Written by Paul Gauvin
Says Narragansett lager making a comeback as a regional leader
Once it was, then it wasn’t, now it is again.
Narragansett beer, a staple 20th century New England brew and a Red Sox sponsor from 1946 to 1975, is on the comeback trail hoping for a regional grand slam in sales that includes Cape Cod.
So says Bill Heslam of Weston and Osterville, where his family has had a summer home since the ’70s. It’s also where he spent much of his youth before going off to Millbury College in Vermont, MIT for an MBA and a stint on Wall Street where, he says, “I did very well. But that was before all the crazy business.”
The Cape, with its seasonal tide of tourists and itinerant workers, is playing a substantial role in the brand’s revival, says Heslam, in such places like Trader Ed’s restaurant on Hyannis Inner Harbor, the Foxhole in Osterville, all along Main Street in Hyannis and the Kettle Ho in Cotuit. “Sales have averaged 100 percent increases in the last two years,” he beamed.
Now, like a cop on the beat, Heslam is pounding the sidewalks of New England as vice president of sales since joining Narragansett as a partner in 2008, appealing to the sentimental crowd that remembers Sox announcer Curt Gowdy opening his game broadcasts with the familiar, “Hi neighbor. Have a ’Gansett,” imbedding the brand in the subconscious of many a New England brew lover.
The Red Sox link is a good fit for Heslam, who played the outfield for the Brewster Whitecaps in the 1991 Cape Cod League. “But I didn’t get picked up,” by the majors he says without hint of regret.
When he parted company with Wall Street, Heslem said he was looking for something to invest and participate in when he and several others struck an arrangement with former Nantucket Nectars president Mark Hellendrung, who had purchased the Narragansett brand in 2005 and had rekindled production in 2006.
Heslam and several others joined the company in 2008 with an eye toward attracting capital and now has more than 100 investors helping the company revive the brand and realize plans for a new brewery somewhere in New England but preferably in its cradle state of Rhode Island.
The Narragansett brand emerged in 1890 from its own brewery in Cranston, R.I. to become New England’s pre-eminent beer albeit its 4-syllable name was colloquially shortened. In some quarters it was “a narry” and in others, “a ’gansett.”
After World War II, when thousands of unemployed veterans were collecting their “52-20” - $20 a week for $52 weeks – with nothing to do but hang around neighborhood bars, “a narry” tripped off their lips as easily as name, rank and serial number.
What led to the regional brand’s demise was its purchase in 1965 by the mid-western Falstaff Brewing Co., which intended to go national with Narragansett, a plan torpedoed by economic hardships. Falstaff closed the Rhode Island plant in 1983 and moved production to Indiana, changed the recipe and the brand slid into a sales abyss. The Cranston facility was later demolished. The site now houses condominiums and retail outlets.
Heslam said Hellendrung found the original recipe in the person of Bill Anderson who was master brewer when the plant was closed, and recreated the original formula which is currently produced in Rochester, N.Y., presumably until a new brewery is built.
Heslam said there is cause for optimism that the brand will continue to capture a larger share of the regional market. The beer took a bronze star in the 2008 World Beer Cup and is the highest-rated domestic lager at Beer Advocate, a magazine and on-line social network for beer fans.