By the time you read this, Narragansett Beer will have officially resumed brewing operations in Rhode Island after nearly 40 years. In that time, the company changed hands repeatedly, its flagship lager was watered down beyond recognition and its heyday was all but forgotten until in 2005, Mark Hellendrung bought the brand with a vision of restoring it to its former glory and, hopefully someday, to Rhode Island. Riding the second big wave of craft beer enthusiasm, ‘Gansett cashed in on its deep, local roots and burgeoning hipster cred by bringing back the lager everyone’s uncle and grandpa remembered watching a Sox game with and putting it side-by-side with exciting new craft brews. Each tallboy sold brought the prodigal pint a little closer to Rhode Island and finally, after partnering with the Isle Brewers Guild, ‘Gansett came home.
It’s About Time
It’s still a couple of weeks until the fittingly named It’s About Time IPA will be put into production when Narragansett’s community and marketing events manager BJ Mansuetti shows me around the new brewery in Pawtucket. Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop” is booming through the space, which seems appropriate. Shiny new hardware, empty save for the promise of beer production returning to the Ocean State, stand ready to be put to use.
“We called it Tanksgiving,” he says of what for him and Narragansett president Hellendrung was the moment when it all felt real. “The day before Thanksgiving all of the tanks showed up. To finally see the equipment was the day that I really understood how far we’d come. It was finally coming together.”
That equipment includes a 100-barrel tank and four 300-barrel tanks, with three more on the way. Though not enough to mass produce their mascot lager – which will continue to be contract brewed out of the North American Breweries in Rochester, New York – it’s enough to get their craft lines up and running in the 401.
“One of my favorite expressions is ‘How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time,’” says Hellendrung. “So we’re taking our first big bite here with our craft stuff.”
In addition to It’s About Time, which Mansuetti describes as malt forward “old school” IPA, ‘Gansett will be brewing its popular Lovecraft series, Town Beach IPA, Summertime Citra Ale and a yet to be announced series of craft beers under its Pawtucket roof. Experimentation with their craft lines is going to take off at the new brewery thanks to a small, ten barrel brew system, which will give them the kind of creative flexibility they’ve never had before. Instead of creating a new beer, sending it to Rochester and tasting it for the first time when customers do, they’ll be able to tinker with recipes and perfect new beers in small batches.
Over the next five years, they’ll be taking additional bites out of moving more of their production back home as the facility continues to expand, with the hope of someday bringing some lager production – and the 4500 gallon tanks required for it – to Pawtucket.
There were a couple of dark decades for Narragansett. The brewery in Cranston was closed in 1981 and production had been moved out of state. The brand changed hands several times before Hellendrung purchased the company from Pabst in 2005, at which point production had been slashed to a mere 5,000 barrels a year exclusively for distribution in Rhode Island. Of course the real crime was what had happened to the lager over those 20 years.
“It was like a cheap, college kid beer,” says Hellendrung. “No one’s drinking that when they’re 40. But that’s what it was, and to change that impression for those older guys was really hard.”
Some of the old timers, who Hellendrung had expected to welcome the company back with open arms, felt burned. Meanwhile, a new generation of drinkers that he thought he’d have to win over were primed for ‘Gansett’s return thanks to the craft beer boom happening in the mid-2000s.
“The younger guys really got into the story and appreciated the quality of the beer,” he explains. “They love the craft stuff we do and the really unique things we can do by bringing the past to life in a more modern way.”
Of course not every Rhodie who remembered ‘Gansett’s heyday had turned their back on the beer. The company’s roots run deep in the community, and there were plenty of folks who grew up with the brand, or who had family members with fond memories of working at the old brewery.
“Peoples’ grandfathers, uncles and dads are still telling stories about their time working at the brewery and enjoying Red Sox games with ‘Gansett,” says Mansuetti. “When we came back we tried to connect new and old and it’s been really good to us. It’s special to be back and have that support from the state.”
Mansuetti beams when he talks about the 1890 Room, a planned museum space dedicated to the company’s history. It will be a place dedicated not just to Narragansett, but the community as well, a place where you can trace the lineage from the lager your grandparents remembered to the one you might be drinking now.
The Nuts and Bolts
But it won’t just be ‘Gansett’s suds calling these Pawtucket tanks home. The brewery, which occupies the Kellaway Center on Main Street, is a groundbreaking approach to collaborative beer making. Narragansett has partnered with the Isle Brewers Guild, which seeks to fill a need in the ever-growing craft beer world. Guild founders Jeremy Duffy and Devin Kelly saw that with an average annual growth of 15% in the craft beer industry, the little guys making waves in the craft brew world were running up against logistical walls.
“With much success comes many business problems,” says Duffy. “You get craft breweries hitting capacity issues, which is sort of the number one reason why we’re here, but then there were human resource issues, capital issues… that’s where the partnership brewery concept came in.”
The idea is simple: craft brewers keep doing what they do and the Guild will provide the tanks, the manpower and the quality control to help them meet demand. They become the behind-the-scenes guys while the individual brands get to put their product in the spotlight. Narragansett was the first brewery to partner with the Guild, and will call the Pawtucket brewery their primary facility. Others, like Newburyport Brewing Company out of Newburyport, MA, Farmer Willie’s and Devil’s Purse Brewing Company, both from Cape Cod, will call Pawtucket their secondary facility, a place where they can meet the demands of their expanding market territories.
“Conceptually, we’re bringing the quality control, automation and technical ability that allows the breweries and their brewmasters to bring their brands to scale,” explains Kelly. “We over compensate on the quality control side and offer more options than they would typically have in their home operations. That way we can ensure that we’re putting out the beer that they want to put out.”
The facility, which is expecting to produce 60,000 barrels annually in its first year, will be more of a campus than a brewery. In addition to the brew house, storage and packaging areas, there will be a 5,500 square foot beer hall, spaces for two or three restaurants, an outdoor beer garden and educational spaces. Throw in the fact that all of this is happening just two blocks away from the MBTA commuter rail stop heading to Pawtucket and it’s easy to see the potential in this being another jewel in Rhode Island’s food industry crown.
To get to that point will still take a bit of fermenting. In the meantime, there’s that first, locally brewed ‘Gansett to look forward to. Welcome home, neighbor.