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KEVIN LEININGER: Dispute over beer and water came to a head — but should end in a friendly toast

You may not remember that Narragansett Beer was once brewed in Fort Wayne. But they remember. (Courtesy image)
Fort Wayne's Falstaff brewery closed in 1990. (Courtesy image)
Kevin Leininger

Just last Saturday, six local breweries participated in a fundraiser for the St. Joseph Watershed at the city’s filtration plant. And why not? Beer requires water, and Fort Wayne’s history features an ample supply of both.

That combination hasn’t always pleased everyone, however — which caused an eagle-eyed former City Councilman to protect the city’s hoppy heritage by bringing things to a head with an uppity Northeastern brewery.

The Naragansett Brewing Co. was founded in 1888 but the brand disappeared after the demise of the Falstaff Brewing Co., which had purchased the company in 1965. But Naragansett was reborn in 2005 by a group of Rhode Island investors and by next summer should be operating a new brewery in Providence.

It’s a story the company is so eager to tell it managed to tarnish Fort Wayne in the process.

Harper, a Republican who served on council from 2008 to 2016 and unsuccessfully ran for mayor in 2015, noticed a reference to Fort Wayne on the Narragansett web site. As a lifelong area resident well-versed in local history, that didn’t surprise him. After all, Falstaff had also purchased the old Berghoff Brewery at East Washington and South Anthony boulevards in 1954 and numbered Narragansett among the brands produced there until it closed in 1990.

“By February 1982, production of the Narragansett Brand had shifted to the Falstaff plant in Fort Wayne, Ind. The water from the Scituate Reservoir (in Rhode Island) had been considered the finest in the country,” the web site recounted.

“The water in Fort Wayne, not so much.”

It was all too much for Harper, who responded like almost everybody does these days. He vented on the Internet.

“I tweeted out that the recently revived Narragansett Beer on its web site had unfairly slurred Fort Wayne water quality,” he told me. He had written that “perhaps they would like to remove (it) since current production of the brand does not come from the Scituate. And Fort Wayne water quality is ranked very high nationally.”

“We love Fort Wayne,” the company replied. “Moving of production (there) really hurt both the company and the 900-plus Rhode Islanders who worked for it. There are many still bitter about how it all went down. But we’ve updated the site and certainly meant no disrespect.”

In other words Harper, who is also an attorney, won his argument. The web site’s reference to shifting production to the Summit City no longer editorializes about the drinking water here — which has indeed been recognized for its tastiness. “Needless to say, I’m pleased by my successful effort to protect the Fort Wayne brand,” Harper said. “And great credit to Narragansett for being so responsive.”

As victories go, it’s a small one. Still, the quick and positive resolution does offer a few worthwhile lessons in conflict resolution beyond the obvious value of courtesy. This story also indicates misery really does love company, and that a good beer can help soothe old wounds.

That’s because the two regions’ beer lovers and historians can at least agree on this: Both were hurt when San Francisco multi-millionaire Paul Kalmanovitz bought Falstaff in 1975, eventually killing several well-known brands. Or, as Harper stated in a reply tweet to Narragansett, “Fort Wayne and its employees of Falstaff were victims, too, as Kalmanovitz’ General Brewing bought several well-known brands and let them wind down with no marketing support. Final years of Falstaff, Narragansett and Ballentine brands were not good due to (his ownership).”

Much of Fort Wayne’s Falstaff brewing equipment, by the way, ended up in China. Perhaps Trump can do something about that.

In the meantime, as so often happens, what’s old is new again. Narragansett has made a comeback and will soon be available in Ohio. And Summit City Brewerks recently revived the Old Crown brand which was brewed in what originally was the French then Centlivre Brewery on the St. Joseph River just north of town. That facility opened in 1862 and closed in 1973.

And as a result, Harper tweeted, “I look forward to being able to raise a pint of Narragansett and a pint of Old Crown in a toast to the drive to bring back historic brands to the communities which thought they had been lost.”

I’ll drink to that.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.

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