Narragansett Beer is Back
The century-old company is brewing in Rhode Island once again.
Devin Kelly and Jeremy Duffy of Isle Brewers Guild and Mark Hellendrung of Narragansett Beer.
Photography by Michael Cevoli
(page 1 of 2)
Jeremy Duffy is leading a grand tour of Rhode Island’s future beer mecca, Isle Brewers Guild (IBG).
The “craft cooperative” — a full-service brewery and taproom and “food and beverage campus” — is a sprawling, multi-building, 130,000-square-foot complex at 461 Main Street in Pawtucket. It’s also the new home of Narragansett Beer, which will make its long-awaited return to being brewed in Rhode Island.
There’s a lot to take in during the walk-through at the Guild, as the complex will be known, and the tall, bespectacled Duffy is clearly eager to share the scope of his ambitious venture. He enters an expansive area that bustles with activity. “Six months ago, there would have been ten separate rooms here,” Duffy says. Now the space is being converted into the packaging hall, filled with two brite tanks and multimillion-dollar canning and keg packaging lines from Italy and Belgium.
Stepping outside past the loading dock, Duffy points to the long structure that will be the site of a beer hall on the first level and a second floor mezzanine. He then strides into a courtyard that will host beer festivals, plus music, food and arts events. It will be a destination where “people can walk around, have a pint and enjoy the moment,” he says.
Then we reach the core of the IBG — the vast brewhouse — where the beer will be produced. “This is a special building,” Duffy marvels. The expanse has gone through a remarkable transformation in the last few weeks. It is filled with sunbeams from skylights that run the length of the ceiling and the newly-installed windows in the wall that face Main Street. The 10,000-square-foot space is being fitted with the first wave of equipment for the 100-barrel, four-vessel brewing system: a giant lauter tun (which processes grain), mash tun and towering fermentation tanks that were custom-built in Oregon. The aroma of beer in the making will soon permeate the air.
The Guild’s upper level in the back half of the room is bordered by a mezzanine, which will host beer events. Outside the brewhouse, a foundation has been laid for grain silos that extend above the roofline (the spent grain will be given to local farmers). Duffy notes that when the Guild opens by late-February or early March, a temporary taproom will be located in the brewhouse; the full-fledged, 6,000-square-foot beer hall is slated to open in early 2018.
Attractions and business opportunities — and an educational component, to further beer enlightenment and know-how — will be housed in the rest of the campus. “We’re looking at food manufacturing, beverage manufacturing, retail space,” Duffy says. “We want to be associated with as many Rhode Island companies as possible.
“It’s going to be pretty spectacular.”
Since 2011, ten craft breweries have opened in Rhode Isand and three more will open their doors this year. They’ll join the bigger mainstays of Trinity Brewhouse, Union Station Brewery, Coddington, Newport Storm and Mohegan Cafe and Brewery, all of which came along in the ’90s. All of the businesses have expanded their production and many have widened their distribution since entering the market. Local beer makers are also bolstering the state’s coffers; in 2014, craft brewers’ economic impact was $160 million, according to the Brewers Association.
The heart of the beer experience is the joy of sharing ephemeral potions with fellow enthusiasts, and the pleasure is enhanced when the beer is savored at the places where it was made and when it is poured by the artisans who made it. Beer lovers flock to destinations statewide to soak up the atmosphere, from the rustic namesake structure at Tilted Barn in Exeter to the historic Westerly home that Grey Sail transformed into a taproom (with bocce court and beer garden) next to their brewhouse, to the rec room vibe in the laidback spaces at Revival in Cranston and Whaler’s in Wakefield. The craft beer surge evokes the maxim: “If you brew it, they will come.”
And there is about to be much more beer flowing from the state with the opening of IBG, which has plans that go beyond being just a brewery.
Isle Brewers Guild was conceived by Duffy, partner of the public relations firm Duffy and Shanley, which worked on the re-launch of Narragansett Beer in 2005 (he left the company in 2013 to focus on IBG), and Devin Kelly, who spent more than ten years with InBev, the Belgium-based brewing behemoth that bought Anheuser-Busch in 2008. He was also a partner at Dynamic Bicycles and former global president at LaserPerformance, a sailboat manufacturer best known for the Sunfish.
Four years ago, the partners were drawn by “this amazing explosion of craft beer,” Duffy says. Sales were “growing 15 to 20 percent year-after-year and we saw it as an opportunity...to help craft brewers get to the next level.”
The number of breweries in the United States grew from eight in 1980 to 537 in 1994; from 1,447 in 2005 to 2,033 in 2011 — and has soared to an all-time United States high of 5,005 (as of November 30), with an average of two new breweries opening daily and more than 2,000 in the planning stages.
Duffy notes that the IBG concept takes “a 360-degree approach to the industry,” providing comprehensive production — from brewing to canning and kegging to taproom sales — for companies seeking to boost their supply to meet an ever-increasing demand. “We started talking to brewers, we started talking to investors, we started talking to the state and it snowballed from there,” Kelly says.
The business model differs from the usual contract brewing arrangement, in which a large brewery rents its facility to a smaller company that doesn’t have its own beer-making operation (as Narragansett Beer did since its revival), though most contractors are wholly engaged in the recipe-planning process. Duffy stresses that IBG will become the brewers’ facility and that it is “a partnership brewery. [Some] contract situations would almost hide it like a dirty secret,” he says. “In a partnership model, the walls come down and the brewmaster is completely involved with the process. A lot of these brewers have equity positions in the companies, so they can actually say they own it as well.”
In March 2015, IBG was on the verge of closing the deal on the first planned home of their venture — at Kinsley and Sims avenues in Providence — when a four-alarm fire ravaged the building.
“We were about three weeks away from owning it,” Duffy says. “Within a week of the fire, multiple mayors reached out to us, including Pawtucket Mayor Don Grebien. We sat down with him right away and they identified this building as one we should look at. This happened so quickly and worked out so well that it was a no-brainer. The city of Pawtucket has been incredible to deal with. They couldn’t be better partners.”
The Guild will augment Pawtucket’s status as the de facto craft beer hub in Rhode Island. It’s the home of Foolproof, Bucket and Crooked Current breweries. And the IBG crew notes that the superb quality of the city’s water supply, which was improved by a treatment facility installed in 2008, will enhance the company’s beermaking.
The property, formerly known as the Kellaway Center, was the home of the William Haskell Manufacturing Company, one of the oldest nut-and-bolt factories in the country for more than a century, and was later transformed into a transportation hub. It was purchased for $1.25 million; the total cost of the endeavor is about $12 million. The IBG’s funding came from a combination of loans (including $2.8 million from the United States Small Business Administration and $500,000 from two Pawtucket agencies), bonds ($4 million from the Rhode Island Industrial Facilities Corporation, which is part of the state’s Commerce Corporation), and private equity investors (including Duffy and Kelly).
“We’re thrilled that Isle Brewers Guild chose to ‘Join the Evolution’ here in Pawtucket,” Grebien says, citing the city’s forward-thinking slogan. “With a commuter rail stop planned just two blocks away, we expect continued growth that will build on the vision that the IBG is helping develop.” The IBG will employ about twenty workers in its first months of operation.
At press time, IBG was waiting to finalize “upwards of four additional relationships”; aside from Narragansett, only one other partner had been officially announced: Newburyport Brewing, which was founded in Massachusetts in 2012 by Chris Webb and Bill Fisher.
“We haven’t been able to keep up with demand since the day we opened our brewery,” Webb says. “We’re fired up to be part of the Rhode Island brewing community,” Fisher added. Newburyport started distributing its beers in Rhode Island in October; they recently extolled the promise of their partnership with IBG in an ad in BeerAdvocate; the headline proclaimed “Good Times Ahead.”
In the first stage, the IBG has the capacity to brew up to 60,000 barrels of beer a year (equivalent to more than 825,000 cases); the second phase will yield up to 100,000 barrels, and maximum capacity will reach 150,000 barrels. The beer will be packaged in cans — at a rate of 250 twelve-ouncers or 180 sixteen-ouncers per minute — and kegs. The production team, featuring hires from Harpoon, Boston Beer Works and Stony Creek, is led by Jack Streich, vice president of brewing operations, who helmed the tanks at Commonwealth Brewing Company and was a consultant for other Northeast startups.
But it’s what comes out of those stainless steel tanks, produced by the industry veterans, that will be the main attraction at the Guild, whose taps will be dedicated to the brews made in-house.
“Craft [breweries] tend to be more experiential,” Kelly says. “We want it to be a destination. The opportunity to meet the brewmaster and be part of the brewery experience is something that’s really come into its own in the last three or four years. Before that it was a nice little sidebar — now it’s the focus. It’s like going to a restaurant with a bunch of master chefs and being able to sample their wares. In our case, you have four or five brewmasters and they’re the celebrities.”
Last April, Mark Hellendrung, the president of Narragansett Beer, wrote: “It is with great pride that we announce that ’Gansett is finally coming home.”
But before we get to the happy ending, let’s go back to the beginning of the tale. On December 29, 1890, the Narragansett Brewing Company opened for business in Cranston (on what is now Route 10 in the area stretching from Texas Roadhouse to the Cranston Police Department).
The brewery, founded by six German-Americans, had the distinction of specializing in the production of lager rather than the darker ales that were common at the time (’Gansett added ales in 1898). Drinkers embraced the smoother drinking style and by 1914, it was the biggest brewery in New England. It eked out the years of Prohibition thanks to its ice-making plant and the production of near-beer.
After the eighteenth amendment was repealed in 1933, the Haffenreffer family bought ’Gansett and began a series of expansions and acquisitions of nearby breweries. The brand’s profile was powered by savvy marketing, featuring illustrations of Chief ’Gansett by Theodor Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, and animated TV ads voiced by Mike Nichols and Elaine May; the brew was the primary sponsor of Boston Red Sox broadcasts and its “Hi, Neighbor, have a ’Gansett!” tagline, immortalized by play-by-play man Curt Gowdy, captured its easygoing essence. From the mid-’50s to the late ’60s, ’Gansett accounted for about 65 percent of beer sales in New England.
At its peak in the mid-’60s, ’Gansett employed more than 850 workers, including salesman — and future Rhode Island governor — J. Joseph Garrahy. By all accounts, the brewery was a workers’ paradise, with a unique and enviable fringe benefit: employees could drink the fruits — or, the hops, malt, yeast and water — of their labor on the job. The bubblers (a.k.a. water fountains) actually had beer flowing from them.
But the brand’s reputation — and market share — quickly faded after ’Gansett was sold to the Falstaff Brewing Company in 1965. Bill Anderson, who was ’Gansett’s brewmaster from 1967 to 1975, told Lauren Clark, author of Crafty Bastards: Beer In New England from the Mayflower to Modern Day, that the new execs “bit off more than they could chew. They weren’t brewers. They were just looking for paychecks.”