Small-Batch Revolution

How Providence County became a craft beverage hotspot

Posted

When it comes to craft beer, there’s so much to talk about. The aroma. The body. The flavors. The finish. What were those hints, those secret ingredients? How long did the recipe take to perfect? While regular beer gets poured into a plain old pint glass, craft beer demands tulips, goblets, snifters, pilsners, stanges, and mugs. In a regular bar, you’re free to knock back big-label lagers till the tap is kicked; yet craft beer is designed for sips, sharing, discussion. As the hops ease through the bloodstream, and the brewer stands across the bar, waxing poetic about the fermentation process, craft beer becomes a full-body experience, a living art that is (literally) as old as the pyramids.

And man, Rhode Islanders love their beer.

“I think it will get to a point where every town has its own brewery,” says Mathiew Medeiros, marketing advisor for Revival Brewing Company. “I think it’s still that way in parts of Germany. But I feel like we will eventually get to that point in Rhode Island.”

In the bustling microbrewery business, Revival is the perfect Cinderella story. The tale starts with Trinity Brewhouse, that pioneering gastropub in downtown Providence. Trinity was among the first independent breweries in the state; for more than a decade, the chief brewmaster was Sean Larkin, the mythic Rhode Island beer maker. In 2009, Sean teamed up with homebrewing enthusiast Owen Johnson, and they cofounded Revival.

Sean set up shop in Brutopia, a restaurant in Cranston. For several years, Revival remained a separate business. Sean opened a tasting room in the basement, distributed cans around the state, and provided Brutopia with much of its stock. The arrangement worked well – until this winter, when Brutopia closed its doors. The kitchen and dining room were now available, and Revival eagerly filled up the space.

The result isn’t a new restaurant, but an enormous “tasting room” that showcases Revival beers and happens to serve food. Visitors will find a pool table, Skee-Ball, and cult movies projected on the far wall. Revival beers are well known for their playful names – Night Swim’ah Belgian Wheat Ale, Elder Dweller Chocolate Stout – and the new food menu complements the selection; the Blood Orange Bushido Ale, which uses sake yeast, goes nicely with the popular ramen bowl.

“We’ve always had this fun, quirky, punny quality,” says Mathiew, who also teaches about the marketing of craft beer for the University of Vermont. “That’s just the Revival vibe. We have funky sours. We have heavy, roasted stouts. We have some light, wheat, fruit stuff. It’s easier for you to tell me what you usually like, and I’ll find something that matches your palette and that you’ll love.”

“The market has evolved,” he adds. “Beer customers are more apt to go to breweries and tasting rooms – partly because you get that personal experience. It’s a different customer journey.”

Getting into the Spirits

There’s nothing “new” about small-batch spirits. The term “microbrewery” dates back to the 1980s. Trinity Brewhouse was founded in 1995, before many legal drinkers were born. Union Station is another long standing brewpub, a sturdy link in Boston’s John Harvard’s chain. Craft beer has been a well established part of Providence nightlife since Seth MacFarlane was still a student at RISD.

What’s changed is the sheer number of alcohol-based artisans now operating in Providence and its environs. Pawtucket claims 11 breweries and two distilleries; this proliferation earned Pawtucket its own semi-formal motto, “the craft beer capital of Rhode Island.” Technically, not all of these are Ocean State brands; Great North Aleworks is a New Hampshire company, and NBPT refers to Newburyport, Massachusetts. But the beer is all made in Pawtucket, and there is a strong fellowship here. Everyone seems to know everyone, and, over the years, many of these brewers have apprenticed and collaborated with other local outfits.

Startups are usually lean operations, and metro breweries are no exception – most were founded by a couple of homebrewers and their thirsty comrades. Smug Brewing was founded in a Pawtucket warehouse by Robert DaRosa and his cousin. Morgan Clark Snyder basically started Buttonwoods Brewery in Cranston as a solo operation. Carlo Catucci, a high school physics teacher, opened White Dog Distilling with a handful of friends. All of these companies have opened within the past year.

But hardworking brewers can hit real paydirt. Long Live Beerworks is based in the West End, the microbrewery is well known and respected across the state; yet Beerworks only uses seven barrels, and the tasting room is the size of a studio loft. On weekends, visitors wait in long lines just to enter the doorway and refill their growlers. The operation will soon move to a larger location closer to Providence, and from there – who knows?

“For me, the biggest surprise is that we already have regulars,” says Cathy Plourde, cofounder of Rhode Island Spirits in Pawtucket. “We had regulars by the third weekend.”

Rhode Island Spirits opened in March, after a laborious approval process. Owners Cathy and Kara Larson struggled against the government shutdown, which delayed every aspect of their operation. But when the tasting room opened, visitors found a brightly lit room with sofas and coffee tables. The bottles of flavored vodka and gin are sleek and attractive; as patrons sip, they can gaze through antique windows at the Blackstone River flowing below. The distillery is newborn, and it’s not easy to find – like many tasting rooms, it stands at the end of a dusty corridor in an old brick building – yet travelers have come from as far as Connecticut to sample their stock.

“We put a lot of work and a lot of thought into the tasting room,” says Kara. “We see people walk into the room and go, ‘Oh, wow.’ People come in, they stay for awhile. They come back, and they bring friends.”

The Guilded Age

Picture the word “beer hall” in your mind. What do you see? A voluminous room? Spartan walls? A long bar? A snack station? Communal wood tables? Vertical, handwritten menus? Maybe a cornhole game set up in the corner? Something like that?

In November, The Guild brought this vision to life. The Guild is a large industrial space, housing no fewer than eight different breweries. The diverse craftsmen share a roof, machinery, and marketing, almost like a coworking office, except with access to fermenters the size of grain silos. Even the mighty Narragansett Beer produces its craft portfolio at The Guild, which has helped the company revitalize after a slump in the '80s and '90s. Most Rhode Island beer fans are familiar with The Guild, frequenting the modest tap room that used to open around weekends. Now, that modest taproom has become the beer hall, and Guild enthusiasts are ecstatic.

“It’s such an awesome old building,” says Jeremy Duffy, who cofounded The Guild with Devin Kelly in 2012. He gestures to the unadorned brick walls, the old vaulted ceilings. “We want the building to talk. We don’t want to take away from that. We really wanted to be as neutral as possible, for our partners’ sake. Our goal was to create a platform for The Guild itself. That was critical.”

As the small-batch industry continues to blossom, there are countless symbols of growing success, in Providence and across the state. But the Guild’s beer hall is the region’s biggest monument to artisanal libations, the surest sign that the industry is alive and thriving. Even diehard regulars are often surprised that The Guild only opened its doors in May of 2017. Last year, The Guild hosted 130 separate events. The new beer hall employs 14 bartenders, who are all fluent in the breweries’ output and industry trends.

“They all either have experience with bartending or just really love the craft beer movement,” says Jeremy. “When they’re hired here, they get a pretty strong regimen – to teach them what the Guild represents. One of our brewers also does a beer school every month. It’s important that they talk about it, and talk about it in the right ways.”

For local brewers with skill and tenacity, 2019 brims with possibility. Mathiew may see his dream come true, of a brewery in every neighborhood and village, serving local fare to local people, and greeting connoisseurs from across New England. Like so much of Rhode Island’s small business world, cross-pollination occurs at a frantic rate; Revival has used Granny Squibb’s Organic Iced Tea, and Narragansett has mixed Autocrat coffee syrup and Del’s lemonade into its brews. Food trucks regularly set up at even the smallest brewery, matching munchies with suds.

If the small batch revolution could be summarized in a single number, Jeremy has it. In 2018, the Guild’s first full year in operation, the taproom welcomed 52,000 guests. Then he smiles impishly. “That doesn’t include dogs,” he says. “That would probably be another thousand.”