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Antique Beer Photos:

Dozens of prints available in a variety of sizes up to 40x50.
Reprinted from BEER NEW ENGLAND by Will Anderson, published 1988, by permission of the author.

The Giant That Was Narragansett

"Hi Neighbor . . . Have a 'Gansett": the words seem to yet endlessly roll off bill-boards and newspapers and magazines. And bus and trolley cards, too. While down at Fenway Curt Gowdy is beaming forth the beginning of another Sox game: "Hiya, neighbor. This is Red Sox baseball brought to you by Narragansett Lager Beer."

But the billboards and the ads and the mass transit cards are gone. Curt Gowdy is gone. And, for most intents and purposes, Narragansett is gone, too. Sure, it's still available. But it's brewed in Fort Wayne, Indiana [as of publication, 1988]. Hi neighbor?

It was not long ago, however, that Narragansett was truly "New England's Beer," New England's largest-selling beer. And we're not talking just Rhode Island, either. A 1955 survey, for example, found that 'Gansett was the number one choice among men in Portland, Maine; that it ranked higher than Budweiser and was favored more than two to one over Miller. Try running that one by the folks in Portland today.

German-American Origins

If most New England breweries were built around a tradition of ale -- which they were - Narragansett was an anomaly; it was built, in 1890, as a lager-only brewery. Its founding six - Augustus F. Borchandt, Herman G. Possner, George M. Gerhard, Constand A. Moeller, John H. Fehlberg, and Jacob Wirth (he of Boston fame) were all of German-American extraction. Its first brewmaster, direct from Berlin, was George Wilhelm. It wasn't until 1898 that ale was added to the Narragansett roster.

Growth, from the very beginning, was rather phenomenal. In 1891, the company brewed 27,997 barrels; by 1898, it was 80,083; 1900 saw 101,469; and by 1909, with George Wilhelm still overseeing the kettles, output topped the 200,000 barrel mark. Ale, porter, malt extract, and, of course, lager were all produced. It was the largest brewery in New England.

After prohibition Narragansett bounced back, again New England's largest brewery. Otto Henn, who'd replaced George Wilhelm about the time World War I was unfolding, returned as brewmaster. Emil Schierholz, general manager prior to prohibition, once more headed up operations. Both would remain at their respective posts for many, many years; Emil Schierholz until the late forties; Otto Henn into the fifties. While all this experience was invaluable in many ways, it may have been a negative, too. John McNaboe, Narragansett's last general manager, was later to ruminate: "The obituary column caught up with us. Nobody here ever put on a drive to catch the younger drinker, the 18-to-35s, because we always had the staunch middle-aged Narragansett drinkers." Outdated plant and equipment was a disadvantage, too. While, starting in 1970, Bud and Michelob were being churned out in an ultramodern plant less than one hundred miles up the road in New Hampshire, 'Gansett lager, ale and porter were still being produced in a facility that remained too turn-of-the-century in its state of the art. By comparison, we "still have to make beer by hand" was McNaboe's way of putting it.

From an estimated 65.5% of the region's beer sales in 1963, Narragansett fell to about 17% by 1980. Being purchased by national conglomerate Falstaff Brewing in 1965 didn't seem to stem the slippage. In fact, it may have aided it. An extensive advertising campaign for the new parent company's own Falstaff Beer only proved that spending money doesn't necessarily beat a path to success: Falstaff did not catch on in New England; Narragansett continued to lose ground to Bud, Miller et al.

The end came in the early 1980s. Fitfully. Brewery officials announced the closing of the 91-year-old operation in the summer of 1981; this in spite of a $200,000 tax break allowed by the Rhode Island legislature for 1980. The high cost of energy -- having to use oil instead of gas, resulting in a beer-production cost ofjust over $7.00 per 31-gallon barrel in Cranston vs. just over $3.00 in Fort Wayne -- was the major reason cited for the shutdown. In January of 1983 the brewery reopened, although on a much smaller scale than previously. And for what turned out to be but a brief period. Within several months it was shutdown day again. This time for keeps.

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