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Darien and New Canaan men bringing back that famous New England beer

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Jon Jodka of New Canaan, left and Darienites Steve Galbraith and George Wyper are bringing back Narragansett beer, which years ago was the most popular lager in New England. (Darien Times/Laureen Vellante photo)


Written by Lois Alcosser
Saturday, 12 December 2009

Steve Galbraith of Darien and Jon Jodka of New Canaan both work in today’s precarious world of finance, but they’ve recently come up with a business venture that’s all good news. They’re bringing legendary Narragansett Beer back to Connecticut.

Forty years ago, it had a 65 percent market share in New England. In the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, it was No. 1. Narragansett’s history is part of American beverage lore.

Founded in Cranston, R.I., in 1891, the company changed hands several times and closed in 1981, drowned out by beer giants like Budweiser and Miller. In 2005, Mark D. Hellendrung of Rhode Island, former CEO of Nantucket Nectars, purchased the rights to the Narragansett brand, aiming to bring it back to its glory days, when it was the beer of the Boston Red Sox and the largest lager beer brewery in New England.

“I’d been head of Nantucket Nectars, and when it was sold, I was between jobs and needed another beverage,” Hellendrung said. “They were still drinking Narragansett in Newport, and when anybody mentioned it, they remembered it as a great beer. We needed an infusion of capital, and I contacted Steve and John for investment ideas,” Hellendrung added.

With a goal of raising $3 million, they actually raised $5 million. Galbraith said the search for investors wasn’t an organized plan.

“It was a club of like-minded people who thought it would be fun and possibly profitable,” he said.

George Wyper, another Darien investor, said what appealed to him was the fact that they’d brought back the original formula.

“I think it’s exciting to bring back an iconic brand that once had such a market share and is made in New England,” he said.

Galbraith, a member of the company’s board of directors, said there will be many business decisions in the future — raising capital and perhaps making it a public offering.

“What’s interesting about this is that the people who are investing generally invest in giant companies, but they’re interested in this relatively small operation,” he said.

Hellendrung said he realizes it’s still pretty early in the Narragansett rollout, but wherever it is, it does well — in Rhode Island, Cape Cod, Mass., Boston, Mass., Fenway Park, New London and Hartford. The beer is a big seller at Francos Wine Merchants in New Canaan, the 1020 restaurant in Darien and at Goodwive’s Shopping Plaza, also in Darien, he said.

Galbraith, who is from Rhode Island and remembers drinking Narragansett Beer while in college, said the goal is to make it Connecticut’s beer.

“Texas has a beer. Pennsylvania has a beer,” he said. “We want it to be ours — the regional beer.”

A favorite of college students, Narragansett Beer was known for its pure ingredients, uncompromising cleanliness and absolute perfection of brew. A light lager, the company has brought back the original brew master, 80-year-old Bob Anderson, who has the original recipe in his head.

“We’re going to make this a renaissance of Narragansett, combining the nostalgia of the past and new features that will emphasize its great taste and its affordability,” Galbraith said.

Currently brewed in upstate New York, Jodka and Galbraith said the long-term vision is to build a Narragansett brewery in Connecticut. Hellendrung has begun talking to state leaders and looking for sites.

“After all,” he said, “it would bring in new jobs and be an economic stimulus, and since it’s got so much history, there are also historic tax credits we might get.”

With new packaging and new versions of the brand’s most successful promotions, investors are hoping to make Narragansett huge again in Fairfield County. It’s already won a bronze medal for the highest rated lager.

For more information, visit narragansettbeer.com.

@GansettBeer

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