Rhode Island is a little state that sometimes has a big inferiority complex, but South County’s brewers are masters of their craft. We don’t just brew great beer down here, but nationally award-winning brews, with more being poured each year. These five breweries sell pure pleasure by the pint; the friendly mugs you’ll encounter along the way are just frosting on the glass.
South County Brews: Whalers Brewing Company
The fortunes of Peace Dale’s Whalers Brewing Company are definitely on the upswing: their Rise was just named the Best American Pale Ale in the U.S. at the World Beer Awards, and it seems like every bar in South County is featuring this mildly hoppy and citrusy beer on draft.
Beer, not textiles, is now made and canned at the historic Palisades Mill, where Whalers presents its seasonal and “experimental” brews on tap as well as favorites like their delicious Hazelnut Stout. Kid- and family-friendly, the brewery has pool tables and lawn games to keep guests entertained, and you can order in food from local favorites like Tilly’s Cheesesteaks.
Future plans include a new outdoor patio and a lot more brewing: Whalers’ production capacity has increased threefold in the last year, and the company is riding the publicity wave from the success of Rise to expand its distribution to Massachusetts and Connecticut.
“We’ve definitely seen a different attitude toward our beer,” says Whalers’ co-owner Josh Dunlap. “It’s proof that there’s a lot of great beer coming out of this state, and I think that’s helping everyone.”
Meet the Brewmaster: Josh Dunlap
Two tours of duty in the U.S. Marine Corps taught Josh a lot about life and a little about brewing beer: after deployment overseas he was stationed in Southern California, an early hotbed of the craft-brewing scene, where he met several fellow Marines who were into home brewing.
Josh took those skills home to Rhode Island and continued brewing on the side while working as a commercial fisherman. “Fishing was a lot like the Marine Corps, with long hours and dangerous work, but it paid well and I worked with a really great group of guys,” he recalls. “When I got a day off, I’d brew a batch of beer, and when I got back from a fishing trip it would be done fermenting.”
Since Josh and Wes Staschke launched Whalers in 2014, the company has transformed from a 200-square-foot brewery into a booming business with 14 employees. “I’m always going to be a fisherman in my blood, but when I was fishing I never imagined this would grow into what it is today,” he says.
South County Brews: Tilted Barn Brewery
Weekends at Tilted Barn Brewery are a bit of a feeding frenzy, with customers lined up early at the Exeter farm to nab a precious allotment of a dozen or so cans of The Chosen One IPA or whatever else owners Matt and Kara Richardson are brewing up that week. The “tilted barn” in the name isn’t just a marketing gimmick: the barn housing the brewery dates to the 19th century and has a decided lean to it, but it’s definitely in its glory days compared to a past that included service as a woodworking shop, Christmas tree stand and shelter for livestock.
Not only is Tilted Barn the only Rhode Island brewery based on a farm, support for local farmers flows through every glass and can of their beer. The hops, pumpkins, maple syrup, and spruce tips used to flavor seasonal brews are sourced on-site, peaches and raspberries used in the new Berliner Weisse come from Narrow Lane Orchards and even the yeast is native to Rhode Island.
Meet the Brewmasters: Matt and Kara Richardson
The Richardsons never intended to open a brewery when they purchased the Hemsley family farm from Kara’s grandparents in 2011. “The plan was to keep the Christmas tree farm in the family,” says Matt, who met Kara when the two worked together down the road at Schartner’s Farm.
Tilted Barn is still very much a family operation. Matt, a passionate home brewer, launched the business in 2015 while still working a day job with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “Until March, I did 100 percent of everything” on the brewing end, says Matt, while Kara designed the labels, ran the farm and took care of the kids.
The popularity of the beers has the Richardsons eyeing an expansion beyond the jam-packed barn and their current production of about 200 cases a week. But Tilted Barn will always stay down on the farm. “The experience is not being in a commercial or industrial zone but being surrounded by 30 acres of hops and trees,” says Matt. “We don’t want to be anywhere else but home.”
South County Brews: Grey Sail Brewery
Grey Sail is all about family (the company was founded by husband-and-wife team Alan and Jennifer Brinton in Westerly in 2011), and that includes their Ocean State brewing kin, too. The brewery's neighboring facility, Grey Sail Tap Room, offers beers produced by other local companies in addition to Grey Sail’s own brews.
It’s a generous policy, and one you’d expect from Jennifer, who also sits on the executive board of the Rhode Island Brewer’s Guild. But frankly, if we’re setting sail to the former home of the Westerly Macaroni Factory to drink beer, we’re going for Grey Sail’s unfiltered Flying Jenny extra pale ale, one of the limited-run beers you can only get at the brewery.
Too far away, you say? You can find Grey Sail all over Rhode Island, and a new expansion has the brewery producing nine times more beer than it did a few years ago – with plenty of capacity to brew even more.
South County Brews: Proclamation Ale Company
“The big beer from a little state” just got a lot bigger: the fun-loving brewers who promise to “strangle your taste buds with goodness” recently relocated Proclamation Ale Company from Kingston to Jefferson Boulevard in Warwick, where they’ll have six times the beer making capacity. More taps, a greater variety of brews, and a row of pinball machines and arcade games make Proclamation’s new 15,000-square-foot home “a better experience with more room to hang out,” says founder Dave Witham, who adds, “I grew up in the ‘80s in arcades, and all of the guys who work here are gamers.”
The description of Proclamation’s flagship Derivative hopped ale is typically quirky (“a unique snowflake; a Unicorn on a farm of Shetland ponies”), as are beer names like the Lovecraftian “Tendril” American IPA and the “Alpaca Magi” sour ale.
“We have a pretty high threshold about quality – we will dump batches of beer,” says Dave. “But we also like to joke around about stuff and that comes through with our brand. We’re serious about what we do, but we don’t want to take ourselves too seriously.”
Meet the Brewmaster: Dave Witham
A bigger space with more capacity (not to mention the stress involved in moving) inevitably means more work for Dave, who launched Proclamation in 2014.
“I got into this because I wanted to brew beer, but I didn’t know what running a business entails,” he says, noting that actual brewing occupies only about one day out of five in his schedule. The rest of his time is spent multitasking (“not my strong suit”) on everything from social media marketing to ordering glassware for the tasting room and ensuring that there’s enough hops to make the beer.
It’s a long way from Dave’s past as a musician and music teacher. “I work 14- to 16-hour days, I don’t punch out,” he says, “but it’s great that I don’t get mad about having to go to work.”
Will things settle down with the move finished? Dave and his wife, Lori (the company’s graphic designer), have a preschooler at home, so perhaps not. On the other hand, Dave has chosen his crew well – among his band of brewers are a pair of drummers, a singer and a guitarist. With performance space already set aside in the new brewery, “we can get some beers off the tap and jam,” he says.
South County Brews: Sons of Liberty Spirits
The Sons of Liberty story starts with beer. Yes, this Peace Dale–based company is nationally known for producing exquisite whiskey and gin – they were named Best Craft Distiller in America for 2017 by Whiskey Magazine – but as owner Michael Reppucci notes, “The first step in what we do is beer making.”
All whiskey starts with what’s called distiller’s beer (also know as “wash”): usually a light, mostly flavorless liquid. The founding genius of Sons of Liberty was to start their distillation process with a high-quality wash and a longer fermentation period, rather than the cheap and quick beer typically used to keep costs and time commitment to a minimum. Sons of Liberty’s Uprising Whiskey starts with a stout, for example, while their Battle Cry begins life as a Belgian triple style beer.
In 2016, the company acquired a brewing license and started producing more refined versions of these beers for public consumption, including pairing beers with their whiskey cousins at the taproom. The company now has put out more than 20 varieties of beer (a single batch of wash can be used to make up to eight types of beer and whiskey). Highlights include an extensive line of barrel-aged beers – because who has more access to used whiskey barrels than a distillery?
Meet the Brewmaster: Michael Reppucci
A self-proclaimed “Italian kid from Rhode Island,” Sons of Liberty owner Michael Reppucci grew up making wine with his father, cousin and neighbors in Narragansett. A stint in a London business school turned his head from a love of craft beer to spirits (particularly scotch at the time), and a visit to some other distilleries down South left him appalled at the low quality of the mash being used to produce whiskey.
“I was always told the better ingredients you start with, the better product you’ll have” – a statement as true for making whiskey and beer as it is for pasta, says Michael.
Names like Uprising and Battle Cry hint at a patriotic message behind the company name, but that’s only part of the Sons of Liberty story, Michael says.
“I’m a kid who quit school to start a business – what’s more American than that?” says Michael. “The founding fathers took on the British – how dumb was that? All I wanted was to take a shot with my life.”