A Conversation with Rhode Island Brewers Guild Executive Director Nils Weldy
The first full-time director of the state's brewing advocacy group talks Rhode Island brewery tourism, legislative barriers and his lifelong search for the greatest IPA.
A lot has changed since the Rhode Island Brewers Guild first set up shop in 2013 advocating for craft breweries in Rhode Island. At the time, the state’s beer scene consisted of five breweries, and customers had few opportunities to engage with brewers in the taproom setting that’s commonplace today. The guild itself was an all-volunteer group of brewery owners, including former Newport Craft president Brent Ryan, pressing the General Assembly to change Rhode Island’s brewing laws to get more local beer into consumers’ hands.
“In 2023, Rhode Island boasts thirty-seven breweries and a guild representing them with paid staff. It’s hard to come up with another trade organization that has had such a huge impact on Rhode Island in such a small period of time,” Ryan says.
Now, the guild has marked another major milestone in growing Rhode Island’s craft beer scene: In a move announced last month, the group is hiring its first full-time executive director to advocate on behalf of the state’s breweries. The new director replaces Gary Richardson, who is retiring from the role after serving as part-time director of the RIBG for the past five years.
“We are forever grateful for the years of dedication that Gary Richardson provided as the leader of our guild. His service to our industry has helped elevate every brewery in our state” says Matt Gray, owner of Ragged Island Brewing Company and RIBG president.
Replacing Richardson is Nils Weldy, a Rhode Island native who previously served as executive director of the Charlotte Independent Brewers Alliance in Charlotte, North Carolina. He returned to the area last year after spending close to two decades working in sales for sports teams and organizing the Queen City Brewers Festival under his event company, Nils Weldy and Associates. During his time as head of the CIBA, the organization increased its membership from twelve to forty-four breweries and added eighteen associated members from the industry. Weldy had his first big introduction to the Rhode Island brewing scene during the Newport Beer Festival on April 29.
I sat down with Weldy for coffee recently at Farm Fresh RI’s Harvest Kitchen in Pawtucket to learn more about his background and goals for the RIBG. We chatted about everything from Charlotte’s bustling craft beer scene to Rhode Island brewing laws to his favorite breweries in the state. (Hint: He’s a Rhode Islander, so he doesn’t like to travel far from his home in Cranston.)
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Tell us a little bit about how you got involved in the craft beer scene.
I moved from Boston to work for the Charlotte Bobcats in 2007. It was after about three seasons of working for that team that a lightbulb kind of went off in my mind. At the time, there was one really big, very good craft beer fest in Charlotte. And that was in the fall, Charlotte Oktoberfest. It occurred to me, why is there not something in the spring?
I started my career at the Garden in Boston selling for the Bruins and all the family shows there, and then got this role in Charlotte. It was a corporate partnerships role. This was [after] nearly seven or eight years of selling and learning about arena events. I thought I’d like to organize my own. I’d seen how our presentation team did things, I’d learned a lot about marketing and sales and put it all together. So I started my own marketing and event production company and started with the emerging craft beer industry. I learned very quickly to do a large-scale event, you need a good bit of capital just to get it produced. So I said, ‘Let’s just start with the breweries that are here. Just the local breweries.’ And at the time there were eight in Charlotte. And we were at this really cool music venue in NoDa, which is the arts district in Charlotte. We packed it. It was two sessions, about 300 or so guests at each session. I priced the ticket very low because I wanted to sell all the tickets. It was the right call, because it brought the community together, which is so key, and that’s very much what this event, Queen City Brewers Festival, kind of served as: a gathering of all the local breweries to come together.
I also learned that there’s so much going on in Charlotte in the springtime. This event is always held on Super Bowl Saturday, the day before the Super Bowl. This festival kind of kicks off the year. People get together. It’s such a beer-centric weekend with football and great food, and this falls so in line with that. It’s such a great recipe. I’ve since passed the baton on to one of my longtime volunteers.
When did you take over as executive director of the Charlotte Independent Brewers Alliance?
It was 2017. That’s when one of the brewery owners that I’d been working with for years as a festival participant asked me to come to one of these alliance meetings just to check it out. And little did I know I was put on the spot at the meeting when they realized they needed an executive director to help get them organized and start achieving the stuff that they’ve been talking about for quite a while.
Are you from Rhode Island originally? Do you have roots here?
I grew up in Barrington. Went to the University of Vermont and then Boston, very much that kind of traditional track that a lot of Rhode Islanders do. Went to middle and high school in Barrington. I was in the business school at UVM. Wish I had focused on marketing instead of management information systems, which I did nothing with. That was such a great experience. That was my first real taste of craft beer, when Magic Hat was right down the street from campus.
That must have been a cool place to be in the beginnings of that.
Totally. And if you’re familiar with that brand, just how out there it is, and just how much it stood out from everything else on the shelves, to have their ownership come and talk to our marketing classes about differentiation and product placement and partnerships, that really opened up my eyes that wow, this is a multifaceted business that has a lot of tentacles to it.
And that was probably before the whole taproom beer tasting thing had really taken off, right?
Sure. I would go there with growlers and get those filled. What a difference that was. It was so fresh and it was so delicious, that really opened up my eyes to what beer should be. And just how different it was to Bud Light, Coors Light, Miller Lite. And to put a face and a personality behind the beer just completed that whole picture for me.
I would say it was the beer tasting festivals in Boston that I went to that I missed so much living in Charlotte that really sparked the interest in getting involved in the industry. That was, to me, that ‘aha moment.’ You just poured me a taste of your IPA and you’re the one who made it. And that connection was so powerful that I became an instant fan and a loyal consumer.
What brought you back to Rhode Island?
It’s something we had debated for so long. We thought, ‘Let’s do Charlotte just to shake things up, two, three years, we’ll be back in New England.’ That turned into fifteen years and three kids. All our family’s here, we were the only outliers with the exception of my oldest brother who lives in Berlin. We weren’t super psyched with the schools where we were living, so we knew that we had to move to a better school district, and my wife and I looked at each other and said, ‘Hey, if we’re going to move, let’s make the move.’ A combination of quality schools and family being here was what prompted us to make the move.
How did the craft beer scene in Charlotte compare to what we have in Rhode Island?
It’s very similar. Even the size, the geography of it all. The Charlotte Independent Brewers Alliance, CIBA, that was Mecklenburg County, where Charlotte is, and then the contiguous counties around it. That whole geography was very much what you would see from Woonsocket to Newport. And the number was very similar too. We had forty-four participating members, there’s roughly forty here.
Now the thing is to learn, ‘What’s working for you. What are the challenges? What are the goals and objectives you’re trying to achieve, and how can we do that as an industry?’ I’m in that phase right now. I don’t think I’ve visited quite half of the breweries in the state, but close to it, so I have a little work to do in that regard.
What have you found so far in terms of challenges and immediate goals?
I think the biggest learning curve for me will be to understand what are some legislative barriers that are prohibiting growth or aspirations and ideas. And how can we solve for those and make it as advantageous as possible for you as a brewery owner to succeed?
I’m curious, what were the laws in Charlotte around serving beverages that weren’t made on site at the brewery? Depending on their license, many Rhode Island breweries are restricted to serving products they make on site, so it can be hard to find beverages other than beer and the occasional seltzer. That’s a huge factor for me as a consumer deciding where I want to drink, because I have a boyfriend and a mother who don’t drink beer, so depending on who I have with me that day, breweries can be a hard sell.
Guest taps were very common [in Charlotte]. Breweries would usually have the local cider on tap as well for those who were more cider-oriented, or certainly they had wine available.
I’ve seen that in other states as well. I spend a lot of time in New Hampshire, where it’s more common to see wine at breweries.
If I’m Linesider or one of those brewery-only taprooms, I’ve just missed out on your party of four or whatever it might be. Or am I thinking, maybe we consider making a seltzer or a hop tea or maybe wine. Making wine is a bit of an endeavor, and that probably has more permitting to go along.
I’ve seen people talking about this a lot on social media with Narragansett in Providence. If you try to order a classic Narragansett lager at the Narragansett Brewery in Rhode Island, you can’t get it. If the laws were changed, who knows if they’d even want to serve it — they might be trying to steer people toward their more experimental beers — but it’s that irony of there are these popular products that they’re making in New York that they’re mass marketing like the lager and the hard teas, but they can’t serve them in Providence.
Let’s have a conversation. Is that a disservice to the consumer? Is that going to prohibit more tap room visitors, business growth, tourism? How does it affect all those things and why? I think those are the conversations that need to be had.
What are your initial impressions of the Rhode Island beer scene?
It seems to be very well trafficked. I noticed that. I visit Proclamation on Thursdays because my daughter has an acrobatics class right down the street, and it’s jammed for trivia every single Thursday. I think Rhode Islanders in general are very habit drive and that’s my impression: It’s routine to go out on a Thursday night for trivia. I would argue and imagine that’s the same thing in Newport, Portsmouth, Pawtucket. Rhode islanders just have those routines and habits. I’m curious how much interstate traveling there is to the different breweries, or is it very much ‘This is my wheelhouse, this is my routine, I’m sticking to the breweries in my domain.’ Because that is very much what ended up happening in Charlotte with the proliferation of breweries. With more and more brewery density in pockets of the city, people would just continue to circle and cycle through those versus going thirty minutes away and trying the new guys up there.
As more and more breweries get established here, will it be very pocket driven, and how can we change that? Because I feel Rhode Island is one of the very few states where you can conquer it in a long weekend when it comes to visiting its breweries. And how can we make that more known and appealing? Is it maybe pulling some levers on the brewery passport or the challenges and incentives that go with that? I’m not sure yet. But I think it’s also just getting to know those breweries. What are their personalities. How are they telling their story through their beer?
Have you identified any favorites yet in Rhode Island?
I’m such an IPA fan. I’m on a perpetual search for the greatest IPA. I really like Proclamation because they’re pretty close. I’m living in the Garden City neighborhood for the time being as we’re house hunting. Buttonwoods, too. It’s those that are very close.
That’s the thing about Rhode Island. We joke in that we’re a tiny state and we don’t leave our individual towns.
That’s why it’s so important the storytelling that you’re doing to get to know the personalities behind the brewery, too. Getting to know the brewery owners — oftentimes it’s husband-wife. I just think those are such cool entrepreneur stories. I’ll quote Jen [Brinton] from Grey Sail — “Rhode Islanders love supporting Rhode Islanders.” So getting to know these stories, their beers, their taprooms, I just want it to be top of mind. I just want beer to be top of mind when you think of Rhode Island. That’s my overall goal.
In Charlotte, it was such the thing to do. It’s a very young, professional, disposable income market, but that is so ingrained as to the thing to do on weekends is go brewery hopping. They’re so welcoming and hospitable, the service is great, the product is really good, and so much of what the breweries there are doing is contributing to the community by donating event space or holding fundraisers, donating product, you name it. They are such community hubs. There’s always something going on for the betterment of the community at these hub taprooms. They’re such a part of the fabric of Charlotte. Beyond its prowess as a financial hub, breweries are so authentic that they really are your opportunity to get a taste of the culture by visiting the breweries when you’re in town for business. And boy have they capitalized.
Do you think Rhode Island’s breweries are at that point yet where it’s a cultural thing?
I think that’s where I’d like it to be. That’s a goal, is to make its breweries as much of the culture as tourism, sailing, the ocean and vacationing. Make sure that you include its breweries while you’re here. Which I think brewery tourism is such a thing already. ‘Hey listen, we’re nearing forty breweries here, you don’t have to travel far to find one, and that’s just a must-do while you’re in town.’
I think Narragansett, being the big flagship beer of Rhode Island, has done a good job of marketing themselves and associating themselves with that culture, but beyond that I don’t know how many of the small breweries are really known outside their little niche of Rhode Island.
Whalers, too. Rise APA seems to be the flagship beer of Rhode Island, and Narragansett in the same breath. From what I’ve gathered, too, there is a strong sense of camaraderie among the whole brewery scene, which is so important. And that’s where the guild comes in, to collaborate and commiserate together. It provides such as important sense of connectivity, and I think that’s so cool when the guild comes together at its events. I think that’s its most natural way to connect with its consumers.
What are your goals for the Rhode Island Brewers Guild specifically? Do you envision different ways to engage the breweries?
The good thing is there’s a fair amount that’s already in place — the Newport Beer Fest, the Ocean State Beer Fest. Rhode Island Craft Beer Week is very new. I think there’s opportunity for that. We were trying to emulate in Charlotte what Tampa was doing, or Philadelphia, or San Diego with these well-established beer weeks where people would travel from across the country because the events were so unique, the beer releases were so rare that you didn’t want to miss it, and it was such a cool gathering. I’d love to see Rhode Island Craft Beer Week become its own destination.
It’s interesting to hear you talk about the idea of making Rhode Island a destination for beer. To my knowledge, there’s not a whole lot of marketing of Rhode Island as a beer destination.
Right. That’s just the line of thinking. Which taproom are we meeting at for those key meetings with constituents or visitors from out of state? Be sure to grab your lobster roll somewhere, but make sure you wash it down with local beer.
I think you’re coming into Rhode Island at a really exciting time, especially in Providence with the redevelopment around the I-195 land. When I came back home from college in 2015 and got my first job downtown, I used to go on walks on my lunch break through what we called the parking lot district. It felt like people talked and talked for years about what we’re going to do with this land. Now all of a sudden, it’s exploding. So that’s exciting to see and think about how breweries can fit into that. Can we see a downtown brewery, or is downtown too expensive for breweries? Is something like the Farm Fresh RI building on Sims Avenue a better venue for that?
And from what I gather, there’s a pretty healthy event circuit, especially in that Providence River area. We went to the Ocean State Oyster Festival back in the fall, and that was really cool. I’d like to see more of a beer presence at events like that. Complementing large-scale, city-organized events with a Rhode Island Brewers Guild tent with a variety of breweries, maybe some from Woonsocket and Westerly and so on. Let’s bring beer to you.
I like that idea of the Rhode Island Brewers Guild tent where multiple breweries could participate. The only place I’ve seen something like that is at the Big E.
That’s something we did in Charlotte, we got a twenty-by-ten branded tent. It was super loud, you couldn’t miss it. And if it was a larger event, here’s a way to get half a dozen breweries that are not in the immediate area to engage with customers that wouldn’t normally visit their taproom.
Is there anything else that you wanted to share with the brewery community and Rhode Island beer drinkers?
The Rhode Island Brewers Guild isn’t necessarily a brand, it’s more of an engine, it’s an advocacy and promotional and communications vehicle. So the story will always be about its members, and that’s how you are going to connect and interface with Rhode Island breweries is through those brands. It’s kind of that layer behind the scenes. Sure, I want you to know about the Rhode Island Brewers Guild, but how are you going to know about them? Come to Newport Beer Fest, come to Ocean State Beer Fest, seek out beer made here. I think that’s my overall goal. I want the beer scene here to be as top of mind and as prevalent as possible so that when you’re thinking about where to have your niece’s three-year-old birthday party — that was so common to see in Charlotte as well, but also family gatherings, business meetings, reunions, alumni events — the most authentic place to do that, in my opinion, is in a taproom.
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