If you’ve ever explored coastal New England, particularly a beach bar or bait & tackle shop, you have no doubt noticed Gansett on tap or an old timey white & red poster on the wall next to a walk-in cooler. Narragansett Lager’s roots run deep but often you’ll get checkered opinions about its taste and quality. This may have something to do with the fact that this beer was essentially on hiatus from 1981 to 2005.
It all started in 1888 and quickly grew into New England’s largest brewery. Narragansett Brewing Company took pride in using only the purest ingredients and highly skilled brewmasters. Prohibition temporarily set them back but at least they were granted special permission under the Volstead Act to bottle and sell beer for “medicinal purposes”. I imagine this was “near beer” or pretty darn close to it.
Fortunately, in Prohibition’s aftermath, local financier Rudolph Haffenreffer came to the rescue turning over the operation to his sons Rudolf, Jr. and Theodore. Rudolf, Jr., a savvy marketer, hired Theodore Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss) to design the goofy Chief Gansett logo. Brands like Haffenreffer Lager Beer, Pickwick Ale and Pickwick Bock Beer were successfully marketed into the 1950s with the legendary “Hi Neighbor. Have a Gansett” line. Starting in 1944, Narragansett had a long standing marketing
partnership with the Boston Braves and later the Boston Red Sox.
By 1955, Gansett was the number one selling beer in New England. The company celebrated its 1 million barrel mark by rewarding each employee with a gold-plated bottle of lager. Operations continued chugging along into the 1970s with a stunning array of lagers like Hanley, Kreuger, Haffenreffer, Boh, Ballantine, Bohack, Munich and Falstaff. Ales included Croft, Pickwick, Bavarian, Boston Light, BB Stock and India Pale. Special brews like Kreuger Pilsner, Haffenreffer Malt Liquor, Dresden, Bavarian, Bock, and a Porter also made their appearance. By the mid-70s, things started going downhill due to intense competition from mainstream national breweries highly marketing inferior suds.
In 1981, the Narragansett Brewing Company closed its doors in Rhode Island effectively curtailing quality beer production. Operations continued in a Fort Wayne Indiana plant but among other factors, Fort Wayne’s water source was no match for Scituate Reservoir, considered the finest in the country.
It wasn’t until 2005 that lifelong Rhode Islander Mark Hellendrung, along with a group of New England investors, purchased back the rights to Narragansett Beer and brought back former Brewmaster Bill Anderson to recreate the high quality original. Today, authentic Narragansett Beer is back in bottles and on bar taps for you to taste and decide for yourself whether it’s still truly craft made.
Photos courtesy of Narragansett Brewing Company and carolynkellogg.tumblr.com