Got Beer? Brewpubs: The Birthplace of Greatness

Ah, the brewpub. Just the word can have an effect on the dedicated beer nerd. A good brewpub can spark the imagination of the homebrewer, allow future master brewers to perfect their craft on a small scale, or just be a fun, cozy little spot to try something new and different each week.

Providence has long been home to two great brewing institutions, Union Station and Trinity Brewhouse, both excellent establishments with long histories of charging forward in the craft beer revolution. I wanted to get some inside info on the role of the brewpub in Providence over the years, so I caught up with local brewmaster Sean Larkin, one of the busiest men in the beer industry, responsible not just for some of the mouth-watering gems at Trinity, but for some of the fun, experimental beers at Narragansett, the beer lineup at Brutopia in Cranston, and his own personal beer project, Revival Brewing.

Pete Larrivee (Motif): When did you start at Trinity?

Sean Larkin: I started working at Trinity in 1994 and there were a handful of breweries throughout the state. Trinity was new, so there was a significant amount of curiosity about it. We were making a standard six beer line-up at the time with classic examples of styles, and introducing roughly two new beers a month by going through the style trees.
 I took over as head brewer in 1996 and the world of beer was open for me to explore. My limits at the time were only my own imagination. One of the things that I wanted to do was to build out a team and find people who I could enjoy working with and have fun with.

There was a steady cast of characters who came and went, but one stayed and he was my partner in crime, Tommy Tainish. I grew up with Tommy and he was my best friend. We were similar but opposite in many ways. We fought like brothers (silently) but above all we had each other’s back.

I was the show boat and the face of the company, and Tommy was the silent type. He would tease me about my public appearances and quest to go out on my own and start Revival. He always wondered when I would make my appearance on “Jay Leno” and it was his way of dealing with celebrity.

When it came to recipes and formulation, I spent a considerable amount of time thinking them up in my head first and talking about it with the team. We always brewed them together. In the world of brewing everyone wants to know, “Who wrote the recipe?” I’m not sure why it was so important to folks. What’s important to me in this story is to convey that any success that we had in brewing beer at Trinity was a shared team success.

I could not have been prouder of Tommy and the boys when we were recognized for our efforts.

PL: How did Trinity and the craft beer scene change over the years?

SL: When I started working on recipes for Gansett, things started to get awkward. Then when I started my Revival, things got really awkward. No matter how awkward it got for all of us the team still had my back I felt. Obviously, those projects would not have manifested and been successful if everyone was not on board — the owners, brewers and fans.

When I started working on Brutopia my vision was clear: growth. Growth for me and Tommy, and growth for the industry. Tommy would take over Trinity and I would leave and build a new brewery.

The state was ready for another brewpub and this one was going to be built for speed and to produce beer for a different audience with production in mind. Cranston was ready for it and so was Rhode Island.

PL: How much do brewpubs affect the craft beer scene?

SL: Brewpubs are breweries. They play an important part in innovation and our beer culture in general. Look at any of the successful major brands that have sold this year or that are still independently owned. Most of them started as a brewpub or have a brewpub attached to them. Most of the innovation that makes it to a larger scale at production breweries starts in the brewpubs or on test batches in tasting rooms. 
When you consider how much growth our tiny state and market has had in the past few years, we truly are going thru some growing pains, some of us more than others. In the end, we are all trying to do some amazing things for the public to enjoy.

I would hope that our fans realize that we could not do it without them. Also I would not be where I am today without Tommy and the team at Trinity.

To Josh and Tommy, thank you for always having my back. There would be no me without you. Thank you for my Revival.

Sean’s story is not the only one. Many successful brewery owners and beer entrepreneurs began their careers at brewpubs.

Of course, not all brewpub stories are success stories. For a brief time in the early 2000s, Providence hosted a brewpub called Hops Restaurant and Brewery. Part of a small chain, the establishment vanished almost as quickly as it appeared, and now seems to have only a single location in Virginia.

A brewpub is no small matter to either create or run. In addition to all the usual difficulties in owning a brewery, one also has to survive the endless assault of issues typical of the restaurant business. Health codes, menu design, hiring reliable waitstaff and bartenders — all this in addition to large, expensive machines handling gallons and gallons of boiling-hot liquid that require sanitized conditions for fermentation.

But if you’re an aspiring brewer, don’t let that deter you from chasing your dreams. A brewpub’s small scale and emphasis on experimentation means you’ll have plenty of room to perfect your craft. The Alchemist, makers of the much-sought-after and fanatically pursued Heady Topper, began as a brewpub.

So support your local brewpub, be it our friends in Providence at Trinity, Union and the new BeerWorks, or Coddington down in Newport. Savor the flavor, and make sure you provide helpful, positive feedback. You might be helping a dedicated brewer perfect the next great rauchbier or Belgian white.


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