PROVIDENCE — Narragansett, a quintessential Rhode Island beer, has made a big comeback since Brown University graduate and Rumford, Rhode Island, native Mark Hellendrung revived it a decade and a half ago. But except for some local batches here and there, it’s mostly made up in Rochester, New York.
But it’s about to make a big move back into Rhode Island: Its new brewery on Tockwotton Street in Providence is set to open Memorial Day weekend. They’ll be able to brew 10,000 barrels a year — a tenth of what they make in Rochester, but still a substantial amount for the company’s ancestral home. What’s more, they’ll have a taproom and outdoor patio space along a picturesque stretch of waterfront where people can come in and have a ‘Gansett.
“The beer is going to be good, the view is going to be outstanding, and the crowds are going to be great,” Hellendrung, Narragansett’s president and CEO, said.
The beer-making operation is already humming, with big tanks to brew the beer and others to ferment it, including some specially made for lagers. During a tour of the brewery with Hellendrung, head brewer Lee Lord, and operations and production manager Tony Barber, stacks of kegs sat in the loading dock area waiting to be filled. They’re already selling beer-to-go and have had a few small seatings right near that loading dock.
The taproom is still a work in progress — its mostly a big empty space right now — but Hellendrung can already see it all: The bar, the high-tops, the pipes bringing fresh beer down to the taps. Outside they’ll have patio space and a railing with 30 chairs. The decorations will come later.
“It was a promise I made in the beginning,” Hellendrung said. “It took longer than I expected.”
Hellendrung was working for Nantucket Nectars when the company was bought by Snapple. A Rhode Islander through and through, he did not want to move to White Plains, New York. Around that time he was at Cappy’s, a bar in Newport, and couldn’t decide what to have. A guy at the end of the bar said: Get a ‘Gansett.
He didn’t even know it was still around. First launched in Providence in 1890 by German immigrants, the beer had its heyday in the middle of the 20th century. But it was “basically dead” in the early aughts after a troubled acquisition in the 1970s.
Everyone at the bar Hellendrung was at had a memory about the beer, perhaps best known for its star turn in the movie “Jaws,” when grizzled shark hunter Quint crushed the can. Hellendrung knew at that moment, as he sipped that beer, that there was an opportunity.
It’s come a long way since Hellendrung acquired it from Pabst, its recipe changed to something closer to the original, and its marketing — Hi, Neighbor! — revived.
The past year has been a challenge, though. The restaurant and bar side of the business, which accounts for about 40 percent, got crushed in the pandemic, especially because their sales are mostly concentrated in the hard-hit and more-restricted northeast. Liquor stores helped buoy their fortunes, though, so they were only down about 15 percent overall, Hellendrung said.
Now they’re getting closer to normal. And soon they’ll the Tockwotton Street location where people can have a ‘Gansett that’s fresh out of the vats. The building used to belong to Brown University, which used it for storage space. Hellendrung has more expansion ideas down the road: a roof deck, or an area where they’ll have historical artifacts. Some artifacts still remain, like the roughly century-old rake (to mix the mash) that was once used to brew the beer in Rhode Island.
The last time it was brewed in substantial quantities in Rhode Island was in the early 1980s, before the operation moved to Indiana, resulting in hundreds of local layoffs.
Now, Hellendrung is looking to hire about 12 people in Providence. The full opening of the brewery will coincide with further relaxations of Rhode Island’s COVID business restrictions. On May 28, the Friday of Memorial Day weekend, indoor dining will be allowed to reopen at 100 percent capacity, with three feet of distancing. Bars will also be able to reopen for standing service.
They’ll concentrate on specialty beers in Providence, recipes like Lord’s dragon fruit sour. They’re thinking up cream ales and porters, a fruited sour ale for Pride Month, an unfiltered Zwickel lager, and a brew called Musik Express, which they describe as “a balanced, fruity IPA that will transport drinkers to the iconic ride at Rocky Point Park.” The ones that are popular at the Providence brewery might eventually make their way into mass production.
Lord is new to Narragansett. About 10 years ago, she was an English major and was pursuing nursing school when she and some friends started brewing their own beer. She liked it. So she went to a local brewery and asked if she could do some work there. They said sure, and handed her a mop.
From there she has worked her way up to become the head brewer at Narragansett, and on Wednesday, she was carefully checking the brewing of a new batch of a sour.
A few vats away, one of the first beers they made in Providence is just about finished. A Bohemian pilsner, it is fresh when drunk right out of the vat and, like the original lager, very straightforward, a beer for people who like beer, made in Rhode Island.
“It’s a pretty big deal,” Lord said, “to bring Narragansett back home.”