How to Ship a Brewery Around the World

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When a brewhouse from California’s legendary Russian River Brewing Co. went up for sale, London-based brewer Pete Brown knew he must have it. There were only a few continents and oceans in the way.

Pete Brown, founder of London’s Forest Road Brewing Co., was on vacation in Tampa, Florida, when he got a message from Forrest Rhoades.

Forrest Rhoades wanted to order a Forest Road–branded beanie, but the brewery’s website offered no option to ship merchandise internationally, from the U.K. to the U.S. Brown checked in his bag. He had a beanie. He also had a car, and decided that the gas money would be worth the story he’d get to tell on the other side. “We drove him a hat, dude! That’s customer service!” Forrest Rhoades was in San Diego. 

That story isn’t related to this story, but it might help you understand the kind of person Pete Brown is. 

When, in 2019, Brown saw an online auction for a brewhouse—a four-vessel 50–beer barrel (50bbl) system that included six fermenters, brite beer tanks, water tanks, a gristmill and more—previously owned by California’s beloved Russian River Brewing Co., he immediately messaged Russian River’s co-founder Vinnie Cilurzo, asking what it would take to buy the kit. It was an impetuous act of romance, the chance to own a treasured brewhouse that was proven to make exceptional beer. It didn’t matter to Brown that he didn’t currently have the funds to buy the brewhouse, nor did he have anywhere to house it in London. And he hadn’t even considered how he might get the equipment to the U.K.

If you’re willing to drive 2,500 miles to hand-deliver a hat, you don’t tend to look for reasons not to do something.

Brown, a Boston native, founded Forest Road in London in 2015. After a few years of working at Camden Town Brewery, an ambitious then-independent brewery now owned by AB InBev, Brown decided to start his own brewery, named after the street he lived on.

From the beginning, Brown had a vision for his dream brewery. He didn’t want to be limited by a too-small brewhouse—Camden Town had a small kit, which required them to brew 24 hours a day to keep up with demand. Brown doodled what he wanted on a page in his notebook: a four-vessel 50-hectoliter (42bbl) brewhouse with six fermenters. In that same notebook, he wrote the recipe for what would become his first beer, Work IPA, inspired by foundational American iterations like Maine Beer Co.’s Lunch and Odell’s IPA.

“As passionate a brewer as I was,” says Brown, “I couldn’t find anybody to give me 1.5 million pounds,” or $1.9 million, his estimate for how much that dream brewery would cost. Like many upstart brewers, Brown had his beer contract-brewed and packaged at a host brewery instead of paying to build his own site. As sales grew, Brown leased a railway arch in London Fields, which became a taproom where he sold Work, his bright and bitter flagship West Coast–style IPA with malt depth and big aroma of grapefruity hops, and an all-English lager called Posh, which became his bestselling beer. Business was good, but Brown missed brewing beer himself. 

In 2019, Brown started looking for a location to build his own brewery in London. He hired James Garstang, an old friend from Camden Town, who joined as head brewer. They spoke to brewery manufacturers around Europe and came close to leasing several sites, but couldn’t find the right spot. Disheartened, they settled on an interim plan: Buy a small, 5bbl secondhand brewery and install it in their taproom.

It was Garstang who found the listing for Russian River’s kit, which was for sale because Russian River had recently built a brand-new brewery in Windsor, California. It was almost exactly the brewery that Brown had daydream-doodled in his notebook four years earlier, but 10 times bigger and 10 times more expensive than they were looking for. Garstang sent the online listing to Brown: “LOL, let’s put this in the taproom!” 

Four days later, Brown was in Santa Rosa.

It was an impetuous act of romance, the chance to own a treasured brewhouse that was proven to make exceptional beer. It didn’t matter to Brown that he didn’t currently have the funds to buy the brewhouse, nor did he have anywhere to house it in London.

As Cilurzo walked him through the premises, Brown remembers thinking, “It would be our own fault if we couldn’t kick magical beer out of this thing. It’s like having Jimi Hendrix’s guitar; if we play it right, it’ll do the right thing.”

It wasn’t just that the kit was pristine and proven to make world-class beer. Even with all the costs and human hours spent on getting the equipment to London, it would still be significantly cheaper––perhaps $1 million less––to buy it secondhand and ship it across the world than to buy the same set-up brand new. Brown made an offer to take the kit out of the auction. It was accepted. 

Brown enlisted the help of his father, who flew in from Boston, to disassemble the brewhouse and prepare it for its long sea voyage. “My dad has picked me up from all kinds of places where I’ve been in trouble,” says Brown. “He’s picked me up from detention, he’s picked me up from jail. But when we rolled up to that site and I opened that shutter, I’ve never seen him with that look on his face. He was like, you’ve really done it this time.” 

Between the two of them, they had to take apart the entire brewery, and do it all so that it would be possible to reassemble it. The brewing vessels are 13 feet in diameter; the biggest fermenters are 26 feet tall; they’re connected by miles of steel pipes; there were tens of thousands of pieces. For four days, they started at 6 a.m. and finished at 10 p.m. They took as many photos and videos as possible. 

The vessels were strapped to 14 flatbed trucks and everything else was packed into two 40-foot containers, then driven down to the port in Oakland. The ship was due to arrive in London in the first week of March 2020.

Brown obsessively tracked the ship’s progress. When he’d visited Russian River’s Windsor facility a few months earlier, he’d seen a photo on the wall of a container ship carrying the new brewery as it passed beneath the Golden Gate Bridge on its journey from Germany. When he saw the ship getting close to the Panama Canal, he and his father flew to Panama City and snapped a picture of it going through, “to keep the tradition going.” 

The ship containing Brown’s new brewhouse arrived in London on schedule. He’d spent the past three months looking for a location for his brewery, and had finally found a vacant old Victorian tea warehouse in Bermondsey, in southeast London. But the country was put into a national COVID-19 lockdown before he could sign the lease. He had no choice but to pay to store it in the Southampton docks for nine months.

In December 2020, a convoy of trucks finally delivered the brewhouse, and Brown’s meticulous disassembly––which he’d done a full year earlier––paid off as he put it all back together in its new home. On September 9, 2021, almost two years since Brown first went over to Santa Rosa, he and Garstang brewed the first batch through their new brewery.

‘My dad has picked me up from all kinds of places where I’ve been in trouble,’ says Brown. ‘He’s picked me up from detention, he’s picked me up from jail. But when we rolled up to that site and I opened that shutter, I’ve never seen him with that look on his face. He was like, you’ve really done it this time.’ 

In 2010, as a young beer nerd, I went on my first beer trip to North America. I could’ve gone anywhere in the States, but in my mind there was only one destination, and one beer that I had to drink.

I booked flights from London to San Francisco, landing in the late afternoon, and it was dark and raining as I found my way to a bar called Toronado. I still clearly remember the thrill of saying the words: “Pint of Pliny the Elder, please.” It was the most exciting beer thing I’d done to date. 

Pliny the Elder is Russian River’s signature beer, and the best IPA I’d ever tasted. For years I’d been reading about this beer, for weeks I’d been planning this trip and for the last 11 hours this pint was all I could think about. For people like me––and Brown and Garstang and many others––who came to craft beer around 2010, Pliny the Elder was the ultimate American IPA. Later that week, I traveled north and stayed a night in Santa Rosa, just so I could drink in Russian River’s brewpub.

When I heard that Brown had bought this kit, it seemed too improbable, even impossible, that a brewer in my home city now had a brewhouse that once belonged to Russian River. But I’d known Brown long enough to believe him when something like this happens. 

If you step into the Bermondsey tea warehouse taproom today, you’ll see flags and skateboards on the walls, stickers slapped on every surface. There’s the big photo of the container ship passing through the Panama Canal, surrounded by many other photos of important brewery landmarks. Macrobrewery tap handles are showcased on wooden plaques like deer heads in a hunting lodge—each one a trophy tap that Forest Road has taken and replaced with its own beer. 

Brown is romantic about craft beer. His beer education came from reading the stories of Fritz Maytag at Anchor, Ken Grossman at Sierra Nevada and Sam Calagione at Dogfish Head. Next to those origin stories were often photos of the brewers with their first kits.

Now Brown looks out over his brewery, one of the largest independent breweries in London. “This is our first kit, and that means something to any brewer,” he says.

He points out where different parts came from: Most is from Russian River. The brite beer tanks and gristmill are from Dogfish Head, the kegging line is from Brauerei Schloss Eggenberg in Austria. He points to a vacant area at the back wall of the warehouse. He’s just bought two 300bbl fermenters from another well-known California brewer, Bear Republic. “It’s our Frankenstein,” Brown says of his brewery. “It represents everything we are.” He pauses as he looks around, then he laughs out loud: “To have this brewery here is fucking crazy, though,” he says. “But it’s up to us now. If we fuck it, that’s our fault.”

It is important to Brown that he not capitalize on someone else’s legacy, and Forest Road does not make beer similar to Russian River’s. Forest Road’s main beer is Posh, a 4.1 percent ABV all-English lager, and the focus is on brewing large volumes of beer to be sold on draft in pubs all around the U.K. (The brewery made over 1.5 million pints in 2023.) The brewhouse proved it could make the best IPAs for the American market; now it’s making the quintessential modern lager for the British market. They got Hendrix’s guitar, but they aren’t playing cover songs—they’re playing their own hits. 

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