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Thursday, April 02, 2009

Widmer Brewing's Place in History

Today we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the day Kurt and Rob Widmer began their long journey toward becoming the bier kings of Oregon. They weren't the first of the pioneering microbrewers--Fritz Maytag or Jack McAuliffe get those honors. In Oregon, it was mostly-forgotten Chuck Coury who got there first with Cartwright Brewing. (His was the first to go belly-up, too.) But the Widmers were early. When they started, there were only 83 breweries in the entire country. The low-water mark actually came a year earlier, when 51 companies operated a scant 80 breweries. The period marked the end of a grim era and the slow rise of microbrewing.

Founding an Industry
It's worth stopping for a moment to consider the radical act of founding a brewery in the 1980s. For generations, brewing had been in decline. At the start of WWII, the US had a surprisingly robust 684 breweries. That was the pinnacle, though, and breweries started dying off in droves. Glancing at that the numbers, it looks the counts of an endangered species: 407 (1950), 229 (1960), 154 (1970), 101 (1980). Beer production and consumption was steadily growing, though--predation by a few giants reduced the herd to dwindling numbers. The idea that an essentially unfunded start-up could cobble together some oddball equipment and compete against a giant like Budweiser--it must have seemed like madness.

In my memory, microbrewing really took off in the late 80s. But the memory lies. No brewery crossed the 25,000 barrel mark until Sierra Nevada did in 1990. The early brewers had myriad barriers: they were mostly uneducated about large-scale brewing; almost none of them had ever worked in a brewery before; they had to learn how to brew with makeshift equipment in makeshift buildings; they had to invent a market niche and create interest in a product customers didn't know they wanted.

The Widmers' own history can be read as a series of efforts to grapple with these barriers. Their first beer, an alt, was way too aggressive. They cast around, brewing a filtered Weizen next. To borrow from Angelo's interview with Rob, here's what they were contending with in terms of the market:
"There was light beer, and there was dark beer. Light not meaning caloric light, but light meaning blond, filtered. And then dark meaning Henry’s Dark, or something like that. Most people didn’t want anything to do with the dark beer…You couldn't’t even get them to try it. And, our Altbier, while by today’s standards isn’t much darker than (an IPA), fell into that dark category. Widmer Weizen was clear, so you could see through it. It was deeper colored than a Bud, Miller, Coors, so people were a little skeptical, but they would try it."
Success depends on serendipity, and they discovered it when they released an unfiltered version of their wheat. Carl Simpson sold this beer at the Dublin pub in huge, 23-ounce glasses. When he added the lemon wedge, it took off. Widmer Hef was the first "it" beer in Portland. Within a few years, it became the merlot of beer--the cloudiness was a calling card for upscale diners at places like B. Moloch (now South Park), and the flavor was exotic without being too distant from familiar beer like Henry's.

The number of breweries was definitely on the rise--286 by 1990--but they were producing minuscule amounts. This became a piece of their cachet--small was suddenly saleable. Many breweries reveled in this and most highlighted the artisinal aspect of microbrewing. But even at that early stage, breweries had different business models, and the Widmers' was focused on growth. They were the first brewery to outgrow the funky corner-brewery ideal.

Growth and Mistakes
Although there's little mention of this now, one event became a flashpoint at about this time. In 1994, Alan Sprints, a brewer at Widmer, decided to go off and found Hair of the Dog. Even though he wanted to brew radically different kinds of beer than Widmer, he had signed a no-compete contract, and the Widmers took legal action to stop him. This was a PR catastrophe. You can imagine how well, in those heady early days of brewing, this went over with the growing number of local beer fans. It was covered in the media as a faceless corporation trying to stifle the little guy. Widmer backed off, but the damage was done; to this day, Widmer hasn't been able to shake the rep of hearthless corporate giant.

It didn't help that a few years later Widmer created a partnership with Anheuser-Busch. A-B got a 27 percent stake in Widmer, Widmer got $18 million in cash and access to all A-B's national distributors. This happened in 1997, right about at the end of the first phase of craft brewing, as some of the national leaders did become pretty major players. No longer "micro"-anything, they were looking to become regional powers.

I will cop to sharing the Widmer-is-evil view back then. But let's put this in some kind of context. Breweries can enjoy growth within the confines of their capital and equipment. At the start, they can increase production exponentially until they're brewing day and night. Then they have to buy new equipment (and sometimes relocate). The decision to do so plunges them into debt and now they have to sell a lot of beer to cover their nut. Each time a brewery decides to expand, the risk spikes. We look back and have a sense that craft brewing has always been pretty healthy. But of course, no brewery knows at the time whether it will continue to be healthy--who knows, maybe the economy's about to tank.

Widmer grew slowly and steadily. In fact--and this may suprise you (lying memories and all), but they didn't even start bottling until 1996. Other breweries made other decisions. Full Sail built a massive plant on the assumption that their sales would increase at the same clip. Portland Brewing (now MacTarnahan's/Pyramid/Magic Hat) sold shares to expand their business. RedHook invested in a new facility in New Hampshire. The Ponzis sold BridgePort to Gambrinus to fund a brewery expansion.

All the bigger craft breweries had come to that moment where they had to stand pat or expand. Deciding to expand, every brewery did it differently. Thinking about certain decisions as more "evil" or corporate than others is a strange way to look at it. Portland Brewing is now gone, a brand absorbed by Pyramid. RedHook, which limped forward, shifted to production of a standard set of undistinguished ales like regional breweries of old. Widmer got cash up-front from its deal with A-B, and as a result is now a robust concern making the beer they want to.

Great Local Brewers
No Oregon brewery has had more success or been more disparaged than Widmer Brewing. To this day, thanks to a combination of factors Widmer is still regarded with suspicion, and perhaps that's the price of admission for being the biggest. The story I told above details some of the reasons why Widmer has taken heat. A brewery should be judged by a lot more than its corporate decisions, though--and it's here where Widmer shines.

The Widmers have been more involved than any other local brewery in promoting beer culture. Any, full stop. They were one of four breweries who helped mount the first Oregon Brewers Festival. Unlike most of other bigger breweries (might we say corporate), Widmer always sends a special, for-OBF-only beer to the fest. They are active in the local beer scene and deserve no end of credit for the Collaborator project, where they produce commercial batches of homebrewed recipes by the Brew Crew. Although Hef remains their biggest seller, you can get rather exotic, experimental beers at the Gasthaus that make no apologies to anything Craig Nicholls or Jamie Floyd are doing. I don't know about the general public, but if I send Rob an email with a question, he returns it within a day. Not bad for the founder of the second-largest craft brewery in the country.

If you sat down to blueprint good behavior by a big brewery, you probably wouldn't expect it to do some of the things Widmer does. Widmer saw financial potential in brewing years and years before most of the general public. They made decisions to grow, but the truth is, they've never lost their feel for being much like the local brewery you used to be able to get a jug of yeast from.

Twenty-five years is a long time. The history of Widmer is in many ways the history of microbrewing, all the ups and downs, mistakes and roaring successes. It is possible to imagine that Beervana would have evolved without the Widmers, but impossible to look at what it has become and not see their fingerprints everywhere. Today is an opportunity for us to remember this and offer them a toast. So, in the manner of their own beer caps:
A prost: to two fine brewers who helped make Oregon Beervana!


  1. Kids always resent their parents and I find that the beer press (or beer-o-sphere) resembles an ungrateful kid. They too easily forget the trails that the Widmers, the BridgePorts and the Full Sails blazed so that all of the brewing starlets, over whom the beer-o-sphere fawns, would have a market to serve.

    On the other hand, just like music, anything that becomes too popular is no longer cool so perhaps it is natural.

    I would celebrate the Widmers if I could find a dang sixer of Drifter to buy!

  2. Jeff,
    You know our company history better than I do! Thanks for the Prost!


  3. Patrick Emerson.. great words.

    Widmer paved the way for me drinking craft beers.. as well as Bridgeport (IPA, Blue Heron), and Full Sail (Amber, and Pale).

    I still remember my first Hefe to this day, and how much I truly liked it, and felt very connected to Portland.. more so than I did with Blitz or Henry's.

    Growing? Too corporate? A.Busch distribution? Who cares.. they are crafting quality beers that have only ever gotten better! I envy their lives.. as many don't get to truly work that hard for something they love that much. When a brewery is ones baby.. only quality is the result.

    As for finding Drifter... my local Fred Meyers kept running out... so I grabbed a 12-pack at a QFC.. but have also seen 6-packs at Chevron gas stations as well as Safeway etc... so it is getting around quite well... I just don't think they planned on having it fly off the shelves that fast! I truly think they created a brew that will knock their Hefe out of their #1 spot. I was waiting for that! :-))

  4. Rob, I was worried I got some of the details wrong, so I'm glad it looks ship-shape.

    DOSiR, I write 1000 words which Patrick sums up in 50 and he gets credited for great words. Thanks a lot! Nothing but tweets from here on out.

  5. No harsh meaning there my friend... your article is inspiring, and does a lot for people who might not have a very well-rounded view of beervana! Your articles, hard work, and reviews makes me wish I had more time! I am sorry for not crediting you on the knowledge you have of our great history here in PDX. Please don't come across so offensively.. but maybe make note that I mistakenly left out the biggest and most important credit and thanks! No harm done I hope!

    This is a great article, as are many here.. they are very informative.. and educate me much more than most other sources I can find... I would guess that is why this is a very popular source of brewing treats!

    A prost to Jeff! For making great articles that regular readers can cram into smaller summaries because they all love reading his blog on a daily basis!


  6. +1 to DOSIR.

    While I don't live in Oregon anymore, Jeff's blog is daily reading for me. I yearn for Oregon beer constantly.


  7. Great read Jeff! I missed the anniversary party, anyone try the double alt? thoughts?

  8. DOSiR, I was just giving you a hard time. Patrick is a wise man who uses an economy of words (appropriate for the economists).

    DA, I'll get around to it, but I was dodging the crowds yesterday--

  9. As another testament to the brother's humility, they have not corrected the use of Widmer Brewing here. I believe the company is now and has been for some time, Widmer Brothers. Product names may vary, like Widmer Hefeweizen, but the company name is different. No matter. We know who they are.
    I would point to one other element of Kurt and Rob's company's success. I don't know when this occurred, but perhaps around the time of the A-B transaction. Earlier, there was a product development strategy that seemed to say, "If it ain't a German style, it ain't Widmer." We had Alt, of course, and Hefeweizen, but so many of the others including Bocks all reflected a German-style sensibility. To the brewery's credit, they have greatly expanded what it means to be a beer brewed by Widmer Brothers. I love the idea of a craft brewery whose products hew to a specific origin, but I also appreciate the fact that Widmer Brothers has applied its craft to plenty of other styles, too. Collaborator is certainly one of the contributing factors, but I'm guessing that it goes deeper than that. I'm sure the commercial aspects of a broader product line are primary, but we've enjoyed a lot of good beer as a result. Prost, indeed!