Narragansett Brewing’s Mark Hellendrung Discusses Life, Lager, And New England’s Oldest Brewery

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Chances are, if you grew up outside of New England, you might not have heard of Narragansett Brewing. And if you have, you probably know it as the Jaws beer.

Narragansett Brewing, however, is so much more than the beer famously crushed by Quint in Jaws. The oldest brewery in New England, ‘Gansett was once the official beer of the Red Sox. To boot, their famous mascot, Chief Gansett, was drawn by none other than Dr. Seuss. It was, put simply, a New England powerhouse.

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But after changing hands several times, a move to Indiana, and a cost-driven change to the famous lager recipe, ‘Gansett almost went dark in the early 2000s.

Yet now, thanks to president Mark Hellendrung, Narragansett is the 38th largest brewery in the United States, available up and down the east coast and even found as far west as Portland, Oregon.

Along with several other investors, Hellendrung, a Rhode Island native and the former president of Nantucket Nectars, bought ‘Gansett in 2005 and made it the New England-loving powerhouse it is today.

From their ongoing Lovecraft series–serious beers named after the serious (and seriously scary) Rhode Island native H.P. Lovecraft–to their recently re-released Del’s Shandy–a lager-based shandy that is basically summer in a can–Narragansett is going through something of a renaissance.

So what happened in the 11 years Hellendrung has been at the helm?

We talked to Hellendrung about how he brought ‘Gansett back from the brink, the return of Del’s Shandy and the future of craft beer.

The Manual: Del’s Shandy is back on shelves in time for summer. How long have you guys teamed up with Del’s to make your shandy?

Mark Hellendrung: Last year was the first year out in Portland, but this is the third year we’re going to have it.

The one thing that we never talk about with the Del’s is the difference in the beer compared to other shandys. Almost all the other shandys out there are wheat beers. Ours is a lager, and it’s based off our high-rated lager.

The frustrating thing about beer now is that everything sort of becomes copycat. Like there’s a million pumpkin beers out there right now. So I think it’s really important to differentiate yourself. So the lager for us is that point of difference. You can go out and get twenty different lemon shandys, and ours is different and more drinkable. I think it’s the perfect blend of beer and lemonade. The lemon flavors come out cleaner because of the lager we use.

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What do you suggest readers pair with Del’s Shandy?

I make an awesome beer-can chicken with the Del’s Shandy. That’s what I do with it.  We use two all-natural lemon concentrates, one that sort of gives it the lemon peel-zest flavor, the other is more of the pulp-y flavor. Those flavors and aromas really come out in the chicken. Aside from that, seafood is certainly good.

What’s your favorite beer that you guys make? I know that you make a lot of seasonals, but just say all of your beers were available today. What would you reach for first?

During summer, I’m drinking lager all day long. I really like that style. I’ll enjoy an IPA or two, but I love drinking lager beer, and so I love ours.

But right now I really love our Reanimator, which is part of the Lovecraft series. It’s just–it’s basically a Helles lager that we dry-hopped, and it’s about 7 1/2% alcohol, and it’s just perfect. It used to be our bock, but then we dry-hopped it and renamed it the Reanimator after the Lovecraft story. It’s just one of the things we’re doing to innovate and try new things.

So why Narragansett? What was so important to you about buying the brewery?

I’m a lifelong Rhode Islander. I was running Nantucket Nectars, and Snapple bought us out. I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do next. I was in this bar in Newport–and you gotta remember that this was 15 years ago, before craft [beer] really started taking off. I was in a bar with a buddy and I was sorta bored with everything in the bar. I said to the bartender, “There’s gotta be something else you have that’s interesting.” And this old-timer at the end [of the bar] said, “Give him a Narragansett!”

And next thing you know the whole bar is talking about old stories of Narragansett and how great it used it be. And I was like, man, whatever happened to Narragansett? The more people I talked to, it just became this cause. I felt like New England deserved to have it back, and it has just taken on a life of its own since then.

‘Gansett moved operations to Indiana one of the times it was purchased. People complained about quality, and the brewery almost died. Maybe you could expand upon why you felt it was important to bring it back to its roots.

It’s just a source of local pride. Bringing the brewery back and bringing the lager back to its original recipe–they kept changing it in Indiana, making it cheaper, more watered down–I just thought, just for the authenticity of the brand and what we’re doing, it’s important to the brand to do things right. This is real to me and to everyone I work with. It was important to do it this way.

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For a while, megabreweries weren’t really taking craft beer seriously. It seemed like a fad. But judging by some of these recent purchases–such as Elysian–it looks like they are taking it seriously now. How do you view these recent purchases of craft breweries? 

Well those acquisitions certainly change things–and I know these guys either don’t want to admit or think that things are going to change, but when you sell a major piece of the company, and you’re not just working for yourself anymore, the soul of the brand changes, and the soul of how things get done changes.

I don’t want to be the one to say it’s right or it’s wrong, but I will emphatically say that it’s different, and it’s really up to each person to say whether it’s right or wrong. It is what it is. Those big guys will now bring a lot of muscle to what used to be smaller brands. You know, craft beer has always been a sort of David versus Goliath type thing, and [craft breweries who have been bought out] are certainly on the other side of the fence now. They’re certainly not David. When you’re owned by Anheuser-Busch or MillerCoors, you’ve got all the world’s resources behind you.

Did your experience with Nantucket Nectars being sold to Snapple inform how you view these acquisitions?

Yeah, that’s a good example where it’s like, the recipes didn’t change, but the way we did things changed, and it wasn’t Tom [First], Tom [Scott] and me and Chris Testa doing the under-the-cap facts. It was this marketing person. There’s a big difference between someone saying, “I’m going to make this thing look like it comes from Nantucket” versus a bunch of people who lived on Nantucket making it look like Nantucket. That may seem like nuance, but it’s real. And again, I’ll still go out and have a Nantucket Nectars half-and-half in the summertime, and it tastes great, but it’s still not the same soul that it once was.

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I think that’s a pretty important distinction. Given that you and the other investors went out of your way to purchase Narragansett and revive it, I’m assuming this is a no, but would you ever consider selling ‘Gansett?

[Laughs] Never say never, but it’s not anything we’re working on right now. I mean, shoot, you look at the guy from Ballast Point, and he got $1 billion. I mean, a billion dollars is a billion dollars. But that’s not something I’m interested in now. I’ll say that if it ever did happen, I’d like to do it in a very unique way. You know, we’re building this the right way, in an authentic way. I think that that’s where the value of the brand is, and it’s going to be hard for someone else to come in and replicate it.

What do you want for the brewery 5-10 years down the line?

I really want to continue to expand in a smart way. We’re in the midst of filling in a lot of east coast states now. We’re in South Carolina [in March], Virginia next month. And then over time, I want to get Chicago going, and I want to get the Pacific Northwest going and use Portland as a hub to do that.

More so, I want to continue to innovate in the craft space, with our Lovecraft series and maybe some other flavors of Del’s Shandy and really just continue to have fun with the lager. At the end of the day, lager is still the number one style in America when you add up all the Bud and the Corona and all that other stuff. I like to think that we do it in a fun way. We’ve got a lot of other fun things we haven’t tapped into yet–like, Dr. Seuss used to be an illustrator for Narragansett way back in the day. We want to continue to explore our heritage and history and have fun with it.