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The Johnny Appleseed of Craft Brewing: Alan Pugsley’s journey to share the craft of brewing beer

Dec 30, 2020 03:33AM ● By Jennifer Goss Duby

In the complicated tapestry of the history of Vermont craft brewing, there are a LOT of interesting stories. One thread that caught my attention in our last issue was this tidbit in our story on Outer Limits: “Wesley uses a rare system to brew Outer Limits beer—a 10-barrel Peter Austin system with its trademark brick kettle.”

A what now? A brick kettle? And who is Peter Austin?

That was a thread I had to pull.

England, mid 1970s

A boy, lean and lanky, wearing glasses, maybe 13 years old, walks along a canal with his mother and two sisters. It’s an autumn day in Warwickshire, England, and the walk is like many others they’d done before. In the early evening they turn into a local pub for a snack. It’s a good English pub called Tom O’ The Wood, with Old World architecture and traditional pub food on offer. The boy sits in the warmth of the pub and takes in the good humor of the place—the dog lying in front of a roaring fire, the raucous laugh of the landlord, and the locals laughing over pints. “What a happy place to be,” he thinks. 

Years later, the boy, Alan Pugsley, has graduated from university with a degree in biochemistry. The options open to a recent biochem grad left him cold. He just couldn’t see himself beavering away in a lab coat somewhere, working the type of job where in a whole a career you “might never actually discover anything.” 

He’d kind of always wanted to run a pub, but without the funds to start a venture like that it was just a pipe dream. Academic advisors suggested he look at working for one of the Big Six national breweries. After all, brewing is biochemistry and these national breweries all had real estate divisions that owned pubs. If Alan got in the door through brewing and that didn’t pan out, maybe he’d be able to transition to the pub side of things. 

Being the studious, analytical sort, Alan went straight to the library and began to read up on the technical side of brewing. “It was everything I loved about biochemistry,” he recalls. “And that was the moment I knew I wanted to go into brewing.”

After a fruitless job search with the largest, then not so large, then medium-sized breweries, Alan turned to a professor at a post-grad brewing school at the University of Birmingham for advice, who told him about a fellow down in the New Forest, name of Peter Austin. 

Campaign for Real Ale

Austin, head brewer for Hull Brewery, had been enlisted in a post-retirement project by Terry Jones of Monty Python fame to start a small brewery to make real ale, not the bland keg beer being pumped out by the national breweries. After the success of that project, Austin decided to create his own small brewery—Ringwood Brewery. 

Alan’s interview with Peter was completely different from what he’d experienced with the large, traditional breweries, where everyone wore three-piece suits and the interview was conducted in an office. It was midmorning, and Peter, dressed in his yeast-stained brewing smock, said, “It’s time for elevenses, do you mind joining me?” So in they popped to the pub for a pint.

Technical Expertise, But Was He Willing to Get Dirty?

The rest of the interview had Alan, dressed in his good interview suit, mucking about in the brew works, pulling thermometers out of vessels. Peter needed to know “if we could work together—he knew I had the biochemistry… now was I willing to go to the pub with him and was I willing to get dirty?” The clincher was getting the stamp of approval from Mrs. Austin, who took in the polite young man in his three-piece suit with black gloves and an umbrella, and thought, “Such a smart young man.”

Alan worked with Peter for several years, learning how to brew and how to design and install small brewing systems as well as how to create new beer recipes. One of their clients, Domus Brewery in Leuven, Belgium, wanted a direct-fired brick brew kettle. “It’s an absolute classic. Very functional, very efficient, very simple.” The pair created two or three more systems like that in France, and Alan came to the US to put in the same system for the D.L. Geary Brewery in Portland, Maine. This distinctive system became their trademarked design. 

Spreading the Good Word

Alan and Peter shared an evangelical zeal for craft brewing. Peter is credited with spreading the knowledge and capability to craft brew to 75 breweries in the US and more across the world, and since emigrating to the US, Alan has put in more than 80 brew systems as well as consulted on countless other brew projects, including the original Magic Hat brewing facility and facilities for The Shed and Madison Brewing company. “I just love what I’m doing and consider that I’ve never worked a day in my life.” 

Peter was part owner of Shipyard Brewery for 20 years but people wonder why he doesn’t have his own little microbrewery now. “But I have so much fun helping other people establish their dreams, like the folks at Outer Limits, that I live it through there. It enables me to meet all these different people, all these different projects in different parts of the country and the world. I just really enjoy seeing people’s faces for the first time when we brew the first batch of beer and they taste it and a big smile comes up. I think I can say that 99.9999 percent of customers say that the first beer off the line is beyond their wildest dreams. It gives me a lot of satisfaction and pride. It continues the work that Peter Austin did in his retirement. To carry on his work—he was a true mentor and friend—is just delightful for me.”

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