PORTLAND – A sweet, ripe aroma, like apple cider, permeates Shipyard Brewing Co.’s Newbury Street headquarters.

“You are smelling the fermentation taking place. That’s the apple character of the ringwood,” explained Shipyard’s trade brewer Bruce Elam, referring to the unique strand of British yeast Shipyard uses to make English-style ale in America.

Shipyard has made beer in Maine using ringwood yeast for roughly 20 years. The company’s owners say the quality of their product, as well as the growing popularity of so-called craft beers, helped Shipyard grow into one of the nation’s largest breweries.

“It’s all about drinkability, consistency and a balance between the water, malted barley and hops,” said British-born Master Brewer Alan Pugsley, a co-owner who developed Shipyard’s recipes.

“The new American brews are the crafts,” said his business partner, President Fred Forsley, referring to beers made by craft brewers — who produce 6 million barrels of beer or less yearly.

Shipyard, Maine’s largest brewery, makes roughly 98,000 barrels every year. A barrel holds 31 gallons.

The company’s roots stretch to 1992, when Forsley and Pugsley opened Federal Jack’s Restaurant and Brew Pub in Kennebunk, where they brewed their ale. At first, the partners made roughly 1,500 barrels yearly, and much of it was consumed by restaurant patrons.

The launch of the brew pub coincided with the birth of America’s craft beer industry. One of Maine’s first craft brewers was D.L. Geary Brewing Co. in Portland, where Pugsley once worked.

In 1994, Forsley and Pugsley moved their brewery to 86 Newbury St. in Portland, the company’s current headquarters. The 155,000-square-foot building formerly housed a manufacturer of heavy marine equipment, Crosby Laughlin Foundry.

Shipyard’s brewing process takes roughly eight days, and begins with British malted barley — soaked and dried pea-sized cereal grains. The barley is cracked in a mill, producing a grist, which is combined with heated, filtered water. Shipyard’s brewers cook the mixture, called mash, at 148 degrees Fahrenheit for 90 minutes.

The resulting liquid, called “sweet wort,” is boiled in a kettle for one hour with hops before fermenting for three days in one of Shipyard’s open fermentation vessels. During the process, yeast eats sugars, creating alcohol and carbon dioxide.

Elam called the yeast the “superstar” of the production process, and said the brewer’s top job is “to give the yeast the best dining experience.” That means brewers must frequently check the ale’s temperature and gravity — a measure of sugar content.

After fermenting, Shipyard’s ale is cooled to 40 degrees, conditioned for four days, filtered and carbonated. Automated packaging machines fill bottles and kegs for shipping.

Shipyard has some 65 staff and makes about 15 types of beer under the Shipyard brand, including seasonal best-sellers like Summer Ale and Pumpkinhead Ale.

In 2008, Shipyard launched a new series of “big beers” — those with more than 8 percent alcohol by volume. Double Old Thumper ale, for example, has 11.2 percent alcohol by volume.

Supermarkets, specialty beer stores and restaurants in 35 states carry Shipyard, and top markets include Maine and New Hampshire.

Forsley said Shipyard competes with companies that make all types of liquor. His goal is convincing drinkers of wine, hard liquor and other beers to convert to crafts.

Shipyard has acquired other brands, including Sea Dog Brewing Co. and Casco Bay Brewing Co., and makes non-alcoholic Capt’n Eli’s Soda.

Forsley and Pugsley own brew pubs in Maine, the Shipyard Emporium pub near Orlando, Fla., Federal Jacks in Kennebunk and The Inn on Peaks Island.

The company has agreements with HMSHost Corp., which operates Shipyard-branded “Brewports,” including one at the Portland International Jetport. (A pub at the Providence, R.I., airport is slated to open by Memorial Day.)

Shipyard also brews beer for other companies, like Peak Organic Brewing Co. and Gritty McDuff’s Brew Pub. Shipyard brews four beers, including one called Liquid Sunshine, for St. John Brewers in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Kevin Chipman and Chirag Vyas, who co-founded St. John Brewers, partnered with Shipyard in 2004. They said Shipyard was the only Northeast brewery that agreed to make beer using their recipes.

According to Chipman and Vyas, the partnership let them bring New England ale to a market saturated with what Chipman called “typical, light lagers,” like Coors, Bud Light and Heineken.

Chipman said locals and visitors, many of them from the Northeast, are “pleasantly surprised” to find flavorful beers on the islands.

Forsley said drinkers’ excitement over Shipyard beer has never been higher. He said the brand appeals to two generations of drinkers. “Guys our age grew up drinking (Shipyard),” he said. “And college kids don’t know anything but craft beer.”

Pugsley said yearly revenue is about $20 million. He said sales increased 20 percent in 2010 and 20 percent during the first quarter of 2011. That’s up from annual sales of $5 million in 2000, according to an interview Forsley gave The Portland Press Herald at that time.

Rob Tod, founder of Allagash Brewing Co. in Portland, said Maine has become known for excellent beer, and is home to many craft brewers, including D.L. Geary, Bar Harbor Brewing Co. and Atlantic Brewing Co. New entrants include Portland’s Rising Tide Brewing Co. and the Maine Beer Co.

Tod said Maine is a selling point: Consumers associate the state with good times and high-quality, hand-made products.

And Maine’s brewing community is tight; brewers help each other out.

“We broke a part of a grain auger, and (Shipyard) had the part and bailed us out,” said Tod.

According to the Boulder, Colo.-based Brewers Association, Shipyard ranked No. 19 among the nation’s 50 largest craft brewers, based on 2010 sales. The company was 28th on the group’s list of the top 50 U.S. brewers overall. In 2010, there were 1,759 breweries in the United States, including 1,716 craft brewers.

Shipyard’s growth mirrors that of the craft beer industry. The segment’s revenue grew 12 percent in 2010 and 10 percent in 2009. The group puts the 2010 retail value of the industry at $7.6 billion.

Last week, Shipyard received new equipment, including three fermentation tanks, as part of a $1 million expansion that will increase annual brewing capacity from 140,000 barrels to 180,000 barrels, said Pugsley.

The equipment will allow Shipyard to brew five batches daily, up from four, and help the company meet demand during the busy summer season.

Forsley sees growth opportunity in Florida, where craft beers are gaining popularity. Expansion there could keep production at the Portland brewery stable year round. (Currently, production spikes during summer and fall.)

“The real goal is for Mainers to ask for Shipyard in Florida,” said Forsley. “June, July and August are very busy. If we focus on Florida, we can keep everyone employed on a full-time basis.”

In addition to the expansion, Forsley recently announced he is seeking developers and investors to build a convention center, 200- to 300-room hotel and culinary school on Shipyard’s land. He said the structure would be “over and around” the brewery, and that the brewery would remain operational.

“My goal is to propose the site and attract some players,” Forsley explained. “I want to focus on the beer business.”

Staff Writer Jonathan Hemmerdinger can be reached at 791-6316 or:

jhemmerdinger@mainetoday.com