Gansett has rich history, bright future

While brewed in New York, beer still rooted in RI


It’s the folksy, popular slogan that is just part of the rich history of the Narragansett Brewing Company.  Founded in 1890, the brewery was once one of Cranston’s largest employers and it helped put Rhode Island on the map with its crisp lager beer made with “the sparkling waters of the Scituate Reservoir.”

Last week, the Cranston Historical Society featured a presentation on the brewery’s history at its general membership meeting at the Sprague Mansion.  Sandra Moyer, president of the society, noted that the group, which is marking its 75th anniversary this year, is always looking for interesting historical topics to present to the public. The story of the Narragansett Brewery was a natural fit,” she said.  “Many of us still have fond memories of the important role (it) played in our city’s history,” Moyer said.

The fond memories were apparent, as more than 65 people showed up to hear James Crooks, Vice President of Sales and Marketing for the Narragansett Brewing Company, talk about its long and complex history.  It all began, he said, at the turn of the 20th century when a group of German immigrants eschewed the pale ale that was popular in the area and set out to create a taste of home by brewing their own lager beer.

They more than succeeded.  At its peak, Narragansett Brewery was producing about 2 million barrels of beer a year and at one time was also the number one selling brand in New England.

Crooks is clearly passionate about the history of the brewery and has an almost-encyclopedic knowledge of it. He talked about its inception, its glory days, its demise, its ongoing resurrection, and its popularity in the 21st century.

The beer is currently brewed in upstate New York, but Crooks and company president Mark Hellendrung are clearly committed to all things Rhode Island.  Occasionally sipping from a Narragansett  ‘Anchor’ light lager as he spoke, he invited the crowed to come visit the Narragansett Brewery taproom that overlooks India Point Park in Providence.

The company continues to grow and offers a variety of brews, including a changing menu at the taproom which is only a few miles from the original Cranston site where it all began.  Narragansett beers are available primarily on the East Coast, he said, with strong popularity in New York and, of course, Rhode Island.  The future looks bright again, he said.

Here are some of the historical details he shared:

• The brewery was able to survive prohibition by keeping revenue flowing with the production of sodas. It was one of only six breweries in the country to get a special patent that allowed it to be prescribed for medicinal purposes. In particular, Narragansett’s malt-rich porter was often a remedy of choice for anemia.

• The “Cat in the Hat” and Narragansett Beer have something in common. After prohibition, Rudolf Haffenreffer Jr. took the helm of the the Narragansett Brewing Company. His son, Rudolf Haffenreffer III, went to Dartmouth College where one of his friends happened to be Theodor cq Geisel, an aspiring author and artist who the world would eventually come to know by his pen name: Dr. Seuss.  Geisel did some advertising artwork for the brewery, and traces of his distinctive style can be seen on the beer trays and coasters he created.

• In the 1940’s Narragansett became the first brewery to sponsor a sports team, and it did it twice. It became the official sponsor of both the Boston Red Sox and Boston Braves, increasing the brewery’s visibility and fan base.

• The famous and friendly “Hi Neighbor!” advertising campaign was born in the ‘40s when the brewing company’s advertising manager, Jack Haley, capitalized on a casual greeting used in his own neighborhood.

• Also in the 1940’s, Narragansett beer had a hand in supporting the creation of the Jimmy Fund. There had been a national radio broadcast featuring a visit that some Boston Braves baseball players made to young boy fighting cancer. The boy was called ‘Jimmy’ to protect his identity and the broadcast struck a chord with the public.  Narragansett, as the official sponsor of the teams, had sport announces continue to promote the charity at ensuing ballgames. The Braves continued their support until the team moved to Milwaukee in the 1950’s.  After that, the Boston Red Sox adopted the Jimmy Fund as their official charity.

• The 1950’s and 60’s saw the heydays of the brewery, and by 1965, three out of every four beers poured in Rhode Island were Narraganset. Annual production, including other brand-name beers, was about 2 million barrels (the equivalent of approximately 60 million gallons).

• It was no accident that Narragansett Beer had an unforgettable supporting role in the movie Jaws. It was the can of beer quaffed and crushed by the character Captain Quint. Director Steve Spielberg wanted every detail to be as locally accurate as possible, so, according to Crooks, he had production crew members ask Massachusetts fishermen what they drank, and the answer was “Gansett.”


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