"Narragansett was our beer," says entrepreneur Mark Hellendrung, a native of East Providence. "And we're taking it back." Earlier this year, the former president of Nantucket Nectars bought the rights to this formerly vital local brand and launched a vigorous campaign to revive it.
The Narragansett brand once symbolized New England in the same way that Rainier beer evokes the Pacific Northwest or Lone Star is synonymous with Texas. 'Gansett flowed on tap in local bars, went on family vacations to the Cape, and bobbed along on fishing trips offshore. And you can bet that what Red Sox fans of a certain age remember most about watching a game on TV is the rhythmic crackle of Curt Gowdy's welcoming, "Hi, neighbor. Have a 'Gansett."
Founded in 1888, the Narragansett brewery was later financed and managed by the Haffenreffer family - the same philanthropists who in 1955 gave the Mount Hope Farm estate and the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology to the University. The beer was brewed, bottled, and sold by Rhode Islanders. During its heyday in the mid-20th century, the Cranston brewery employed 850 workers, and Narragansett was the largest selling beer in New England.
But the brewing company was sold in the mid-1960s and by 1982 production had moved to Indiana. The beer's taste changed, its quality declined, and its popularity faded. "I've found that 35- to-40-year-olds don't remember drinking Narragansett," Hellendrung says. Forty-five-to-50-year-olds remember drinking it when the quality wasn't that good. It's really the over-50s who remember: 'Hey, that was a damn good beer!' "
While a student at Brown, Hellendrung worked for a liquor store delivering kegs to fraternities and off-campus parties. Kegs of Busch, that is. Narragansett "wasn't around much then," he said, but he does remember seeing signs for the beer. Once he had the idea of bringing back 'Gansett, he tracked down Bill Anderson, the last brewmaster from the Cranston brewery. Anderson dug up the old recipe, and together the two men experimented to re-create the original taste and quality. The result "is incredibly close," Hellendrung claims.
But this new beer has an added ingredient that the original lacked and that Hellendrung hopes will be a key to its success: nostalgia. "It evokes all those memories from a day gone by," he says, "which is incredibly powerful." The risk, he says, is that a beer based on nostalgia could appeal only to older consumers.
After all, what's the attraction for microbrew consumers who never heard of Curt Gowdy and who might even be, well, Yankee fans? Hellendrung is searching for the modern equivalent of the brand's original identity.
"What is today's version of a neighbor?" he muses. "It's not Leave It to Beaver. It's condominiums and commuting and traffic, and all the nuances of life today: the pressures of time, the balance of work and life, women working - all those things. So I think [the challenge is] taking a great concept that was very vibrant in the fifties, sixties, and seventies and putting a contemporary spin on it."
"Hey, dude. Have a 'Gansett" doesn't quite have the same ring. Now, maybe if Snoop Dogg fills in for Curt Gowdy.