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Legacy beers are finding new life beside craft brews

For New Englanders of a certain generation, a hearty “Hi neighbor!” from former Red Sox broadcaster Curt Gowdy elicits memories of sticky summer nights and frosty beer. “It has straight from the barrel taste,” the retired jingle goes. “Have a ’Gansett. Narragansett lager beer.”

At its peak in the late 1960s, Narragansett beer had a 65 percent New England market share. By 2005 the brand was in tatters. Today Narragansett and other legacy brands — Pabst Blue Ribbon, Haffenreffer, and Schlitz — are finding new life beside craft brews.

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Current Narragansett CEO Mark Hellendrung was working for Nantucket Nectars about 10 years ago when he decided it was worthwhile reviving ’Gansett. “We saw great regional beers still thriving,” says Hellendrung. “I thought New England was a place that deserved to have its beer back.” Customers seem grateful. Narragansett expects to sell just under 1 million cases this year.

But these impressive figures have come with challenges. Hellendrung has found himself shopping his beer door-to-door to liquor stores on the Cape. “Fifteen years ago people were loyal to one beer and maybe two beers,” he says. “Today it’s totally different.”

That landscape has made legacy revivals difficult. Some, like Pennsylvania’s Yuengling and Wisconsin’s Leinenkugel, never really went away. Others like Pabst Blue Ribbon, and to a lesser extent Schlitz, have seen a recent resurgence. Brad Hittle was PBR’s marketing director until 2010. Going back to the brand’s old packaging helped attract former customers, while projecting a sense of uncool nostalgia attracted new ones. “Every attempt we made to market was to not market,” Hittle says.

Also tasked with marketing Schlitz, Hittle and colleagues appealed to customers who already knew them from slogans like, “Things were better back then,” and “Your dad was a Schlitz drinker.” PBR lost some of its steady clientele, he says, when the company raised the price, a necessity based on the cost of making a beer with a higher malt content than most mass-produced lagers.

Nick Shields is the fourth-generation brewer of Haffenreffer, whose old Jamaica Plain brewery is now occupied by Boston Beer Co. Shields’s great grandfather Theodore Carl Haffenreffer had the first Massachusetts brewing permit after Prohibition. The brand bounced around for years and is now attached to a low-priced malt liquor sold in 40-ounce bottles. Recently Shields tried unsuccessfully to revive Haffenreffer’s Pickwick Ale, popular in the ’40s and ’50s. “Retro beers usually play at a pretty low price point, so there’s naturally not as much interest. When you go out to create a new brand you want to build a premium brand. You don’t want a brand that’s a shadow of itself.”

To that end, Hittle says some original brewery employees were tracked down to revive lost Schlitz recipes. Narragansett’s porter and bock recipes go back more than 80 years.

Hittle is now the CEO of Two Roads Brewing, a craft upstart in Connecticut, but when he was working with PBR, he liked the idea of returning it to the generation it belonged to. “It made them feel proud,” he says.

“It made them say, ‘I used to drink that, too.’ ”

Gary Dzen can be reached at gdzen@boston.com.

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