On an unseasonably warm and rainy evening not long ago, I found myself at the recently opened Bucket Brewery, which is housed at the Lorraine Mills building on Mineral Spring Avenue in Pawtucket, talking beer with the five co-owners: Erik Aslaksen, Nate Broomfield, Ron Klinger, Drew Powers and TJ O’Connor. They tell me that it all started with Broomfield’s wedding. Broomfield and Aslaksen had been homebrewing for quite some time when it was decided that they’d brew all of the beer for the former’s wedding. The guests raved and suggested that the two really look into brewing. They linked up with O’Connor, who provided a fermenter; Klinger, the accounting/money guy; and Powers, who’d won a competition for a beer he’d homebrewed with Broomfield and Aslaksen. “We quickly came to the realization that we couldn’t possibly drink all of the beer we could now brew,” says Aslaksen. Besides, the law limits homebrewers to 200 gallons.
They filed their articles of incorporation with the state in June 2011. Last November, they shipped their first beer and in December they held an open house, which was a rousing success. Don Grebien, the Pawtucket mayor, attended. “The city,” Aslaksen tells me, “has been really receptive. The mayor ran on a platform that included developing water-based businesses.” This makes sense: the city recently completed $42M in renovations to its water treatment plant.
The Bucket Brewery, best categorized as a nanobrewery, is really nothing to write home about, at least for now. Tucked deep inside the recesses of the giant mill building, the space is best described as cramped and bare boned. With six guys standing in the room, it was quite cozy. Along one wall are a couple fermenters. A whiteboard hangs on another wall. There are two lists on the whiteboard: one that lists the establishments that currently sell Bucket beer, which includes Chez Pascal, Wild Colonial and the beer mecca that is Doherty’s East Ave Irish Pub.
They tell me that they each invested their personal savings in the operation and, at this point, they’re doing the work for free. They see themselves expanding to microbrewery status within a year, in a perfect world at least. All of them hold full time jobs; Aslaksen (pictured left) works as a freelance architect, Broomfield as an IT guy and Klinger works at Textron. They spend their evenings and weekends brewing beer. “All of us have kids, except for Ron, and full time jobs, so it’s very difficult to get the brewery work squeezed in.” He goes on, “Luckily, we’ve all been blessed with patient and kind spouses.”
We try their four beers: Rhode Scholar, Thirteenth Maple Stout, Park Loop Porter and Pawtucket Pail Ale. The Rhode Scholar, which Aslaksen describes as an excellent point for folks new to craft beer, is the most popular. The website describes it as “approachable and complex.” My favorite is the stout. It’s robust, yet light. After a couple rounds they tell me that after they opened people started sliding loads of resumes under their door. “People just wanted to work for us really badly,” Aslakesen says. “Some even volunteered to work for free, which we already do. We’re interns.”
The Bucket Brewery is one of three craft beer breweries that have opened in northern Rhode Island in the last six months. Nick Garrison, an energetic Tufts graduate and Massachusetts native, opened Foolproof Brewery in Pawtucket on January 3 and Dorian Rave, a Central Falls police officer by day, opened Ravenous Brewing Company in Woonsocket in October 2012. Like Bucket Brewery, Ravenous is best categorized as a nano-brewery. Garrison’s operation is a bit bigger. Housed in a fairly large industrial building on Grotto Avenue, it’s sized to produce 3,100 barrels, or 96,000 gallons, per year. Bucket and Ravenous, on the other hand, produce around 5,700 and 4,800 gallons of beer per year, respectively, depending on demand.
I visit Foolproof on a recent Saturday morning. A brand new bar sits at the front of the brewery. Offices are in the rear, and the brewery, visible though large plate glass windows from the bar area, is off to my left. When I arrive, Garrison is readying the place for tours, which go for $10 per person and, according to Garrison, have been extremely popular. We sit at the bar to talk.
Like the Bucket Brewery, Foolproof’s origin story begins with a wedding. Garrison (pictured below) began homebrewing with a kit his parents bought for him one Christmas. He decided to use the kit to supply beer for his wedding on Cape Cod. The beer was a big hit with guests. He tells me that, at this point, his hobby had already become an obsession. The deal was sealed at a brewpub in Quebec where he and his new wife were honeymooning. “We were sitting there having a beer when my wife said, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to own a place like this?’ It was then and there that I decided to open a brewery.” He spent the next two years writing a business plan and cobbling together the cash to get Foolproof running. Now, four years since that Quebec brewpub, he’s brewing beer.
We walk out into the brewery, which is freezing. “If I heated this place, I’d go broke.” Garrison, who lives in Providence with his wife, takes me through the brewing process. It starts with the backbreaking job of grinding 2,000 pounds of barley malt. The ground malt is then mixed with hot water in the mash tun, wherein the starches in the grains are turned to sugar, producing a liquid called wort. The wort is then drained into a kettle and boiled. Hops are added. Using a heat exchanger, the wort is cooled and pumped into the fermenter, where yeast is added and where it will ferment for about two weeks. Kegs are filled directly from the fermenters. Each brew takes about eight to ten hours, and they do it twice a week.
The mezzanine is full of pallets of cans. Garrison points out his new canning machine. “We start canning on Monday,” he says. “The guys from Colorado are coming out to get it started.” The machine is designed to can 24 beers per minute. Garrison chose cans because they’re recyclable and portable. The portability is key to his brewing philosophy, which is to design beers that pair with life experiences. According to the website, Barstool, one of three of the brewery’s beers, is to be enjoyed “while bellied up to the bar with your buddies” and Backyahd, as its name suggests, is to be enjoyed while grilling or hanging with friends in the backyard.
Garrison isn’t alone: he has a brewmaster, Damase Olson, the 46th great-grandson of Saint Arnold of Metz, the Patron Saint of Brewers, according to the website, and a sales manager, who, according to Garrison, moved here from Miami for the opportunity.
I ask him where he sees the brewery in five years. “I want to be one of the most successful craft breweries in the country.” Well, he seems to be in the right place. In a recent Providence Journal article, Grebien, the Pawtucket mayor, is quoted as saying, “We’d love to be known as the beer capital of Rhode Island.”
I phone Dorian Rave (pictured below), of Ravenous, the day after the inaugural Rhode Island Brew Fest, which was held at the renovated Pawtucket Brewery. He’s effervescent. The turn-out was excellent, he ran out of beer, and he even converted some folks who absolutely refuse to drink dark beer with his popular Coffee Milk Stout.
Rave, whose wife called him crazy for wanting to open a brewery, says that the brewery helps balance his life. He works his day job as a police officer until four o’clock each day. He then heads to the brewery. “You have to love this job because it’s not easy,” he tells me. Like Garrison and the guys at Bucket, Rave’s beer obsession started with a homebrew kit that his wife bought him, a gift, it turns out, that would become the bane of her existence. “I was driving her crazy; I spent every weekend, all weekend brewing beer,” Rave said. Rave’s goal is to “comfortably produce and distribute beer in Rhode Island and surrounding states.”
Ravenous, Bucket and Foolproof are representative of what seems to be a burgeoning statewide craft beer industry. Further evidence of this trend includes the opening, within the last couple years, of several other breweries, including Whalers Brewing Company in Wakefield, Revival Brewing in Providence and Grey Sail Brewing in Westerly. More evidence: the inaugural Rhode Island Brew Fest happened last month, and sold out in advance. Even more: a new Rhode Island Brewing Society has recently been founded.
Rave, when asked about this sudden burst of craft beer activity, is a bit befuddled by it all. “I wasn’t even aware of any other breweries until people from the Department of Business Regulation started telling me about other brewery applications when I started applying for my permits.” His conclusion: “I think we just all happened to have the same idea at the same time.”