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Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Remember to Shoot Video, Breweries

(l-r) Angel Marquez, Ray Widmer, and Kurt Widmer

Over the past month, I have been interviewing people for my current project about the Widmer brothers. Their story arc spans thirty-odd years, but a good chunk of that has happened at the current facility (in different forms) on North Russell Street. As a consequence, a lot of the attention has been paid to the years just before and after the brewery was founded, in an era now preserved chiefly by memory.

One person who has emerged as a critical figure in the story is Ray Widmer, Rob and Kurt's father. He had just retired when they started the brewery, and it was really a three-man show in the early days. Rob joked that they couldn't have hired anyone because they were working so many hours that after the first day they wouldn't have come back. Of course, fathers stick with you.

The first brewery was, as they all were, a cobbled-together system of dairy equipment and castoffs from other breweries. It was not purpose-built, and so everything had to be coaxed to work properly. Ray was the genius of improvisation. He had grown up on a farm and was used to jury-rigging solutions as they arose. There are many tales of his applied ingenuity, but one I kept hearing about over and over was a keg-filling system he'd created. It was inevitably described as both effective but also as something that looked sort of crazy in a Rube-Goldberg kind of fashion. It has served in many tellings as the symbol of what Ray did for the brewery in those first years.

Ray at the keg-filler he designed.

To my delight, I have been able to see footage of video shot at the time. The whole operation is revealed--the filler, the way the swing-arm worked, the process of bunging after the keg was filled. Even better: there's Ray manning the machine. It's 30-year-old footage, and so was shot on blurry video--but you nevertheless feel like you're in the room with them.

There's an hour of raw footage from shoots over the course of the first decade or so of the brewery. It's remarkable to see the brothers as young men. As the brewery has grown, Rob and Kurt have begun collecting a gravitas that came from success; in these earlier videos you get a flavor for the more casual, humorous time they had as DIY brewers when it wasn't clear they were going to be around in a month, let alone thirty years. Listening to people reflect on those times, you can intuit some of this; on video you can see it plain as day. They are absolutely priceless.

Let that be a lesson to anyone who has a brewery today. Film it. Pull out your phone and record the routine activities that seem so unremarkable now. People tend to want to stage things or stand in front of the camera describing them. Better to get out of the way and just let the camera eavesdrop on a day in the life. Do it every few years. One day, when you're older and want to remember back, you'll find those scenes to be the most striking and revealing. You may even find people on the screen who are no longer with you. It's a wonderful way to capture a moment in time, and believe this old man--eventually they do pass, and memories grow scarcer. (And of course, transfer it to computers, hard drives, thumb drives--many places. Decades have a way of winnowing material.)

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