Beer, Wine & Spirits

Widmers go from new kids on the beer block to 'elders' of craft brew

Thirty years in the history of the beer business is a blip on the radar. Thirty years in the craft beer business, however, is a lifetime.

That's exactly the length of time spent by Rob and Kurt Widmer, the founders of Portland, Oregon-based Widmer Brothers Brewing, building a business that has made Widmer the eminence grise of craft brewing.

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"We're the elders all of a sudden. Not sure how that happened," said Rob Widmer. The company he and his brother started back in 1984 makes them "the grandparents of the brewing business," as Kurt Widmer puts it.

Walking down memory lane

Source: Widmer Brothers Brewing | Facebook

To mark the anniversary, Widmer Brothers is in the midst of releasing 30 Beers for 30 Years, a year long series of beers each brewed to commemorate a specific year and beer in the brewery's 30 year history.

For Rob and Kurt, the walk down memory lane is filled with highs and lows that might be expected for a pair of home brewers turned entrepreneurs in an era when the term "craft beer" didn't yet exist. Now, the microbrew movement—independent beer makers that craft small amounts of specialty brew —has gone mainstream.

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"We had to explain to people what a microbrewer was because nobody had heard about a brewery opening back then" said Rob.

The company started out brewing two beers, each inspired by their German heritage: Altbier, a German style ale and a Weizenbier, the brothers interpretation of a filtered wheat beer. However, the owner of local pub asked for a third Widmer Brothers beer to sell.

Not wanting to disappoint a loyal customer, yet facing capacity constraints which prevented brewing a third style, the brothers improvised. The result was the first American-style Hefeweizen, a yeasty, wheat-based beer popular in Germany.

Initially, the Widmers were concerned it might turn customers off.

"We basically just took the wheat beer straight out of the kegs, put it in the tanks and it was as you see it today. It was extremely cloudy" said Rob.

"We were trying to build people's confidence in us as professional brewers and people were still very skeptical. We thought, will this set us back?" said Rob.

"But we figured if it's only for one bar it can't be too damaging and and we intended it only as a thank you for the owner being so supportive," he added.

Widmer Hefe not only looked and tasted different than anything else on the market, but a decision by the bar owner to serve it in 23 ounce Pilsner glasses with a lemon on the side made it really stand out.

"Portlanders are very adventurous by nature and they would see it and say, 'What the hell is that?' said Kurt. "Then they would try it and fortunately they liked it."

Widmer Hefe became more than a one time thank you. Within 18 months it was Widmer Brothers best selling beer, and the brand they built their company around.

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As it happened, Widmer's Hefe may have been the first Hefeweizen brewed in the United States, but it wouldn't be the last.

Unfiltered wheat beer has become a common offering —with everyone from startups to macro brewers offering their own versions of an unfiltered wheat beer. Big beer stalwarts like Anheuser Busch InBev, with its Shock Top, and MillerCoors with its Blue Moon Belgian White brands, have even gotten in on the game.

In an era of barrel aged and hugely hopped beers, the Hefeweizen style may seem tame by today's standards. Still, Rob Widmer thinks the time is right for more beer drinkers to return to wheat milled beer, as the pendulum of consumer preference swings away from extreme offerings towards beers lower in alcohol.

"There are limits to how many hops, how much bitterness or how high the alcohol content you can put into a beer" said Rob.

"Beer drinkers are working their way back down to more refreshing beers," he added. "They still want a more interesting beer, they want authenticity, but these extreme beers we think has peaked."

Adapting to the twists and turns of the beer business is something the Widmers have done repeatedly over the decades. In the late 1990s, on the heels of taking on debt to finance an expansion plan, the craft beer industry hit a slum that had the Widmers teetering on the brink of bankruptcy.

The brothers survived the downturn, and in 2007 joined with Redhook Ale Brewery to create the Craft Brew Alliance, a craft beer industry trade group. Anheuser Busch took a 32 percent stake in the publicly traded venture. Hawaii's Kona Brewing Company joined the alliance in 2010, and in 2012 the group launched the gluten free brand Omission. For the first nine months of this year, the Craft Brew Alliance had sales had a profit of $2.4 million on sales of $153 million, with 632,400 barrels sold.

However, the partnership with Anheuser Busch would ultimately cost Widmer Brothers the "craft" label, since the Brewers Association defines a craft brewer in part as an entity with no more than 25 percent ownership by a large brewery.

Rob and Kurt Widmer don't hide their disdain for their fellow brewing pioneers that kicked them out of the craft beer club that they themselves helped to create. But they are not above having a little fun with the situation.

The planned "30 Beers for 30 Years" release that marks the year 2007 is aptly titled "Rejection Ale," which will be brewed to mark the occasion of getting kicked out of the Brewers Association.

After three decades of navigating the ups and downs of the beer business, the Widmers haven't lost sight of the reason they got into the business in the first place.

"You know if we were making nuclear warheads or something like that, what do you do at the end of the day? You can't go blow something up" joked Kurt.

"At the end of the day, no matter how bad of a day we might have, we can have a beer, and we can have one of our own beers," he added. "It's still fun."