Like life itself, beer is the product of evolution. And while we’d all love to believe that beer is God’s gift to us for putting up with all of his other shit, well, the proof is in the pale ale—beer is as evolutionary a process as it gets. When microbes and gases came together in the primordial stew millions of years ago, life was born as a product of time and place. Now, an evolution of sorts is being facilitated in Ambler, PA, but this time the microbes are locally grown fruits, flowers and yeasts; the primordial stew is a brewpub snuggly outfitted to an old 19th century Victorian home on the corner of Forest and Main Streets. It’s this metamorphosis that can only occur in a particular place that pulled brewers Daniel Endicott and Gerard Olson to beer.
“The thing that draws me to beer, as well as a lot of fermented foods like cheeses and breads, is the transformation process,” Olson said. “Being able to start with one thing, give it some time, let it evolve on its own and watch it transform into something totally different than what you started with. A baguette is totally different then dough; beer is totally different then barley and hops. That transformation is mirrored in drinking it. You eventually get to this intoxicated place and even you are transformed through drinking it.”
Endicott and Olson opened their brewpub, Forest and Main, in 2012. While both are originally from the area—Endicott grew up in Upper Dublin and Olson in Glenside—both took very different paths to get to where they are now. Endicott initially got into home brewing with his brother and quickly became intoxicated by the process. A fan of British ales, he took time to study brewing at The University of Sunderland in England, where he learned how to brew his favorite styles at the source.
“Americans make the process of making beer very difficult,” Endicott said. “Making good English beer is a simple process, or at least it can be and should be. [English brewers] don’t waste any time, they don’t waste any ingredients. That really opened my eyes.”
Meanwhile, Olson took his own homebrew experience and parlayed that into a job at McKenzie Brew House. While working there, Olson got to learn the commercial-side of brewing beer while focusing on saisons. Despite their two distinctive backgrounds, both Olson and Endicott knew that they wanted to use their unique tastes and insights to create something themselves.
“One night we got together and over a beer we just kind of realized, ‘Why don’t we pull our resources together,’” Olson said. “I’m very much into saisons and [Dan’s] very much into British stuff, but I love drinking a cask bitter and Dan loves hoppy saisons. We kind of realized that they both complement each other pretty well.”
In some ways, saisons and British ales couldn’t be more different—saisons like fermenting upward at around 90 degrees and use more fruity yeasts then traditional British beers. However, like the guys brewing the beer, the styles have their similarities despite coming from different places. Many of Forest and Main’s beers are low gravity, very dry and bitter, making them beers that pair well with food. Each beer is adapted from the ale that came before it—an evolution of a handful of styles whose recipes are slowly tweaked by varied yeasts and hops.
Endicott and Olson are proud that many of these raw materials used in their brews are found locally. From local yeast strains to mulberries picked from the backyard, cherries from the neighbors and honey suckle from Olson’s home, it’s the microorganisms living on these fruits and flowers that are being used to ferment big batches of beer.
“Capturing what grows in this area and putting it in our beer is saying that this is the beer that this area wants to make,” Olson said. “Being able to do all of that reflects this sense of place and time. We aren’t trying to engineer the same beer time and time again, especially with a lot of the wild fermentation we do. There are these microbes that do their thing and we hope that they take it to where we had in mind.”
These beers are served in the quaint, if not quirky, Victorian home that Forest & Main calls its headquarters. Walking up to the cozy building, you feel your guard let down by the bright colors and buzzing bees pollenating the nearby flowers that will undoubtedly make their way into a beer sometime down the line. Take a step inside and you’ll see a little bar populated by a dartboard, five taps and three hand pumps.
“The sound of the hand pump takes me back to England and ordering a pint of bitter with your friends,” Endicott said. “They are just beautiful pieces of equipment and the simplest way to serve beer—it’s just a matter of syphoning the beer up from the cellar. There’s something beautiful to that.”
Served warm, cask beer accentuates many of the nuanced flavors that may be masked by carbonation or cold, especially the depth of a beer’s malt character.
“We dry hop the hell out of some of these beers and at a warmer temperature this rich, round flavor opens up,” Olson said. “I think it just fits with the vision we have for this place and the environment where we see people drinking these beers.”
Forest & Main also puts out limited run bottled beers from their cellar. These beers are aged in old wine barrels for a period of time. Local fruits and yeast blends are put into the barrels, adding to the taste put forth by the wood and the other beers that had aged within them.
“We have this crazy microbial vial in our cellar where each beer has a chance to interact with each other,” Olson said. “The beer changes in its primary fermentation, it changes dramatically in the barrel and then in the bottle something really magical happens. We go into it with that end product in mind and choose the right barrels for them to go into—barrels have their own personalities too. The real fun is deciding when to pull it out of the cellar, blend it, bottle it and then allow another evolution to take place in there.”
While their recipes and beer list are undergoing constant changes, Endicott and Olsen don’t see their brewpub evolving all too much outside of their barrels, bottles and what they find in their backyards. They’ve come to embrace the small-scale, community-oriented operation—their own cradle of life spurred on by a new Big Bang each time a new batch of beer is brewed.
“We don’t want to be this big national or regional brewery, because then you have to make the same stuff consistently and meet deadlines for distributors,” Olson said. “Here we can do things on our time, brew beers that we want to make and serve them in this place.”