Beer: the next generation

Hopped-up brews are proliferating in Rhode Island, from neighborhood bars to the corner package store
By IAN DONNIS  |  February 6, 2008
Nikki'sinside
GET HOPPY: The growing variety at Nikki’s Liquors and other retailers dovetails with the
experimental approach of craft brewers.

"Narragansett hopes to brew locally in '08: Hellendrung envisioning a beer garden on Providence's West Side." By Ian Donnis.
Nikki’s Liquors, at first blush, seems like a typical liquor store. It’s tucked away in a nondescript strip mall in a residential section of North Providence, and the racks of wine and hard stuff greeting incoming customers are distinctly par for the course. But then you see IT: an imposing, towering, rectangle-shaped display of shelves with 800 different bottles of beer, each inviting closer inspection and encouraging a palpable thirst.
 
Presiding over this eye-popping selection is a happy calling for longtime beer-lover Michael Iannazzi, who got into the business after selling off a handful of Ronzio pizza shops about eight years ago. By dramatically expanding his craft beer selection in recent years, Iannazzi has indulged his own interest and transformed his shoebox-sized shop into a destination for ale aficionados from as far away as Massachusetts and Connecticut.
 
Hosting weekly Thursday night tastings, Nikki’s also offers a “mix-a-six” program in which customers can choose six different beers and take a 10 percent discount. For $14.87 — about as much as a nice bottle of wine — you might choose Weihenstephaner Hefe Weissbier, from the German outfit that calls itself the world’s oldest brewer; 90 Minute Imperial IPA from Delaware-based Dogfish Head, a favorite of craft beer junkies; Maudite, by Canada’s Unibroue; Oatmeal Stout from the Mercury Brewing Company in Ipswich, Massachusetts; Samuel Smith’s Imperial Stout, via England; and Hallertau Imperial Pilsner, aptly billed by Sam Adams as “An Intense Hop Experience.”
 
The existence of Nikki’s, which bills itself as having Rhode Island’s most extensive beer selection, isn’t surprising; America’s craft beer movement has continued to advance, with some periodic shakeouts, since Boston-based Sam Adams spearheaded a resurgence in the 1980s.
 
What is unusual — and pretty cool for beer drinkers — is how a growing number of these brews are finding their way into stores that once had a far more limited selection, heavy on the major domestics, a few imports, and a smidgen of less mainstream stuff.
 
Countryside Liquors, located on Armistice Boulevard in Pawtucket, is a prime example. Although the shop has been a liquor store for about 50 years, it wasn’t known for a broad variety of beer. Christopher Jacobs started to diversify after buying the place four years ago, offering occasional tastings, and he says his customers have responded favorably. “It’s definitely growing,” says Jacobs, who sees the trend as a generational thing. “We consistently keep adding more beers.”
 
In an era of continued corporate consolidation, the broadening of the beer spectrum is heartening, on a number of levels.
 
Most fundamentally, drinking a few good beers at day’s end offers some small comfort in a world gone wrong.
 
Yet the craft beer movement represents meritocracy at work, since small brewers — thanks to the quality of their products and the ensuing consumer demand — are succeeding in an industry still dominated by the majors. In this respect, supporting the efforts of small brewers, even if many drinkers might not think of it just so, is a pint-sized vote for variety.
 
In a time of pre-emptive war and America’s diminished status abroad, there’s also something encouraging about beer geeks: less stuffy than oenophiles (to generalize a bit), yet rigorous and discerning in their enthusiasm.

Shifting seas of beer
Industry sources — who say the greater variety of beers being purveyed is a national trend — attribute it largely to business: craft-brew sales have enjoyed impressive growth in recent years, while other segments of the market remain flat. Retailers, who operate on a margin, can also enjoy higher profits, since craft beers sell for a higher price.
 
If the big brewers (who retain about 95 percent of the American beer market) are not exactly shaking in their shoes, they are taking note of the craft beer trend.
 
This can be seen in how even McLaughlin & Moran, the distributor of Anheuser-Busch products in Rhode Island, has started distributing some craft beers, including Clipper City’s Heavy Seas line out of Baltimore, and Sherwood Forest’s Archers Ale from Massachusetts, and it plans to add more. “We certainly look at product quality and consumer relevance,” says Chuck Borkoski, McLaughlin & Moran’s vice president for marketing. “We’re looking to partner up with quality producers of products.”
 
Yet the Internet has also been an important factor in the development of a more sophisticated beer culture in America. There are a variety of related Web sites, including realbeer.com, that function as focal points for beer geeks by rating beers, charting beer festivals, and listing beer-related destinations.
 
One such spot is Track 84, a tavern housed in a simple wooden structure on Kilvert Street, a dead-end off Post Road in Warwick, hard by T.F. Green Airport, which appears from the outside to be an old-fashioned Rhode Island watering hole.
 
Step into the place now, though, and it’s hard to resist being impressed by the 19 different taps — exclusively craft beer — running the length of the long old wooden bar.
 
The beverages of choice at the moment include Captain Swain’s Extra Stout, by Nantucket-based Cisco — “I call that a local beer,” says David A. Longiaru, Track 84’s proprietor — Kasteel, a Belgian brew made with black cherries, Dale’s Pale Ale (the only craft brew that comes in a can), Lagunitas Brewing Company’s Brown Shugga, Stone Brewing Company’s Double Bastard, Magic Hat’s Odd Notion, Weyerbacher’s Blithering Idiot, and several offerings from locally based Newport Storm. The most unusual tap is the pink elephant for Delirium Tremens, a reference to both its 20 percent alcohol-by-volume content and the thrill-seeking spirit embodied by craft brewers.

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