1888 Was a Long, Long, Time Ago
It all started with John H. Fehlberg, Augustus F. Borchandt, Herman G. Possner, George M. Gerhard, Constand A. Moeller, and Jacob Wirth. In 1888, these local businessmen—”The Original Six”—came together to form the Narragansett Brewing Company. With $150,000 in capital and funds from Butterine (Fehlberg’s predecessor to margarine), a brick brewing house was built. In December of 1890, the first beer was produced, and the following year the company officially incorporated.
A little trivia: Did you know that at one time, the grounds of the Narragansett Brewing Company included a barn, a stable, a blacksmith, seventy-five horses, forty-five wagons, gas-powered trucks, electric trucks, twenty-five refrigerated train cars and its own ice plant?
Getting back to our story, in 1891, the Narragansett Brewing Company concocted nearly 28,000 barrels of beer under the company’s promise of the purest ingredients, uncompromised cleanliness, and absolute perfection of brew. Let’s not forget about the brewers themselves, who poured their souls into every batch. Without their honor and merit, Gansett would never have had the chance to be so loved.
Then in 1914, when the company built the most modern bottling plant in the region, it became official: Narragansett Brewing Company was the largest lager beer brewery in New England.
The Haffenreffers and Their Influence On Us All
The 1920s were a sobering time for everyone who had grown to love Narragansett—literally. Prohibition took a toll on many, especially the Narragansett Brewing Company. Despite being granted permission by the IRS to brew, bottle and sell beer for medicinal purposes, things looked grim for the proud company. By the end of Prohibition, the Narragansett Brewing Company’s financial condition was not what it used to be.
That’s where the Haffenreffers come into play. Rudolph Haffenreffer had built one of Boston’s first brewery complexes, and when he passed away in 1929, the New England Brewing Company was turned over to his sons Rudolf, Jr. and Theodore.
In 1931, the repeal of Prohibition appeared likely and Narragansett Brewing Company approached Rudolf, Jr. for help financing and managing the modernization of the brewery. Fortunately, he agreed.
It was by sheer luck that Rudolf, Jr. turned out to be a savvy marketer with a keen interest in cigar-store Indians. Not PC – we know. Stay with us here, as the two would come together when a young artist by the name of Theodore Geisel (who’d soon be known as Dr. Seuss), was hired to design an icon for the company.
Geisel designed Chief Gansett, and while the beloved icon may not have been the sole reason for the financial turnaround, he sure would become a favorite of the faithful.
Rudolf Haffenreffer Jr. would eventually become president and chairman of Narragansett Brewing Company and remain involved until his death in 1954. The Haffenreffer brewery in Boston survived until 1965, at which time, brands like Haffenreffer Lager Beer, Pickwick Ale and Pickwick Bock Beer became the property of the Narragansett Brewing Company.
Hi-Neighbor! Have a Really Good Couple of Decades
The end of World War II saw the launch of an extensive advertising campaign, which featured the now legendary “Hi Neighbor. Have a Gansett” line. Ads appeared in newspapers, magazines, billboards, buses and trolley cars. Narragansett also began a long and happy relationship with Major League Baseball, sponsoring the Boston Braves in 1944 and later the Boston Red Sox—an affiliation which would take on a certain magical feel when the team’s announcer, Curt Gowdy, became a spokesman for the beer.
By 1955, Gansett was the number one choice of consumers and the largest selling beer in New England. Others in the area, like Boston’s Croft brewery and the Hanley Brewing Company in Providence, sold out to Narragansett. By 1957, the Narragansett Brewing Company was the last remaining brewery in Rhode Island. Two years later, the company celebrated the brewing of one million barrels by presenting each employee with a gold-plated bottle of Narragansett Beer.
By the mid sixties, the Narragansett Brewing Company was providing steady pay, good benefits and free beer to some 850 workers. The company culture not only spawned lifelong friendships and good times, but also encouraged beer drinking during the workday.
When is $17 Million Just Not Enough?
Attracted by the Haffenreffer background and business acumen as well as their network of distributors throughout the northeast, Falstaff Brewing Corporation purchased Narragansett Brewing Company on July 15, 1965 for $17 million in cash and $2 million in Falstaff common stock. The plan was for the brewery to continue operating as a wholly owned subsidiary of Falstaff under Haffenreffer management, and for the Narragansett brand to be retained and actively promoted.
The transaction was not exactly without its problems. Two days before the sale, the US Government began an anti-trust action against Falstaff—a suit that lasted until October 1974. US attorneys, concerned that the purchase of New England’s largest brewery would reduce competition, said that Falstaff should either ship their products into the area from its other breweries, or build its own brewery in the region.
In 1970, Carl Haffenreffer testified that management had actually begun exploring the sale of the brewery in 1956, recognizing that capacity needed to increase significantly so that distribution could be expanded outside of the New England market. He argued that Falstaff was not distributing or selling its products in New England at that time and Narragansett was not selling outside of New England in any major way, so the threat to competition was not valid. In October of 1974, nine years after they had first agreed to purchase the company, Falstaff completed the acquisition.
Around the same time, Falstaff’s purchase of the Ballantine brands was viewed with great hope in Cranston. In April of 1972, the first barrels of Ballantine were shipped from Rhode Island. The brewery was producing 1.7 million barrels a year—maximum capacity for the outdated, turn-of-the-century plant with outmoded equipment. The plant’s 580 employees were toiling around the clock, seven days a week, producing Narragansett and other lagers, like Hanley, Kreuger, Haffenreffer, Boh, Ballantine, Bohack, Munich and Falstaff. Ales included Croft, Pickwick, Bavarian, Ballantine, Boston Light, BB Stock and India Pale. The Narragansett Brewing Company of the 1970s even produced brands like Kreuger Pilsner, Haffenreffer Malt Liquor, Dresden, Bavarian (dark), Bock and Porter.
All the while, some 100 miles to the north, Anheuser-Busch was opening a new, state-of-the-art facility—a direct threat to Rhode Island’s only remaining brewery. State officials made overtures to Falstaff, offering their help and assistance in financing a new plant, but their efforts were rebuffed.
In 1975, San Francisco multi-millionaire Paul Kalmanovitz gained control of the Falstaff Brewing Company. Two months later, the Narragansett Brewery asked the city of Cranston for nearly $750,000 in tax relief on the grounds that some of the company’s facilities were obsolete, thus overtaxed. With property taxes on the brewery and land coming in at more than $300,000, the Rhode Island General Assembly granted tax relief in the form of an exemption from the alcoholic beverage tax for the first 100,000 barrels of beer—saving the brewery almost $200,000 a year. Meanwhile, the brewery’s energy bill in 1980 reached $2.8 million; ninety-five percent of which going toward the production of beer.
In June of 1981, plans were made to convert the brewery’s oil-burning boilers to natural gas—a move that would also solve the hazard of leaking steam pipes. The brewery asked the Providence Gas Company for a year-round, five-year agreement of continuous service—something the company could not guarantee. Despite the intercession of the Governor and Cranston’s mayor in the discussions, no agreement was reached. It was evident that the brewery’s days were numbered.
In addition to aging facilities, outdated equipment and increased costs of operation, union workers went on strike for better wages and improved benefits. Meanwhile, years of neglect in Narragansett’s marketing were taking their toll. On July 31, 1981, citing increasing competition from the national brewing companies, the Narragansett Brewing Company laid off 350 workers—effectively ceasing production at the Cranston brewery.
By February of 1982, production of the Narragansett brand had shifted to the Falstaff plant in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
Falstaff reopened the Cranston plant on January 13, 1983 to produce keg beer. Six brewers and 19 contract workers were recalled to begin brewing 450 gallons. A second batch of 800 gallons was started a day later, but those beers never reached the market. Three months after the brewery reopened its doors, it closed them for the last time.
In July of 1995, much of the brewery equipment was shipped off to China. On October 27, 1998, demolition of the once proud brewery began. The bottling plant and eight other buildings were demolished over several months. The last remaining vestige of the brewery facility—the trolley barn—was demolished after a fire in 2005.
It’s Good To Be Back
In early 2005, lifelong Rhode Islander Mark Hellendrung, along with a group of New England investors, purchased the rights to Narragansett Beer from Falstaff. Former Brewmaster from ‘Gansett’s glory days, Bill Anderson was brought on board to ensure the authenticity of the brew. That October, for the first time in a quarter century, Narragansett Beer was back in bottles and on bar taps.
In the 12 years since Narragansett has grown from virtually non-existence to New England’s 5th largest and the country’s 37th largest craft brewery. Nearly two thirds of all establishments in RI proudly serve Narragansett Beer, and the company has expended availability to 18 states plus the District of Columbia.
While the story of ‘Gansett’s rebirth resonated with New Englander’s at large, there was one glaring piece that was missing from the puzzle – a brewing facility in Rhode Island. In 2011 ‘Gansett launched the “Drink Your Part” campaign, asking fans to support the brand so that enough capital could be raised to build a new, state of the art facility in the state where it all began, and ‘Gansett fans responded with overwhelming support.
The road to a new brewery wasn’t an easy one. Rugs were pulled, plans fell through, and one of the potential future homes for the brand literally went up in a 5-alarm fire only days prior to closing. While the path to a new brewery became a struggle and disheartening at times, Narragansett left no stone unturned.
Finally, in April of 2016, Narragansett announced plans to partner with The Guild to brew large scale beer in Rhode Island for the first time in over 30 years at their new facility in Pawtucket. The Guild opened its doors and brewed Narragansett’s It’s About Time IPA as its inaugural beer in March 2017.
The Next Chapter
In May of 2019, Narragansett announced plans to build a new brewery in Providence, RI. Later in August, Narragansett announced the purchase of the building at 271 Tockwotton St. for its new waterfront home in the Fox Point neighborhood of Providence. Tockwotton is a Native American term that means “a steep ascent to be climbed,” a fitting home for the journey that began in 1890. With a projected opening of Summer 2020, Narragansett is extremely excited to fulfill a longtime dream of reopening its own doors in the state where it all began.