A Message From Our Owner, Mark Hellendrung: John English And The Brewery Tours

Ladies & Gentlemen- since I started talking to people about Narragansett Beer 5+ years ago, I've heard a thousand stories about Curt Gowdy, GIQ's, Red...

A Message From Our Owner, Mark Hellendrung: John English And The Brewery Tours

Ladies & Gentlemen- since I started talking to people about Narragansett Beer 5+ years ago, I've heard a thousand stories about Curt Gowdy, GIQ's, Red Sox baseball, goodwill men, Oktoberfests, One Can Maggie etc etc etc. But the two subjects that people speak most reverently about are the brewery and John English. But everything I had heard was a story, and I always found myself yearning to go back in time, to meet John and take the tour. Well here's an article from 1973 that Bill Anderson just sent me, and this is about as close as you can come to going back in time. Enjoy the article, you're about to look into the soul of Narragansett Beer.

The 'Gansett beer tour and John English


"AFTER THIS tour, you'll never forget it for the rest of your life."

That's John English talking. And talking is something he does well and often-whether or not he is leading a tour of Narragansett Beer's brewery which he does every Monday through Friday at 2 p.m. (more or less at 2 p.m. anyway).

No matter what time John gets going, his tour or the Gansett brewery is a two-hour festival, a romp through the world of beer not to mention the long and happy life of John English. The tour is all of these things: interesting, edueational, hilarious, military, sudsy, dangerous, funky and even a little bit goofy.

It is one of the best ways to spend a summer afternoon in Rhode Island.

And the main reason-disregarding the fact that it is free and you get several beers at the end-is Mr. English. He puts his whole self into a job he loves. Part carney' pitchman, part evangelist, part hambone, he is given to frequent malapropisms ("That cold beer's gonna do a somblesault when it hits your belly.") and a kind of stream of consciousness thinking that apparently gets very little censorship before it is turned into words.

From a brava recounting of his heroism in the bars and battlefields of World War II he can-with no warning at all-move on to a treatise about the difference in the water of Newark and Providence as it relates to his favorite subject, beer

In his tour he will sum it up for you. Undoubtedly he will say at some point: "You people are lucky to be listening to me. I'm a proressional beer man."

Hes is indeed. He began in 1937 wreslting 485-pound barrels around the old Hanley brewery on Fountain and Jackson Streets where the Regency is now. After that he held about every job in the place along with 10 years as President of Local 166 of the brewery workers. When Gansett took over Hanley he became a salesman and he loved that, too. ("One hundred and seventy miles a day all over the State of Maine.")

Despite his union background John English is a company man, too. Why, when he mentions the "home office" (of Falstaff which owns Gansett) his eyes move to the sky and his hands rise slowly palms upward like Billy Graham calling them down the aisles. "The home office," he says slowly.

And when he mentions the correct manner in which to pour beer!

But lets take John's tour. He gets to the beer pouring at the end of it anyway.

It begins on the assembly line with cans popping around and foaming bottles zipping past, getting their ration of Gansett or Ballantine or Falstaff. The tour moves by great copper vats and five-story high storage sheds, all in time to the commands of John English. "Forrrrwarddd- March!" he yells. "Aaaabout face!"

It seems that Mr. English is one of those who have never forgotten their mi1itary experience (he claims two battle stars in Europe in World War II). But it is all done with his unfailing good will and wit.

Into the warehouse with the cases of beer towering overhead. John English tells the old one about the guy who went to sleep on the tour, woke up in the warehouse, and "figured he was in heaven." The secret is his own good humor. It makes even THAT one funny again.

"Stay back against the walls! he shouts. "These lift trucks'll kill ya. Let's get out of this place!"

The tour winds around "the East Coast's largest brewery, folks" and passes rooms where girls nibble crackers between sipping beers for uniformity of taste, past railroad cars that have brought the grains from the Middle West, and past trucks that will take the finished product to stores. It ends up in the huge storage tank area where the beer is aged in vats. The temperature in the room is 34 degrees and John is off on another trip, this one to "Caribou Maine where if you think its cold here...."

He goes on to tell the one about the "Canadian border" which does not bear repeating here but ask him about it.

John leads the way now back to the 1890 Room "where every glass has my name on it." On the way he knocks the competitors a little. "Schlitz and Bud you know are only 3.5 (Per cent alcohol) our beer is 3.7 and our ale is 4.5. And our Porter beer! Six point eight! Knock your head off."

Back in the 1890, everybody is ready for their free beer. But not yet. John English is ready to lecture. He is a man of about six feet with a reddish face, Irish despite his name. He recently went from 218 to 171 pounds on a six-month diet. When he talks he uses a soft voice that suddenly takes off like the beer in a tapped keg when something strikes his fancy.

"Ninety seven per cent of the people pour beer the wrong way," he says. Never, never, he goes on, do you pour it down the side of the glass. You quickly turn the bottle over spilling the contents directly onto the bottom of the glass, filling it two-thirds of the way and letting the head fill the rest. "This gets rid of the gas," John says. "If you don't get rid of it in the glass, it goes into you. Either you have the big head in the glass or you have it on you the next morning!" he shouts, his face red with ardor.

Now the questions. Salt in beer? "The worst thing you can do," he says.

But a few minutes later: "Absolutely the worst thing you can do is to put a newly-washed glass down on a towel." This causes a vacuum, he says. And all of the soap in the towel is sucked up into the glass ruining the beer.

John English tells these and other beer truisms with the fervor of a true believer, one who has found what he wants to do. And if some of it is a bit much, the hyperbole can be forgiven because there is a solid base of true belief.

"On some days he's up higher than others," says Narragansett public relations man Jim Nolan. "A big group will really turn him on. He loves to perform."

The one question that gives John English some trouble these days is the one that goes something like, "Why don't you have all returnable bottles?" Generally, it is posed by a young person, somewhat truculently.

John goes immediately into his spiel about how Narragansett has more kinds of returnable bottles than any other brewery east of the Mississippi, but he never really says what the percentage of returnable versus non-returnable is.

At the end he weighs in with the real answer, "What those people out there in the markets and the package stores want is what we'll give 'em," he says. "Do you want us to go out of business?"

The last line is clearly seen by John English as the clincher. Who in this wide world would ever want Narragansett to go out of business? In John English's mind that would be a catastrophe for everyone.

All this time he has been pouring beer for the folks on the tour along with keeping up a steady patter of jokes and advice ("Wash with detergent, never soap").

Now, he draws a draft for a lady and holds the glass to the sky admiring its head, its golden color, the sheer beauty of it all ("Beer is almost human," he has said several times.)

"Look at that. Look at THAT!" he says holding his glass high. "I can't get over that. I can't get over how beautiful that is."

Originally published in the Providence Sunday Journal Leisure Weekly July 8, 1973.

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