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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Craft, History, and Widmer Broats

Last night, the Widmer Brothers hosted media to launch a new beer--Oatmeal Porter. I was not at that event, but you can read about it here and here. In the service of tying together three threads of conversation, let me tell you why this beer is interesting:
Joining the two year-round Series 924 offerings, Pitch Black IPA and Nelson Imperial IPA, this rich porter was brewed with custom-toasted oats made specifically for Widmer Brothers by Briess Malting of Chilton, Wis. The oats, which have appropriately been dubbed “Bro-Oats,” contribute to the beer’s velvety mouth feel and distinct nutty flavors.
Once upon a time, breweries used to malt their own barley. This had one or two virtues and many drawbacks, not the least of which is that half of them burned their breweries to the ground thanks to overheated kilns. The virtue, of course, was individuality. A brewery could malt barley however they wished, which in turn led to more variety. (Specialized malteries made far better, more consistent malt in the aggregate, and it is a far better system now.) Having maltings companies specially treat or malt grain is a fascinating return to some of the character of old.

That in turn got me thinking about this issue of "craft," which is the many-headed hydra of internet beer debates. Thanks to the history of American beer, the concept is tethered with a titanium chain to brewery size: big national lager breweries uncraft, little ale breweries craft. Easy peasy. (Proponents of the "handmade" argument of small breweries are, in the main, unfamiliar with how sophisticated brewing has become. We have come a long way from wood-fired kettles, baudelot coolers, coolships, and hand-cappers. Breweries are marvels of modern tech. But that's a different argument.) But this doesn't make sense.

To the extent we say anything at all about craft breweries, what we're talking about is the beer. The craft is in the attention to flavors and aromas rather than dollars and cents. If a brewery spends a lot of time thinking about an interesting recipe, testing it out, finding the right ingredients, and even having those ingredients specially (and I have to assume not cheaply) made, does it really matter what size of mash tun the beer is made on?

I have no idea whether this is a good beer, but I applaud the time and effort the Brothers (or rather their team of able brewers) put into it. They've raised the bar for what a brewery can to do add its own, unique stamp on a beer, and if we're very lucky, it will become a trend.


  1. I've been very impressed with the beers that Widmer is putting out. I kind of wrote them off for a bit, or I should say I wasn't frequenting their pub or buying their bottled beer much. They've really done some great stuff though over the past year or two. Kudos to Widmer!

  2. Focus on the word quality instead of craft. If it is good. It is good.
    Blind tastings is the way to go.

  3. I bought a bottle of the oatmeal porter this afternoon. I thought the idea of combining the smooth character of oatmeal into a porter was fantastic. Well that's because I like oatmeal and porter. First taste wasn't to sure. I got the roasted character that mellowed into a chocolate-coffee character. The hops seemed to be a little more than I would want if I was designing this type of beer. After the third swallow though everything was on a even playing field. I just wished that I had purchased another bottle. Well I guess that I will have to go and buy some more bottles tomorrow. Congrats Widmer you made a really good beer. I am anxious to see what it will taste like after sitting 2 years in my basement. PS can I get the recipe to brew some of my own?

  4. @Anonymous: at only 6% ABV I'm not so sure it's a shoe-in for 2 years of cellaring.