Work still brewing, but Ragged Island scales down plans at farm
New construction not happening at this time, but brewery hopeful for summer beer garden
PORTSMOUTH — In hopes of getting suds-lovers to Ragged Island’s new farm brewery as quickly as possible, the company has put on hold plans to construct a modern new building on the property, once home to the Van Hof family’s Island Garden Shop.
Instead, said Matt Gray, president of Ragged Island Brewing Co., the brewery will renovate an existing barn on the property and use that as a taproom and brewhouse. In addition, the brewery hopes to get permission to open a beer garden on site as early as this summer.
“It came down to money, obviously; most everything does,” said Mr. Gray, whose business sales are down about 50 percent due to a pandemic that forced him to shut down the brewery’s taproom at the Portsmouth Business Park and offer takeout sales only. “We had a couple of conversations with investors and we chose not to go that path. I think we were on the cusp of getting everything we wanted done, but to be honest we didn’t want to go down that path if it wasn’t the right decision for us.
“I don’t know if it was exactly COVID, but the early part of this year we started looking at some changes we would want to make just to get this project going faster. Our focus now is get here as fast as we can.”
The change in plans also means the brewery will need to go back to the Zoning Board of Review, which granted Ragged Island a special-use permit in April 2019 to transform the existing 38-acre property at 54 Bristol Ferry Road into a farm brewery. Those plans included construction of a new 9,335-square-foot building that would have housed brewing operations as well as a seasonal taproom.
Mr. Gray said a new building may still be in the works at some point, as the brewery has a “10-year master plan.” But for now, the change means Ragged Island will have another date with zoners.
“It does require us to go back to get another special-use permit because we’ll be using a different building than it would have been otherwise,” said Mr. Gray, adding he’s confident the brewery will receive approval because the application will be for a scaled-down use with no new construction. The company was finalizing its application for submission to the zoning board as of Monday.
“The only thing we’re not changing is our septic plan; it’s still going to be a very large and robust septic plan, and DEM has already approved that,” he said.
The barn offers 3,600 square feet of space, compared to the brewery’s current facility of 2,400 square feet, he said. Although some breweries have gone back to serving customers inside, Mr. Gray said he didn’t feel the current taproom was big enough for proper social distancing.
“We’re takeout only, and part of that’s a business decision,” he said. “For us, when Phase 3 comes we’ll feel a little more comfortable with that as an option.”
Beer garden proposed
However, in hopes of jumpstarting the farm brewery, Ragged Island wants to establish a beer garden at the farm which could open up the property to customers as early as this summer.
“Our goal is to also petition the town for an agricultural special-use permit for a temporary beer garden here on Friday, Saturday and Sunday,” Mr. Gray said. “We can’t do what we want to do at the taproom (at the business park) in any way we’ve normally been able to, due to COVID. If we can get something set up out here, we can certainly distance socially. There are several businesses that we’d be working with to get that done.”
The farm property doesn’t currently have toilets for public use, so portable systems would have to be located on site, and caterers would be hired to pour, he said.
“There are a bunch of businesses that would benefit from this,” he said. “It would also give us the chance to be out here to really see what it’s like to have people on the property, and maybe capture some of that loss we’re experiencing at the tap room.”
Plants still for sale
Ragged Island isn’t just growing its own hops on the farm. It kept the Island Garden Shop’s greenhouse that fronts Bristol Ferry Road and filled it with a variety of plants, mostly succulents, that will be for sale once the site opens.
“These are all stuff we’ve brought in over the past year. It will be a part of the business; certainly not the driving force,” said Mr. Gray, adding that during the cooler months it will be a nice place to sip a beer while shopping or just talking plants.
The greenhouse is part of the main retail space, which will also feature a taproom and offices. Visitors will be able to clink glasses on decks the brewery wants to install on the west side of the building, offering panoramic views of the farm and bay. Or, they can take a stroll around the property, which will feature walking paths, to “take advantage of the nature and beauty out there,” he said.
For now, there’s a lot of work to be done, including the tearing down of one building, more clearing out of the property, and renovating the barn and the main building.
“It’s like a home renovation project. We need bathrooms, we need siding, we need a new deck,” said Mr. Gray, who hopes the operation is up and running to full capacity by the end of the year.
“We get phone calls every day. ‘Are you open?’ And we’re not, so I suggest they order from the taproom, or check out Twelve Guns (Brewing) in Bristol, because I don’t want to tell people who want to go out and enjoy a craft beer, not to go find it.”
Making sure people are safe while they sample new brews, he said, “is more important than selling a few more pints.”
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