Ragged Island's brewing up something special in Portsmouth

Brewery producing test batches, hopes to open before spring

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PORTSMOUTH — Things are hopping at Ragged Island Brewing, which hopes to serve its first batch of suds to customers as early as next month.

Nestled inside the Portsmouth Business Park at 200 High Point Ave., the microbrewery is just waiting to cross a few Ts before it sets visitors up with a pint of IPA or a growler containing its small-batch craft beer to take home.

“We are still awaiting final word from the TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau), which could happen any day now, saidstorm Matt Gray, one of the partners in the venture. “When that happens, we’ll be able to apply for the state manufacturing license and as soon as we acquire that, we’ll be able to open.”

While there’s no definite timetable, his wife Katie hopes to see the doors open before spring. “We’re hoping by the end of February. It gives us time to practice some batches,” she said, noting that the kettles, fermenters and other equipment needed to make a perfect craft beer arrived at the 2,400-square-foot space only this week.

“Two days ago, all of this was in John’s basement in Maine,” she said.

That would be John Almeida, who lives in Orr’s Island, Maine, with his wife Margo. Their daughter Liz and her husband, Patrick, are also long-distance partners who live in Texas. 

John starting brewing in his basement in the mid-’80s. “I didn’t like the beer I bought in the stores, so I figured I’d make my own,” John said.

His distinctive brews quickly found fans among family members and friends, including Matt, a friend of Patrick’s. Matt’s no stranger to the local beer scene; he also runs Gray Matter Marketing, which handles the Rhode Island Brew Fest, Craft Brew Races, 4 Bridges Ride and other events. (The marketing company is now located right next door to the brewery.)

“A couple years into running the business with the beer festivals, I was discussing with Patrick the idea to start a brewery and using John’s recipe, because we were drinking his home brew — it’s so good,” said Matt. “Last year we decided to take that leap and go do it. 

“We both started businesses before then and we thought it was a fun challenge, and this would be another cool project to work on. We just think the product that John makes is phenomenal and that we could have some success in it. We’re excited to be doing more and more brewing and opening the doors to share the product with the public.”

Since it’s a three-and-a-half-hour drive from Orr’s Island to Portsmouth, the Almeidas are here on an “as-needed basis,” John said. So, he’s training Katie to take over as brewmaster.

“I’m making his recipes to a T,” said Katie, shortly after mixing a mash by hand inside a kettle. Brewing isn’t only a detailed process, but it can also be physically demanding.

“There’s 100 pounds of grain in there,” John explained, adding that the mix is then put into fermenters, where it will sit for about three weeks.

Small-scale operation

Ragged Island won’t be producing beer on the same scale as larger local breweries such as Foolproof and Grey Sail.

“The brewhouse is a one-barrel brewing system with multiple fermenters, a cold room, cleaning stations and that’s pretty much it,” said Matt. “The front is the taproom and tasting room. People will be able to come in, sample beer, and take some home in growlers that will be for sale. We plan to have up to four styles initially with additional styles coming in and rotating. There’s no doubt we’ll have a stout at some point.”

The brewery will start with John’s “TwoTree” IPA — an original version and one using mosaic hops — plus a porter and an ESB (extra special bitter). 

“I love his IPA mosaic,” said Katie of John’s recipe. “I like the bitterness and it stays on my tongue, but it’s also got a citrus flavor.”

John nodded. “My malt recipe is fairly complex. It has five different malts. Most brewers use two, some only one,” he said. 

“John is excited to go from home brewing to this scale, but we still have a small-enough operate where we can experiment and it’s not too expensive to try different things. We’ll have a lot of fun with experimental beers,” added Matt.

Room to grow

Although they’re starting small, the brewery has room to expand if it’s a hit with customers. Although state law allows the brewery to sell up to three pints of beer per customer to drink onsite, its primary business initially will be the sale of take-home growlers. If business takes off, however, they’ll look for a distributor and hopefully sell kegs to local restaurants.

“When we open it will probably be for only a day or two a week and we’ll see how much people like our product. We think they’ll like it as much as we do,” said Katie. “We’re going to see how it goes. Our dream would be to grow.”

Eventually, the brewery hopes to feature classic brewpub games like darts, corn hole and shuffleboard, as well as the occasional food truck and live music. Yoga instructors have even reached out, so you may see a “yoga and beer night” at the brewery at some point.

“We’ll go through all the right channels,” said Katie, noting the brewery will need zoning approval for certain special events.

Business hours will probably be similar to other small breweries, said Katie, who suggested 4-8 p.m. on Fridays and noon to 5 p.m. Saturdays. She also likes the location — just off West Main Road and minutes from Route 24. “We’re going to be bringing people here from Tiverton and all sides of the island,” she said.

Besides having Peak Fitness right next door — the partners think some people spilling out of the fitness center may want to wet their whistles after a sweaty workout — John observed that the Portsmouth transfer station is right around the corner.

“We’re on the way — either coming or going,” he said.

History on tap

When it opens, Ragged Island will be part of a larger community of local breweries such as Newport Storm and Buzzards Bay Brewing in Westport that maintains a cooperative support system. “We know Newport Storm and they make a great product,” said Katie. 

Although the Ragged Island partners initially believed they would be opening the town’s very first brewery, they found out otherwise after Matt met with the Portsmouth Historical Society.

William Baulston was one of the original settlers of Portsmouth who came down,” said Matt, referring to one of the 23 men who signed the Portsmouth Compact, which established the town’s government in 1638.

“The history of brewing in Portsmouth is the history of brewing in Rhode Island,” he said. “He set up shop as an innkeeper here and was licensed for brewing beer and wine at his inn. He was the first brewer in Rhode Island. Here we were, thinking we were the first brewery in Portsmouth and it’s not so.”

Down the road, however, the brewery hopes to produce a beer that pays tribute to Baulston — and the town as well, he said.

“We’re going to do a lot more research before we do any of that, but we just think it would be a fun idea to also support the Historical Society along with the beer, because it’s an incredible organization. It would be fun to tie it all in.”

For updates about Ragged Island Brewing, visit its Facebook page.

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Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.