Local Tastemakers Contribute to the Large-Size Beverage Scene in Li’l Rhody
It’s been a couple of decades since we first started hearing about the national reputation of the food scene in our state, but we don’t always hear as much about the beverage scene. Sure, there’s been General Assembly debate over the “state beverage”: coffee milk vs. Del’s Lemonade (the former won in 1993). Narragansett Beer has come back as a house-hold word. Seven smaller vineyards have joined the three long-established ones on Aquidneck Island and in Little Compton.
But what about the ever-growing craft beer industry? Rhody-grown spirits, such as whiskey and gin? Rhody-roasted coffee beans? The centenarian tradition of Yacht Club sodas? The new tradition of cold-pressed juices? And a grandmother’s summer iced tea turned into an organic, bottled product?
The people gathered on Edible Rhody’s cover this season represent the wide-ranging beverage scene: eight produce and sell beverages; the ninth, Willa Van Nostrand, mixes beverages.
Van Nostrand grew up on a small herb farm where her father taught her to tend bar, a skill he’d learned growing up in the Bronx. When she started bartending in Providence in 2009 (after summer stints behind the bar during college), inventing her own craft cocktails, she quickly won a following for her attentiveness to detail: edible flowers, fresh juices, herbal garnishes, “infusing theater into the drinks themselves,” in her words. Her successful cocktail catering company, Little Bitte Artisanal Cocktails, is the first of its kind in Rhode Island.
The beverage brewer closest in “spirit” to Van Nostrand might be Mike Reppucci, founder of Sons of Liberty, a spirits distiller in Peace Dale, which hit the market in 2012 with a single-malt whiskey; then two more, finished in sherry barrels; two fruit-flavored whiskeys (apple and pumpkin); and, most recently, a gin. The whiskeys and the gin have won top international awards. Another change in SOL’s direction has been getting a brewer’s license, because, since both his whiskeys and his gin begin with beer, his customers asked to taste the beers (dark stout, Belgian triple and Belgian wheat beer), and he now brews those to sell.
But craft beers were getting their foothold in Rhode Island even in 1996, when Sean Larkin became head brewer at the Trinity Brewhouse. And though he brewed heavily-hopped beers for years, he is partial to the darker ones. He did a popular coffee stout with White Electric Coffee and took it to his own company, Revival, incorporated in 2010. Still without his own brewery, Larkin brews Revival’s products “gypsy-style,” at Brutopia in Cranston and at Cottrell in Pawcatuck, Connecticut. But his years of knowledge and experience helped Narragansett Beer re-launch and helped other startup brewers.
“The brotherhood and sisterhood of the industry has grown, and that’s been awesome,” Larkin says.
Among that sisterhood is Jen Brinton, owner/operator of Grey Sail Brewing in Westerly, started in November 2011. Her husband, Alan, is a chemical engineer, and she is a mechanical engineer, and together with their four children (ages 6 to 15) they set out to be a local family-owned business, with ales and lagers whose names and logos reflect Rhody’s ocean-state status, including Flying Jenny and Captain’s Daughter. And they’ve succeeded, doubling their staff (which includes three more women), doubling their production area and moving their tastings into a nearby 1930s Italian Colonial house, complete with taproom.
Another significant woman on the beverage scene is Greenvale Vineyard owner Nancy Parker Wilson, who first grew grapes with her father in 1982 on land owned by the family since 1863. Wanting to keep the historic farm productive, they grew grapes for other vineyards until 1992 when they made their first Chardonnay, still a customer favorite, along with their Cabernet Franc. With the help of their award-winning vintner Richard Carmichael, Greenvale produces six whites and two reds.
One nonalcoholic beverage producer who still gives his customers a kick is Rik Kleinfeldt, with his New Harvest coffee products. One of the things that distinguishes Kleinfeldt and wife, Paula Anderson’s, business (begun in 2000) is their long-term partnerships with farmers in Guatemala, Honduras and Costa Rica. And once the beans have been roasted for one of their three locations: Jamaica Plain (Massachusetts), downtown Providence and Hope Artiste Village in Pawtucket, they continue their dedication to coffee by training baristas at their Training Center; providing service and sales for espresso machines, grinders and other equipment; and hosting the biggest independent specialty coffee event in the U.S., the annual Mid-Atlantic Northeast (MANE) Coffee Conference.
John Sgambato, now 33, was “born into” his family’s hundred-year-old Yacht Club Soda company. Now, as the president of the company, he’s overseen the rebranding of the bottles with Rhode Island themes, the introduction of three new flavors in recent years—ginger beer, grapefruit and blueberry/raspberry; and the daring development of two Election sodas, Hillary’s Liberal Limeade (colored blue) and Donald’s Populist Punch (red), which “went viral” and got Yacht Club onto NBC News.
“We have open ears and try to keep up with what might be new or fresh or different,” he says.
In contrast to the venerable Yacht Club, Fully Rooted, a fresh-pressed juice company, has been incorporated for three years, with three partners, including Amanda Repose. Impressed with the benefits they had each experienced with cold-pressed juice blends, they wanted to “raise awareness about juicing in the community” and to show that “juicing can be a tool to better health.” The FR team of Amanda, Angelo Mollis and Ben Aalvik, plus assistants, chose to market their juices at farmers’ markets—they were at 11 this past summer, plus the Newport Folk and Newport Jazz festivals—to get direct feedback about their product before jumping into a bottling license (coming soon). They’ll be at several indoor markets in the winter. Plans are in the works for getting into local markets and cafés.
It’s always heartwarming to hear of a family recipe inspiring a commercial product, such as Robin Squibb’s grandmother’s iced tea, with just the right amount of sugar, lemon and mint. Squibb had worked as a script supervisor for 35 years before founding Granny Squibb’s in 2009. And although she says that she only sold one bottle during her first year, the business has now expanded to 250 stores in New England, with an additional full-time team member, “great interns” and Squibb’s ambassa-dog, Charlie. She has moved to all-organic ingredients in both sweetened and unsweetened versions of Sally’s Lemon and Mojito Lime, and she is looking into new flavors for next year (mandarin? raspberry? cranberry?) and maybe even popsicles!