Rogues and Renegades: Our beer expert takes a trip down memory lane

beerstoryI came of drinking age during the dawn of local craft beer. Back when the pioneers of craft beer in RI were but a few niche bars and liquor stores, three brewpubs, and one brewery. It’s hard to believe that was considered revolutionary. Going to Track 84, or Ward’s, offered a glimpse of a bright, diverse universe of beer never dreamed of before. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the entity that gave at least half of this generation of brewers their start: Brewer’s Heaven. Brewer’s Heaven, while short-lived, was much-loved and inspired many of us to pursue craft beer not just as a hobby, but as a lifestyle. The Great International Beer Festival, also now a thing of the past, brought in the latest and greatest every year to the crowds of thirsty hopheads and maltsters.

The GIBF has given way to Beervana. Track 84 paved the way for Doherty’s, for Julians, Treehouse Tavern, 84 Tavern on Canal, Malted Barley and for even your local chain restaurants to carry one or two local breweries on tap. Elevated Spirits, the craft beer department at McLaughlin and Moran, helped good beer proliferate across the state by picking up many old favorites and signing on and encouraging local newbies.

This revolution was so successful not just because these wonderful places existed. It was the culture they helped cultivate. It’s a concept that is uniquely Rhody. Ironic that we were so late to join the craft beer revolution, since many other states were already careening ahead of us, like Massachusetts, Vermont, Colorado and Washington. But here in Rhode Island, the state so rebellious we didn’t even join the Union until the other 12 colonies did, we knew, long ago, that the mass-produced pilsners were soulless, watery, shadows of what beer could be.

I remember my first trip to Newport Storm, back when they operated out of a storage facility, and if you didn’t get there early enough, you weren’t getting in. Back then, the wild rogues of Coastal Extreme would let your cups overfloweth during and after the tour. Their tap room was little more than some taps and a bench nestled between can storage. It was so beautifully renegade and bare-bones. No space was wasted and no penny left un-pinched, but they were generous and bold with big dreams. That was where I first met Uncle Frank (no relation) of Yankee Brew News, the man I would succeed as the Hop Tips editor. It’s where I met Brent and Derek, the men who took Newport Storm from a backroom brewery to national fame.

And of course, there was Track 84, the beloved little hole-in-the-wall with a beer selection that even modern beer bars can’t compete with. They had Delerium Tremens on tap when most people didn’t know that Belgian ales existed. They had Dogfish Head Fort when sours were still an unloved and marginalized style.

I remember my first visit to Doherty’s in Pawtucket, meeting the Emperor of Beer, and being dazzled by the cozy ambiance and the impressive selection. Trinity and Union Station were the bright stars in Providence, featuring innovative and delicious beers made by men who would become local legends. Even Coddington Brew House would remain a choice destination, particularly if you couldn’t get in on the Newport Storm tour for that week.

A handful of liquor stores recognized which way the wind was blowing, and started stocking rare, interesting and obscure beers from near and far. Nikki’s Liquors, Wyoming Package and a few others took the chance and brought in brews from Germany, Belgium, Bavaria, Italy, France, Canada and everywhere that interesting, different styles were being made. They embraced Dogfish Head, and often competed for their rare, limited specialties like the World Wide Stout or the 120 Minute IPA.

That was the scene when I turned 21.

It has been an incredible journey to watch the evolution. It has been heartbreaking at times, with the demise of some of the old guard, and the torturous struggle of some underdogs we would valiantly root for. But while not all who struggle succeed, those who do leave an indelible mark on this state. Even those who fall leave a legacy that is not soon forgotten. Like Brewer’s Heaven. Like Track 84. Like Bucket Brewery and the little-known Emerald Isle Brewing. I have been truly blessed to behold this genesis.

And where are we now? Well, ask Newport Brewing Company, Revival Brewing, Foolproof, Trinity, Buttonwoods, Ragged Island, Sons of Liberty Distilling, Proclamation, Ravenous, Grey Sail, Whalers, Long Live Beerworks, Brewtopia, Crooked Current, Tilted Barn, Isle Brewers Guild, Providence Brewing Company, Shaidzon, Providence Brewing Company, Union Station, Coddington, Smug and whatever breweries have opened since I started typing that sentence.

It is possible the bubble has popped. But the great thing about good craft beer is that the bubbles stick around. They cling to the side of the glass and create a beautiful lacing that doesn’t fade easily. Rhode Island is a beer state, one that soldiers on even while the economy teeters, even while tastes change and the market shifts. Because we’re the renegades. We’re the rebels. Raise your glass, my fellow outlaws. Lift high your porters, stouts, IPAs, Belgian tripels, sours, bourbon-barrel-aged beauties and insane experiments with peanut butter. We’re pirates and rogues, and we refuse to be kept down by mediocrity.

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