Trinity Brewhouse is celebrating its 20th anniversary on Saturday [1.17]. They opened the doors at 186 Fountain St in Providence, on December 5, 1994, but since the holiday hecticity was in full swing last month [is A Christmas Carol still playing at Trinity Rep?!], they decided to wait a few weeks to blow out the candles.
Josh Miller had established his downtown bona fides as a co-owner of the original Met Café, a beloved mini-roadhouse-type bar which opened in 1975 in the shadow of the Route 195 overpass in the Jewelry District [in 1993, he was in on the rebirth of the Met adjacent to Lupo’s II]. When Josh unveiled Trinity Brewhouse [formerly the site of a Burger King], the restaurant-that-brews-beer concept was still a novelty, and “craft beer” was a fringe pursuit.
Digression: A Brief History of Brewpubs
The Blue Anchor in Cornwall, England, which was established in 1400, is most often cited as the first brewpub; U Fleku in Prague, which has been in business since 1499, is the “oldest continually operating brewpub in the world,” according to beer expert Charlie Papazian. In the US, “brewery taverns” were helmed by the likes of William Penn and Samuel Adams. We gleaned more recent facts from Tom Acitelli’s highly-recommended The Audacity of Hops: The History of America’s Craft Beer Revolution: “the nation’s first brewpub since Prohibition” was Yakima Brewing and Malting Company, in Yakima WA, which opened in 1982. The first East Coast brewpub [and fourth overall] was the Manhattan Brewing Company [fall 1984 in NYC]; New England’s premier establishment, the Commonwealth Brewing Company, opened in the summer of 1986. Acitelli: “Brewpubs were very much in vogue by [the early ’90s] nationally. In 1993, 70 brewpubs opened; in 1994, 101 (only six closed); and more than 360 were in operation by the spring of 1995, besting the number of craft breweries by more than three to two.” According to stats from the Brewers Association, there are now more than 1300 brewpubs in the US.
Two decades later, the local beer landscape has gone through seismic shifts: there are four other brewpubs in the state [Coddington in Middletown, Mohegan Café on Block Island, Brutopia in Cranston; and Union Station, part of the John Harvard’s chain, opened a year before Trinity] and 10 local breweries. [Josh and his wife Nancy opened Local 121 in 2007, and he has been a State Senator repping District 28 in Cranston and Warwick since 2006]. The tanks at Trinity have yielded thousands of gallons of award-winning beer; former brewmaster Sean Larkin worked there for 18 years; his mash paddle has a place of honor in the dining room, noting the1867 batches he conjured. And over the 20 years, the bartenders and waitstaff have patiently answered the question, “Do you have [Mega-Lager] or [Mega-Lager Light/Lite]?” 4,812,943 times . . . .
To commemorate the anniversary, we asked Josh a few questions about Trinity’s first two decades.
What was the inspiration for opening the place? Had you visited a similar brewpub or heard about the burgeoning popularity of brewpubs? I first became interested in the space because of its proximity to Trinity Rep. The more I learned about patterns of retail business downtown, the more I realized how event-dependent (Trinity, PPAC, RI Convention Center, Providence Civic Center/Dunkin’ Donuts Center) many restaurant/bars are. I thought it was critical to have a uniqueness that would attract customers year-round, regardless of event frequency, most importantly in the summer. I had friends involved in Hope Brewery, who were simultaneously successfully pursuing legislative changes to allow brewpubs in RI. One of these guys was Tim Morse, who eventually consulted on our brewery design/build.* We felt a brewery was the unique format that could boost business absent events downtown.
How many beers were on tap when you opened? What were they? Six, a similar range from simple to more complex, light to dark. Always had an IPA. We now have up to 10 beers at any time. We think the beers have gotten much better and more interesting through brewery experience and customer feedback. Also the beer drinker is much more willing to try something different than they were 20 years ago. Our menu has expanded to include a full line of entrees, including weekly specials. Our catering and special events participation has exploded in the last few years.
Have you had any celebs — say, musicians or sports figures from the big building across the street — hoist a pint at your place? Huge list. Lynyrd Skynyrd played in the basement. Foo Fighters, Beck, Brian Dennehy, Tony Kushner, half of the NFL, Steve Lillywhite, Joan Osborne. We have catered for Sting, BB King. I’m leaving out hundreds.
When did you start selling Trinity IPA in stores? 1998.
And if there’s anything else you’d like to tell my thousands of readers, have at it! We have a great crew, including some who have been there from the start. You have good taste in beer/food.
• On Saturday, every purchase at Trinity Brewhouse gets you raffle tickets, with a chance to win a Mug Club membership, gift cards, merch, and more. Drop in and toast two decades of beer and food and cheer!
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*The local beermaker emerged in 1988; Morse, their brewmaster, had worked at the pioneering Anchor Brewing in San Francisco. Hope was the first RI-based brewery since Narragansett’s closing in 1981 and the first-ever craft outfit. They quickly “carv[ed] out 4.4 percent of the Rhode Island superpremium-import beer market” — more than 1 million bottles — according to a 1989 ProJo story.