom and bar in Hackney.
The next Summer - the bakery next door moved out and the now small FR team, myself, my Dad and sister Sarah) converted the warehouse into a bigger taproom - with kegs being stored next door. This is when the outside area as you may have seen today came to be. At the same time the taproom expanded, That year we welcomed our second beer to the family - a lager.
POSH, a 4.1% filtered lager was named after my British Flatmates (a word I had never really heard before), and soon dominated Forest Road beer sales. Have you tried it?
Fast-forward to 2019
In August of 2019, ex Headbrewer of Camden Town Brewery James Garstang, who hired me in 2012, joined the Forest Road team. He came over from working at White Labs in Copenhagen in the yeast department, to help me build our new brewery. Prior to that, he brewed at the Kernel, Partizan and even commissioned a full brewery in India. We're like two peas in a pod. Our first night on the sauce we got busted stealing a tap handle from the Black Heart in Camden - an account of ours at the time.
As I mentioned, James came over to be head brewer - the only problem was: we didn't have a brewery.
Upon his arrival while James was looking for a pilot brewery for our taproom, James came across Russian River’s 4-vessel semi-automatic brewhouse and brewery for sale on auction in California. He sent the link to me as a joke. A couple days later I was on a plane to San Francisco to visit the owner and discuss purchasing the kit. After trying to make any kind of deal, owner Vinnie Cilurzo explained to me that he was contracted legally through the auction house and the sale needed to go through them.
I flew back to London after falling in love with the kit and knew I needed to make something happen. After evaluating the kits worth considering the cost of craning it down, loading onto trucks, shipping the whole thing over on a boat, unloading it on the UK side, and recommissioning it in the UK - my friend Mike from my hometown helped me draft a really official looking offer letter.
First pics of the Russian River Brewery, on my first visit - Santa Rosa, CA
To my surprise - the auction house accepted the offer 2 hours later. The only problem was - the $175,000 deposit was due the next day at 5pm - and we still had no money.
And I mean no money. Not like £1K or £2K. I mean like -£15K into the £20K overdraft. No money. Like at all.
I spent the night proving the concept on paper. By now we were selling enough beer to justify our own brewery - We could 1. Save money on beer sold 2. Increase beer quality and 3. Give life to the project that was dreamt up in a house in East London in the Summer of 2015.
By 11am the next morning - I had drafted up an email with Mike to send to everyone I had ever met in my whole life asking for investment, loans or anything to get the deposit down. Surprisingly, we managed to get everything except $30K by 5pm from 13 different investors. The money had to be transferred by 10pm UK time that night. From 5pm until 9pm it was quiet and there was no one left to call - the outlook was bleak.
Standing there looking at the finish line - it was about to all be over. Until a Doctor called up and said he was 100% in based on a friend he knew who had already invested. Boom. Thanks Luke! After 5 years of battle in an overcrowded beer market dominated by corporations - we had finally got our own brewery.
The hard part was nearly over. That gave me another 3.5 weeks to find the rest of the money. With time on my side, growing sales and an actual physical kit to sell the dream - I found another 16 family and friend investors to help close the balance. Once more the money was transferred with 5 minutes to spare.
One more snag, I tried to transfer the final payment from my laptop in Hackney - not knowing that there was a maximum amount of £50K that could be transferred by computer. So at the final moment - I ran down to Barclays on Mare Street from the taproom and begged and pleaded with the banker to let him do the transfer without a passport.
The final deposit was made at 5:15pm - 15 minutes after the deadline - but the proof of transfer allowed the auction guys to complete the deal.
Finding a way to acquire the Russian River brewery was one thing. What about all of those other things we spoke about before, namely the whole “loading it down onto a boat” part. I flew back out to California from London and this time my Dad flew from Boston to meet me there - we had to break down the brewery piece by piece. Ken had no idea what I had gotten myself into (again) but he showed up like he always does - ready for the next project.
I convinced Vinnie’s neighbours in Santa Rosa to come help with the craning - everything else was up to me and my Dad. So for 4 days straight from 5am until 10pm - we pictured and labelled every single tank part and connection. We sawed through steel and disconnected pumps and literally tore the whole thing down. Vinnie would usually bring some pizzas from their taproom over to us at lunch - and by the end of our time there the Russian River guys had all pitched in to help.
About a week after I got back and just 2 days before Christmas and when all of the excitement for Forest Road was in full throttle - my letting agent called to say that they had found asbestos covering the entire roof our planned site in Walthamstow - and that they didn't have the cash to fix it. Neither did we obviously.
Great. The brewery was literally at the port of Oakland about to be shipped through the Panama Canal to the UK. Back to the drawing board it was. This prompted James and I to start the search (again) for another site in London that had: 8m eaves with 8000ft2 of ground space and close to home - these are not everywhere you see. We went everywhere, and believe it or not - a property in South Bermondsey came up on Zoopla.com. James and I both separately sent the link to each other. “This is the one”, James said.
We started to engage with the new lease - for the 5th time - hoping this would truly be the one. The brewery was on the way and my Dad and I tracked it as it went around the world. We couldn’t resist going to Panama to watch it go through the canal - so we did (this is why we have no money). While we were there we broke into the unauthorised zone to try and get the perfect view. When we got there, the MOL Empire (the cargo boat carrying the brewery on 14 flat-racks and 2 containers) stopped right at the entrance out of sight. My flight was in 4 hours and we had no idea what happened. Right when I was about to leave, the gps tracker showed a small boat going up to the MOL Empire - then it sped away. And then at the 9th hour the motion of the boat started up again.
You see, we learned at the Panama Canal Museum that only experienced drivers take cargo ships through the canal - they have a driver boat come up and a capitan boards to steer the ship through. It slowly started to enter the canal and we watched it go through.
Another miracle - We went to Panama and tracked our brewery going through the Panama Canal.
Me and Dad break into the "Cerro Sosa" at the Panama Canal to watch the MOL Empire go through the canal.
After tracking the MOL Empire on its journey we finally caught it.
March & April 2020
After the brewery was purchased - all was left to fund was the commissioning. We needed to get the power upgraded, rewire the electrics for the brewhouse to work in the UK, weld the kit together, put in the cooling systems, steam systems and buy a couple extra pieces like the water filtration system and the centrifuge. By this time we had the commitment from an investment broker to fund this remaining bit - and for the first time in the last 5 years I could sleep at night.
It seemed like all of the hard WORK was about to pay off. The brewery arrived March 1st and Forest Road were inching closer to completing the lease of our new site. Don’t forget that at this point there was no office - everyone worked on laptops huddled in the taproom arch in London Fields during the day. It was so exciting.
Then COVID19 hit. (obviously)
Nobody knew what was going on - and each day the team and I huddled around the bar tv watching Boris’ daily announcements. James and I were so eager to get going that we couldn't accept what was happening before our eyes. The media went into a panic frenzy - and then boom - lockdown.
Just like that - the taproom had to shut. Everyone had to go home. Then after a day of waiting for clarification - the government announced that off-licenses and breweries were classified as “essential business” - and that left us with only one option: Turn the taproom into an off-license. All of the FR employees went on furlough. Forest Road’s oldest taproom employee Jock offered to stay on and run the shop for takeaway. Lewis and I grabbed 2 bottle fridges for free from an off-license by my house (Thanks Grocery Nest!) and set them up at the taproom to offer takeaway.
We opened the webshop overnight. Our landlord was so kind to give us a break on rent for 3 months. Without this, we probably wouldn't be here. Thanks Arch Co.!
Since I moved here in 2012, I've visited my local Homerton hospital twice - and both times I was grateful (especially as an American) for the quick and low-cost care made available to me. Homerton is right down the road from the taproom - so when we heard that the hospitals were being overwhelmed, we wanted to do our bit - so Lewis and I drove 600 cases of beer down to the NHS staff.
This gave us a bigger idea - we had beer sitting in tank that was due to be kegged, the only problem was - kegs weren't selling. So what if we could do more, with beer to give back to the NHS staff. I quickly figured out the labels and boxes and asked our brewing partner Camerons to let us bottle a small batch of special beer. Stay HOME lager was born. A 3.9% light lager which donated £1 per bottle to the NHS.
To date we've raised over £9000 for the NHS - THROUGH BEER!
A couple weeks later - I turned a delivery van into a 'pintmobile' and started selling pints to thirsty Londoners.
Me and the "Tactical Beer Response Unit" sold pints to Londoners during the first lockdown.
A couple weeks after that - we started renting out keg wagons to the neighborhood. Anything to keep it moving. This isn't an investment for me, this is my whole life. 50 pints of independent beer for only £200! (in case your interested)
Our keg wagons are still available for rental from our London Fields Taproom - wink. From left: Federica Bonvini our awesome and only sales girl, Head Brewer James Garstang, and Sales Coordinator and logistics legend Sarah Dobsen
June until today 2020
This is where the story starts to fade out to where we are now - sitting in our big empty warehouse waiting to complete the brewery. It's easier to drop out with bullet points.
- We moved into our new site
- We found out that the floors weren't thick enough to support our tank farm
- We had to replace the entire 5000 ft2 of floor
- We were about to finish when our beer distributor - Kicking Horse - went into administration owing us an enormous amount of money.
- We've spent the last 2 months focussing solely on survival.
- And here we are - ready for war and to bring this thing to life.
My amazing small team and I have through blood, sweat and tears showed up every single day to get the job done. We were working off laptops out of a 900ft2 railway arch only 5 months ago. Now we're here ready for the next step, finally to be brewing on our own.
I cannot thank those of you who have supported us and the business along the way enough. Our loyal accounts who've believed in us since day one. Our neighbors, friends, family and the whole community down at the taproom - We wouldn't be here without you.
Last but not least: to all of my amazing co-workers who have poured their entire lives into this amazing project and believed in Forest Road without question - Cheers to you. What an entirely special ride it has been -
This is our whole team. From left: Lewis Jones, Simon Wedlock, Ed Whitmarsh, Sarah Dobsen, Alex Szalai, Federica Bonvini, Pete Brown and James Garstang.
1.3 million pints and counting - and we don't even have a brewery.
Thanks for listening if you made it this far.