Beer: the next generation

By IAN DONNIS  |  February 6, 2008

Track84inside
PROUD TO BE A BEER NERD: Track 84’s Longiaru talks with impressive knowledge about his
favorite subject.

Good for what ales you
While the bar has passed in and out of Longiaru’s family over time, the affable Warwick native realized, after reacquiring the place in 1999, that a different approach was needed to sustain it into the future. Thankfully, his enthusiasm for craft beers offered what seemed like a promising direction.
 
Since installing the new focus about three years, Longiaru remains amazed by how many people enjoy good beer. He talks authoritatively about the subject, describing with awe how the Belgians won’t serve a certain brew if they lack the appropriate glass in which to put it (he took a busman’s holiday with five other enthusiasts, including Nikki’s Liquors’ Iannazzi, to Belgium in February 2007.)

“That’s what we want to see — people taking an interest in the beer,” Longiaru says. “One thing I have to say about craft beer [drinkers], I haven’t met an asshole. It’s a [sense of] camaraderie, a nice friendship — we’re all connected by quality beer.”
 
This connection has landed Track 84, from its off-the-beaten-track perch, on Rhode Island’s unofficial list of beer hot spots.
 
So if Rhode Island has trailed some other states in the development of a more robust beer culture, we’re quickly making up ground.
 
Along with Track 84, a handful of other bars are known for their extensive number of craft beers on tap, including Pitcher’s Pub in Cumberland, the Mews Tavern in Wakefield, and the refurbished East Avenue Café in Pawtucket (the Wickenden Pub in Providence has a particularly large amount of bottled beer).
 
Beyond the liquor stores diversifying their stock, there are those, such as Joyal’s Liquors in West Warwick, Town Wine and Spirits in East Providence, and I.M. Gan Discount Liquors in Warwick, that are adding to a longstanding and impressive supply of exotic varieties of beer. “I think there’s this new generation of beer drinkers,” says John Hogan, the owner of I.M. Gan. “The beer drinkers today are more sophisticated, and the consumers want better quality . . . They want choices, they want variety, they want to try the next thing, and they’re not afraid to pay for it.”
 
Locally, the beauty of the current beer moment can be seen in our variety: the Ocean State is home not just to a microbrewer (Middletown-based Coastal Extreme Brewing, makers of Newport Storm), and brewpubs (Coddington Brewing Company in Middletown, and Trinity Brewhouse and Union Station Brewery, both in Providence), but also Narragansett Beer (see “Narragansett hopes to brew locally in ’08,” below), which has rejuvenated the brand that helped quench generations of Rhode Islanders.

The Dogfish that roared
Sam Calagione, who heads up Delaware-based Dogfish Head, almost set up shop in Rhode Island. “I lived in Providence while my wife Mariah was finishing up at Brown, and I looked at opening a brewery there, but I couldn’t get my business plan in order and lost the chance to be the first in the state,” Calagione says, via e-mail.
 
Be that as it may, Dogfish Head — named for a Maine peninsula where Calagione’s family had a summer cabin when he was a kid — has nonetheless emerged as one of the rock stars of the current craft beer movement. The smallest brewery in the country when it was founded in 1995, the outfit is now the biggest craft brewer in the mid-Atlantic and a name that carries considerable panache among beer nerds. (Longiaru, for example, was quite happy to discover the availability of Dogfish Head during a recent jaunt to a Portuguese-American social club, not exactly a prototypical microbrew hotspot, in the Fox Point section of Providence.)
 
As befits its motto (“Off-centered ales for off-centered people”), Dogfish, whose flagship 60 Minute IPA is a personal favorite, is known for its energetic creativity and its devotion to unusual beers (dogfish.com categorizes the company’s brews by “year round beers,” “occasional rarities,” “brewpub exclusives,” and “on hiatus beers.”).
 
Asked to explain the wider variety of beer now found in liquor stores in Rhode Island and elsewhere, Calagione writes, “I think people are recognizing that craft beer offers an affordable connoisseurship compared to high-end wine, and that craft beers, especially those that approach the ABV [alcohol-by-volume] and complexity of wine, are as good of a food-pairing partner as any wine out there.”
 
Although drinkers in Massachusetts, our more populous neighbor to the north, are the top collective customer for Dogfish Head, Allen Reitz, the brewer’s New England sales manager, puts Rhode Island in the top 15 of the 23 states in which its beer is sold. The beer has steadily made inroads in the Ocean State since gaining a foothold, he says, about six or seven years ago.
 
An ancillary benefit of the craft beer boom is how distributors, who hold considerable power in influencing the selection available to consumers, see it as being in their interest to help promote the craft beers.
 
In the case of Dogfish, for example, Dan Keating, then with Brewers & Vintners in Middletown, actually reached out to the Delaware-based brewer, because, Reitz says, “He was looking for that smaller brewer to come in with really full-flavored beers. It wasn’t the normal routine.”
 
Meanwhile, the kind of credibility developed by Dogfish and similarly oriented brewers — as well as craft beer drinkers’ thirst for an ongoing array of different beer experiences — offers an incentive for liquor stores to stock even the most far-out varieties.
 
Newport Avenue, a land of unremarkable strip plazas in East Providence, for example, might not be considered prime territory for microbrews. Yet Town Wine and Spirits has long cultivated a fine selection of beer and wine, so shoppers there shouldn’t be surprised if they might happen upon Dogfish’s Old School Barleywine, an exotic potion that packs a potent alcohol-by-volume content of 15 percent.
 
“The quality of the products speak for themselves,” says Taylor Cram, the store’s general manager, speaking more broadly. “People have developed palates, and they’re not going to trade down, because the quality is not going to be there. People who get into it are not going to trade down, because that’s where the pleasure is for them. You can drink some of the best beer in the world, and it’s not going to cost you a ton of money,” perhaps $8 for a Belgian beauty, compared with $500 for a superlative bottle of wine.
 
We’ll drink to that.

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