Narragansett beer is back. The once iconic New England beer brand was purchased from Pabst by Mark Hellendrung, former president of Nantucket Nectars, in 2005. Since then the brand has expanded to all the New England states (except Vermont) and Florida, and is starting to pop up in national IRI scan data. We talk with Mark about the brand’s current performance, and his plans for the future.
Modern Brewery Age: Mark, you’re currently contract brewing at Genesee?
Mark Hellendrung: Yes. The Narragansett Lager and Light brands are contract brewed at Genesee Brewing Co. in Rochester, NY, and Narragansett Porter and Bock are brewed at Trinity Brewhouse in Providence and Cottrell Brewing Co. in Pawcatuck, CT. But we are also proceeding with plans to build a brewery. I’d say we are about 15 months away.
Yeah, we think we can be up and running by the end of the first quarter of 2011, producing draft beer for starters.
Do you have a location yet?
We’d most likely locate in Rhode Island, looking at Cranston and Providence, seeking a location with good quality water. We want to build a scaleable facility, with initial capacity of about 10,000 barrels, and the capability to double or triple that. There is state aid available, and some Federal aid. Our timeline might be aggressive, but we want to push the process.
What will your volume be in 2009?
Sales will be around 400,000 cases. We got going fast in Rhode Island, we have a two share there now. We’re the fastest growing brewer in the top 20 in Massachusetts. We just cracked the top 20, and were already number 13. We’re up 33% overall in the last 90 days, and we’ve completed a round of financing that will allow us to put more feet in the the market in Massachusetts.
Do consumers in New England remember Narrangansett?
Sure, some older drinkers do. We have a fair number of guys drinking it who remember Gansett when Curt Gowdy used to promote it during the Red Sox broadcasts, when it was the number one beer in New England. But we certainly sell a lot of beer to the younger demographic. I can’t guess how it is split. The old brewery closed in 1981, and was restarted in 1983 for awhile. And then Pabst brewed it until 2005 in steadily dwindling amounts, it was down to 10-12,000 cases by the end.
When Pabst had it, they were making it as a generic lager, but you returned to the old formulation...
The first thing I did when I bought the brand was find Bill Anderson, the last brewmaster who worked at Cranston. We got lucky, he still had the old recipe in his head, so we recreated that. That was great in and of itself, but it also gave us was differentiation. Narragansett has more malt, more hops and more flavor than Bud or Genuine Draft. So the craft drinkers like it, but it is still drinkable for everybody else.
You said the IBU was about 15, so that puts it around what Bud was in New England in the 1970s. So it’s like a time capsule, what a mainstream lager tasted like 30 years ago...
Exactly. Everyone thinks Bud is the way it always was, but they have tweaked it.
You’re not the first to try to revive one of these old regional brands. Why do you think it is working for you, but didn’t work for a brand like Rheingold?
I may be wrong, but it seemed to me that when they tried to bring back Rheingold, they tried to make it too cool, and too upscale, and they took it away from its everyday beer roots. We haven’t done that. Gansett is Gansett. It has a blue collar heritage, and that would be foolish to deny. But this is also a premium beer, so we are pricing it at premium, charging the same for our 12-packs as Miller Lite and Bud.
Was Genesee your first choice as contract partner?
We would have liked to brew in New England, but there are no regionals left in New England. It came down to Latrobe, Matt or Genesee, and Latrobe and Matt didn’t have capability to produce a 16-oz. can package. We viewed the 16-ounce can as an important part of the franchise.
They are great looking cans, by the way.
Thanks. They are sometimes described as looking retro, but I hate the idea of retro, this idea that we’re just exploiting a trend. For us, it’s authenticity. The packages are not an original vintage design, but everything on those labels is authentic. So they have the logo script from the 1950s, and the ship design from the 1970s and the “lager” type from the 1930s. It’s almost like an artist’s reproduction, or maybe a mosaic of Narragansett imagery.
Do you have any plans to expand distribution outside New England?
Well, we are in Florida, as you know, but that was a unique distribution opportunity, and there are also a ton of New Englanders down there. Distributors are definitely interested. We’ve had calls from distributors in New York, Philadelphia, Nebraska, Indiana, you name it. When I was with Nantucket Nectars, we went national quickly. But we have a lot of work to do with Gansett in the Northeast, because we are in a world of limited resources and big megabrewers.
Since you are competing in the premium arena, you are in more direct competition with the big guys.
Yeah, we’re fighting the big guys. But the premium segment is not a bad place to be. People see Bud getting hammered and they all say “Why are you in premium, when premium is soft?” In my opinion, the problems Bud and Bud Light are having are not premium problems, but brand problems. If you look around the premium segment, you see Yuengling is absolutely on fire. They have a great story to tell, and they are connecting with consumers. There is a consumer mindset now about supporting local products, and we can play into the phenomenon just like Yuengling does. I’m happy to be in the premium segment.
Have wholesalers been receptive to the return of Narragansett?
I’ve been working with distributors for almost 20 years, and it gets harder every year to get new brands in. It used to be so easy to add an SKU, and now you really have to fight a little harder. I have to explain the reasoning behind our big can to get it in the door. It helps that consumers are drinking it, and it helps that craft is doing so well.
Do people view Gansett as a craft beer?
We’ll never be a craft beer company, like Dogfish, making extreme beers. We won’t push the craft envelope, like they do. But Gansett made a tremendous porter and bock in the 1930s. and so we have heritage in those styles. We can work that, and build our credentials, and demonstrate that we can make great beers. Consumers are driving craft. A year ago, I would have predicted that craft would be getting beat up right now, just like the imports. But that’s not happening, and I think that’s interesting. Crafts get lumped in with imports, but they are different, and I think craft can just keep on going, I really believe that. The craft brewers are bringing out differentiated products with great stories, and great local flavor. That’s what consumers are looking for, and that’s what we’re also aiming to provide. And it’s working for us too, Gansett is getting traction.
Thanks for your time, Mark