NARRAGANSETT’S RISE AND FALL
Six local businessmen established Narragansett Brewing with the help of a German brewmaster, and sales steadily grew from the crafting of the first beer in 1890, climbing to 225,000 barrels in 1910. "The brewery stood firmly on the company’s guarantee of pure ingredients, absolute cleanliness of manufacture, and perfection of brew in every drop," according to a history by Rick Redman and Virginia McKenna, available at breweriana.com. "Ninety percent of the barrels were sold in this country, mostly in the New England states. The other 10 percent was exported to the West Indies, Turkey, Egypt, and Panama."
Although breweries in Rhode Island (competitors operated on Fountain Street, and at the intersection of Harris Avenue and Eagle Street) were legally able to manufacture and sell malt liquor for medicinal purposes during Prohibition, Repeal found the company in shaky financially shape. Rudolf F. Haffenreffer (whose father had established Boston’s first brewery, the current base for Sam Adams) assumed control after being asked for help in managing the company. Among other things, Haffenreffer called upon Theodore Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, and a Dartmouth College acquaintance of his sons, to illustrate Chief ’Gansett, a wooden Indian on a base with wheels, purveying a glass of Narragansett beer.
Narragansett enjoyed its height of popularity for 20 years after the end of World War II, thanks to a huge advertising game and its sponsorship of Red Sox broadcasts. The company backed local charities, sponsored an annual Oktoberfest, made a variety of brews — including the flagship lager, as well as a porter, bock beer, and a prototypical light beer — and employed 850 workers.
A steady decline was ushered in, though, when Narragansett was sold to Falstaff for $17 million in cash and $2 million in stock in 1965, a transaction that launched an unsuccessful anti-trust action by the US government that lasted almost 10 years. During hearings, a Haffenreffer heir testified that growing national competition led the company to face the possibility of expanding, merging, or being acquired by a larger brewer. More uncertainty came when Anheuser-Busch opened a modern brewery in the mid-’70s in southern New Hampshire, an obvious threat to the antiquated Cranston facility. Other problems, including another sale, failed modernization efforts, and the diminished appeal of the beer among younger drinkers, led to the closing of the Narragansett brewery in 1981.
Like a number of Rhode Islanders, Ted Widmer came of age while drinking Narragansett, relishing the inexpensive cost, the accompanying puzzles, and the sense of pride that came with seeing Narragansett signs outside bars as far north as Maine and as far west as the Berkshires. "It was really a whole way of life, and it involved loving the Red Sox . . . and loving a certain sense of Providence as the center of a little empire in southeastern New England," says Widmer, director of the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience at Washington College, whose former Phoenix column was illustrated by an image of Chief ’Gansett. "To drink Narragansett meant that you were somehow a citizen of that empire." (Quint, the rough-edged fisherman played by Robert Shaw in the movie Jaws, drank Narragansett.)
By 1981, though, Narragansett’s decline was just another symbol of the death of the industrial age. "It’s probably hard for people to remember now," Widmer says, "but the ’70s were a tough time in Providence — and not just the weather; companies were folding all over the place, there were crippling strikes. The sense of the old labor economy and the factory economy that was so crucial to Rhode Island was not doing well — in Rhode Island or around the country. That’s who drank Narragansett beer. It was a blue-collar drink, with pretty much zero hipster cachet."
CAN A BEER LIVE TWICE?
The global headquarters for devotees of Narragansett Beer is the Decatur Lounge on the West Side of Providence, where the $2 cost for a 16-ounce can makes it a favorite of the young, artsy crowd. "We’re the largest seller of Narragansett in the world," proclaims proprietor Joann Seddon, who goes through about 40 cases of the stuff a week. (A solid supporter of local brews, Seddon also offers Newport Storm and Trinity Brewhouse’s IPA.)
Narragansett impresario Mark Hellendrung has embraced the enthusiasm of the Decatur following, chipping in a few knick-knacks to serve as the official sponsor of the Providence Kickball League this season. Narragansett’s popularity is an analogue to the recent hipster vogue for archaic brands, like Pabst Blue Ribbon, with a cheap price and working-class image. (No matter that PBR is brewed by Pabst, one of the nation’s largest brewers. Milwaukee-based Pabst, incidentally, is the umbrella for a surprising number of these brands; to check them out, visit the "our beers" section at www.pabst.com.)
Still, the question remains: even with his genial manner and big-time marketing know-how, will Hellendrung be able to establish a fresh following for a beer whose customer base is, to a large degree, six feet under?
On one hand, the brew still has a lot of positive name recognition in Rhode Island. "You talk to the older people and they talk about Narragansett," says Coastal Extreme’s Ryan. "Twenty-five years later, the brand still has [equity]. People remember it fondly and still talk about it."
Josh Miller, a Providence native who recalls when doing a tour of the Narragansett brewery was a rite of passage, likes the concept of restoring a locally owned beer, noting that a lot of people "would really rather drink a product that was a project of someone in their own community." Still, when it comes to Narragansett’s heyday, he asks, "How much does anyone under 50 give a shit about all of that?"
Narragansett is unlikely to regain the prominent place it once enjoyed in what is now known as Red Sox Nation, not least because of the huge Budweiser sign glowing over the right field roof deck during games at Fenway. Hellendrung, though, has a retort. Narragansett was in the local bars in Rhode Island, he says, when the Sox launched their historic comeback against the Yankees, and it was there through the forgettable seasons. "It’s been here for 115 years," he says. "It’s kind of like the weather."
Well, then, what about the pending redesign of the comfortably anachronistic Narragansett can? Already, the clipper ship introduced on the label by Falstaff has given way to a lounge-ready green can with flowing script and a more prominent Narragansett logo. Will the official new design, a more contemporary look, featuring a red label, detract from the beer’s nostalgic old school appeal?
"I don’t think so," says Hellendrung, who works from office space at Duffy & Shanley, the Providence public relations and advertising agency. "One thing we pushed really hard to do was to make sure the look was anchored in its history and heritage, but we wanted to contemporize it, so it’s not looking like something you pulled out of your attic." During visits to about 15 bars in July, he adds, "Overwhelmingly, we heard that people liked the retro. What they liked about the one they saw, we’re a little more than retro. We’re New England’s beer. We didn’t want to anchor ourselves in retro, but we didn’t want to abandon it, either."
Moving the brewing operation this month from Indiana to High Falls, New York, (where a lot of Sam Adams is brewed) will enhance the water source, bolstering a taste that Hellendrung calls less hoppy and less bitter than in the ’70s. (He is also receptive to the possibility of brewing at Josh Miller’s tentatively envisioned Providence brewery.)
Narragansett is currently available at 150 Rhode Island locations, and the impresario has plans for a series of promotional events in September. Hellendrung says the beer has fared well on blind taste tests. "This is a well-made beer," he gushes. "This thing sells itself."
Ian Donnis can be reached at email@example.com 2
Issue Date: August 19 - 25, 2005
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