Beer Inspiration in our Backyard: Rhode Island

Boston is the home of two seminal craft brewers: Samuel Adams and Harpoon, while the greater Boston area boasts a burgeoning scene of newer craft brewers and cider houses like Night Shift, Jack’s Abby, Far From the Tree, and Trillium. Portland, Maine is home to pioneers like DL Geary and Shipyard, as well as highly touted newcomers like Bissell Brothers, Foundation, and Rising Tide. Vermont has the most breweries per capita of any state as The Alchemist, Lawson’s Finest Liquids, and Hill Farmstead brew some of the country’s most sought-after beers. Sandwiched between Maine and Vermont, New Hampshire has several fine breweries. Portsmouth is an underrated beer city. Connecticut has a thriving beer scene even if  many of the best beers brewed in the state don’t make it to our corner of Massachusetts.

Of the six New England states, Rhode Island has been something of a craft beer backwater. The largest brewer in the state is Narragansett. Narragansett is my American Lager of choice, and Del’s Shandy is a summer go-to. Although they have plans to open a brewery in Pawtucket, ‘Gansett hasn’t been brewed in the state for over thirty years. Everything you see in stores is contract-brewed out of New York state.

The site of the new Narragansett brewery is at a new facility called the Isle Brewers Guild. When completed the guild will in addition to partnering with established brewers to add brewing capacity, it will also assist their partner brewers in other business functions. Hopefully the facility will help the beer scene in Rhode Island grow.

I visited Rhode Island to judge at the Ocean State Homebrew Competition which was held at the guild. An old mill building, interior demolition was set to begin almost immediately after the competition was over.  I judged Pale European Lagers in the morning, and stouts in the afternoon. I was pleasantly surprised to have judged several Czech lagers in the morning as the Czech styles were only added recently. Most of the stouts I judged in the afternoon were solid as well. Noting I tried was mind-blowing, but there was only one beer that was undrinkable.

All the proceeds from the competition went to the Rhode Island food bank. The organizers did a great job assembling an impressive array of raffle prizes. All entrants and judges were invited to the final round of judging. For each food item donated to the food bank, a person was given a raffle ticket. Judges were given raffle tickets for volunteering his/her time.

Jennie rode to Pawtucket with me and dropped me off at the competition. While I was judging she had more of a chance to check out the scene than I did. She visited Brewtopia Brewery and Kitchen where Revival Brewing is located. She gave both the Conga and Conga Imperial IPA a rating of 4.25 on Untappd. She also visited Tilted Barn brewery in Exeter. A very small, family-run brewfarm, she enjoyed the two beers she sampled, but was disappointed that The Chosen One DIPA keg kicked while she was there.

By the time I was done judging I was quite hungry. We stopped by a bar in Pawtucket called Doherty’s. On the outside it looked like an unassuming neighborhood bar, but inside they had over 80 beers on tap and one of the most impressive bottle lists you will find. I tried some of the Rhode Island beers that I wasn’t familiar with. The pale ales and IPAs tended to be maltier and more English-inspired. The standout beer was an Oatmeal Milk Stout by Proclamation Ale Company.

Proclimation has been vocal about the main culprit in limiting the growth of craft beer in the state: the state’s arcane laws. In Rhode Island a brewery can only give a person three 4 oz samples at the brewery. Additionally they can only pour one sample at a time; flight paddles are illegal.  Breweries can only sell 72 oz of beer to go at the brewery. That works out to one six-pack, or one growler fill. Small breweries also can’t self-distribute. None of the newer breweries in Massachusetts would have been able to survive with those restraints without radically changing their business model.

The one brewery I was able to visit with Jennie after dinner was Long Live Beerworks in Providence. I was so full I could only drink two of my three samples. Their ‘Lil Sippy Pale Ale reminded me a lot of Peeper or Mo from Maine Beer Company. We made it there right as they were closing and had a chance to chat with the owners.

Long Livr has only been in business for three months, and to make the business viable they need to sign with a distributor. Without an agreement, they can’t even sell their beer at the restaurant next door. A brewer had to be very careful about who they sign a deal with to distribute their beer. The distributor invests time and money to market the beer, get it on store shelves, and on tap at bars. Since a distributor’s job is to invest significant resources in a brand, laws and contracts are written in such a way that it is very difficult to back out of an agreement with a distributor. Finding the right partner is essential.

After the brewery closed we were both tired. We left Beverly at around 7:00 a.m. that morning. Originally we were going to stay the night and shop up for the raffle the next day, but we just wanted to go home. I was disappointed because the competition organizers put together as impressive a collection of raffle items as I have seen in the handful of competitions I’ve judged in. Next year I will have to plan our weekend ahead of time. Hopefully by then the laws governing breweries in Rhode Island will be as libertine as they are for other vices.

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