The brewing of Narragansett beer may finally be coming home to Rhode Island.
“We’ve seen dozens of places and we’ve zeroed in on one. We’re in negotiations on the space and may be ready to announce something big in 30 to 60 days,” said Narragansett Brewing Co. CEO Mark Hellendrung, an East Providence native who revived the ’Gansett brand with a group of investors in 2005.
While Hellendrung last week cautioned that many details still have to be worked out on the brewery site, it’s been a steady drive to bring it home.
Once a trademark beer of New England and the official beer of the Boston Red Sox, ’Gansett grabbed 65 percent of the regional market share at its peak in 1955.
The brewery’s, “Hi, neighbor, have a ’Gansett,” hometown identity began to dry up after Falstaff bought the Cranston-based company in 1965.
That purchase didn’t go over well with former Narragansett brewmaster Bill Anderson, 83, who now lives in Palmdale, Calif.
“I left there shortly after that. I could see it was kind of going downhill and I had a chance to go with Schlitz in Milwaukee,” said Anderson, who helped revive the original Narragansett recipe in the past few years and restore the beer’s identity. “The brewery was still running when I left, but after a few years it closed and they moved it to Fort Wayne.”
With brewing operations moved to Indiana, Narragansett beer was cut off from its vital source of regional loyalty. The Rhode Island brewery closed in 1983 and the building was demolished in 1998.
Now Narragansett’s Imperial IPA is brewed in Westport, while the lion’s share of brewing is done in Rochester, N.Y., Hellendrung said.
Production has grown from 48,000 barrels last year to 60,000 barrels this year, said Hellendrung, who’d like to see the jobs tied to that production in Rhode Island. Narragansett now employs 12 full time; most of those workers are in Providence. It also has a part-time promotions staff of more than 40 people out of state.
Most of the company’s increased production this year has been sold out of state.
“New York City is just smokin’,” Hellendrung said, with that market up 150 percent in the past year. “Our brand sells very well in contemporary, urban-type areas.”
At L’Asso, an eatery in the Little Italy section of the city, manager Reginald Noel said Narragansett beer is carried at the restaurant, as well as at its second location in the East Village.
Sales of Narragansett beer are up about 100 percent in Philadelphia and 50 percent in Connecticut this year, Hellendrung said. And the brand was recently launched in Washington, D.C.
Hellendrung said Rhode Island sales are up about 10 percent and the New England market is strong.
“With the whole local movement, Narragansett has gotten more popular. We sell a lot of it,” said Jen Fields, general manager of Toro, a restaurant in the south end of Boston.
Toro sells about seven or eight cases of Narragansett beer a week, she said.
This year’s revenue for Narragansett Brewing Co. will reach about $8 million, Hellendrung said. That’s up from $5.9 million in 2011 and $2.8 million in 2009.
Former brewmaster Anderson keeps in contact with Hellendrung and the developments at Narragansett Brewing. Anderson said the current ‘Gansett beer upholds the tradition of excellent quality.
“There’s so much competition now, you have to keep up the quality,” Anderson said. “If people take one sip and they don’t like it, you’ve lost them.”
Anderson said it’s a good idea to bring the brewing process home.
“They’ve picked up volume,” Anderson said. “And the people in Rhode Island are still loyal to Narragansett.” •
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