Pint-sized Rhode Island taps into regional craft beer boom

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Vermont produces more craft beer per capita than any other state. Maine ranks third for breweries per capita nationwide. Boston has beer gardens across from City Hall and under an expressway.

But as the high renaissance of craft beer in New England has thrived, Rhode Island has struggled to keep up — until now.

There is cause for hoppy optimism in the nation’s smallest state, where lawmakers in 2016 moved to alleviate a harsh regulatory environment for craft beer manufacturers. The state could see record growth this year.

Rhode Island saw a higher proportional increase in brewery licenses from 2016 to 2017 than any other state besides Oklahoma, according to federal data. The 10 licenses issued are an indication the state’s number of breweries — around 20 — could soon grow rapidly, according to Bart Watson, an economist with the Brewers Association, a group that tracks the craft beer industry.

“In Rhode Island, we have seen some improvements,” Watson said.

Friends Donald Greenwood and Andy Sockol were drinking Thursday at Long Live Beerworks in Providence. They are self-proclaimed beer chasers, travelling around New England to hunt for new brews.

Rhode Island is “no longer the black sheep of New England,” said Greenwood.

Both men agreed Rhode Island has vastly improved its beer scene. “It was a market that was definitely ripe,” Greenwood added.

New England has some of the national leaders in the industry. Vermont leads the nation in number of breweries per capita. Maine makes the top 10 of breweries and gallons produced. And New Hampshire reaches the top 20. Connecticut is in the middle of the pack nationally, but Rhode Island doesn’t crack the top 30 on any list.

Watson said Vermont’s strong history of tourism and artisanal food forms a foundation for a robust craft beer industry. That likely can’t be replicated in Rhode Island, he said, but the Ocean State has the population density and proximity to big cities to support a larger market.

Rhode Island’s relatively strict regulations have hindered the state in the past, according to Watson. But in 2016, the state increased the amount of beer customers could drink and bring home. Armando DeDona, founder of Long Live, said those changes made all the difference. He launched in January 2016, before the new laws were enacted.

“Beforehand, I thought we’d be able to be a sustainable business,” he said, “but it really wasn’t.”

Two years later, Long Live is set to move to a larger facility, where DeDona said he’ll ramp up production and build a larger taproom.

Similarly, Paul DiBiase and Adam Henderson said the looser laws directly inspired them to trade in their home-brewing kits for a three-barrel system. They’ll launch Beer On Earth in North Kingstown soon.

“When the laws changed to make it more doable — that was kind of when the light bulb went on for me,” DiBiase said.

Still, brewers say Rhode Island can do more to spur its burgeoning beer industry.

“Hopefully,” Henderson said, “it’s a good sign of things to come.”

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