Last summer, my husband and I toured New England’s local breweries. These tours follow a pattern: with varying degrees of enthusiasm, a guide shepherds the tour group across the production floor (or a balcony overlooking the floor) while reciting the history of the brewery and chatting about its current or planned projects. The better tours teach you something; the lesser tours are soon forgotten at the tasting.
Our tour of Rhode Island’s local brewery scene was an easy one; the compact state has “One Airport; One Area Code; One Beer,” so off to the Newport Storm Brewery we went. This is what we learned:
The brewery was founded in 1998 by four college buddies. After nearly a decade of craft brewing, they created a partner company, the Thomas Tew Distillery, and began to distill Thomas Tew rum. Their goal was to recreate the rum that had been famous 250 years ago, when Rhode Island had had a thriving rum industry.
I was nose deep into the souvenir tasting glass when the tour guide explained that the owners visited the archives to research traditional distillation methods and recipes. These beer guys used the archives to make rum?
To find out more, I called the brewery and spoke to Brent Ryan. The interest in rum was not out of the blue; residents of Newport have a general awareness of the city’s historic rum trade. When Mr. Ryan and his colleagues started asking for specific details, though, nobody seemed to know much. Despite this, they decided to pursue the idea anyway; after all, they already had most of the necessary equipment in the brewery. It seemed that the only remaining work was to look up the old recipes and dive right in.
Mr. Ryan and an intern began their research online, intending to research the full extent of Newport’s historic rum trade, but didn’t find much. They then headed to the library, and were soon directed to the Newport Historical Society.
At the historical society, Mr. Ryan expected to find one or two books that described the rum trade and distillation process – perhaps rare volumes that only the librarian knew about. He expected the hard work to comprise tracking down citations and sources.
Instead, he and the intern found that their question was new! Nobody had previously researched Newport’s rum history, much less written a book about it. As a result, they found themselves doing original research. A lot of it.
Current rum lovers will understand why Mr. Ryan persisted throughout a nearly five month research process. Original research is difficult, but for an authentic taste of Newport’s history, there was no other option. Thomas Tew Rum exists today because of the successful relationship that Mr. Ryan developed with one of the librarians at the Newport Historical Society.
At first, he and the intern were disappointed to find that no business records survived to tell the story of Newport’s old distilleries. A lucky break, however, came from the papers of Reverend Samuel Andrew (the second president of Yale University); as it turns out, Rev. Andrew liked to research and write about topics that he personally found interesting. And one of his personal interests was rum distillation. His report was essentially a handy “how-to” manual, made more valuable because it was written from an outside perspective; the report doesn’t assume that the reader has any trade knowledge, which is exactly what Mr. Ryan and his colleagues needed.
Essentially, Thomas Tew Rum was made possible by the archives and the information professionals who helped Mr. Ryan make a meaningful connection with Newport’s history. In this case, that connection led to the recreation of a local industry in the middle of an economic recession.
I would love to hear about more businesses that have used their local (or our national, or even international) archives to expand or otherwise positively impact their company!
A big thanks to Brent Ryan at Coastal Extreme Brewing Company/Newport Distilling Company, who was a good sport by answering my questions. Be sure to visit their webpage, check out their brews, and like them on Facebook!