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Friday, May 13, 2016

Widmer Brothers Hefe at 30: A Reconsideration

This is the first part of a pair of posts on the legacy of Widmer Brothers Hefe. For the sibling post, an oral history of the beer, go here


The City of Portland officially declared May 15 "Hefe Day."

On Sunday, the Widmer Brothers are throwing a party at Pioneer Courthouse Square to celebrate the 30th Anniversary of their flagship, the venerable Hefeweizen. It is almost impossible to overstate the significance of this beer in the history of its hometown. In the early days of craft brewing, breweries had a hard time convincing beer drinkers to switch over to the heavier, more full-flavored ales they were selling ... until Hefeweizen came along.

It became the city's first breakthrough beer, and in the late 1980s, everyone in the city wanted to hold a tall, curved weizen glass of the cloudy orange liquid, garnished ostentatiously with a lemon slice. In most cities, it took years--often decades--to reach that tipping point where craft beer was an accepted, popular drink. Thanks to Hefeweizen, Portland made the transition by the time Nirvana was first playing Satyricon downtown.

That MTV-era success launched both Widmer Brothers and their strangely-named beer, and both became giants in craft brewing. But it also dated them as surely as shoulder-padded power suits and synthy new wave music. As with any multi-generational phenomenon, Hefeweizen now carries with it the weight of all those impressions that have accumulated over the decades. It's interesting to speak to people who encountered this beer at different times; those who know it from the 80s have entirely different impressions than those who came across it later (see here for more). Those impressions seem to contain as much of the mood of the industry at the time as they do of the beer itself, for good and sometimes ill.

I began my own reconsideration of this beer within the last decade, and particularly when I had to write about it in the Beer Bible. When Kurt and Rob decided to call it a "hefeweizen," they plunged us into a netherworld of stylistic confusion, a legacy with which we're still contending. But, leaving aside the name, the beer turns out to be more interesting, unusual, and influential than we give it credit for--especially us old timers--and it's actually better positioned now than it has been in decades. If you strip away all that history, it looks surprisingly contemporary. And for the first time, it may also be poised to exchange its status of "old" to that rare category of "classic."

"American" Bones
For the past few months, we've been enduring a weird little boomlet in very cloudy IPAs that supposedly come from New England. Oh really? Cloudy beers have been pretty popular here in Oregon since 1986, when Widmer Brothers first launched Hefeweizen. In fact, if you look at the bones of Hefeweizen, it has all the hallmarks of what we have come to think of as the classic American style.
  • Cloudiness and rusticity. In 1986, that cloudiness was the most potent rebuke to industrial lagers Portlanders had ever seen. It said, without words or PR gloss, 'this is not your father's Lucky Lager.' That visual cue has been a part of Oregon brewing ever since, though the valence has changed as hops have come into the picture. Haziness is now associated with the addition of bales of hops, and when an IPA is absent at least a shimmer of haze, many drinkers regard it with skepticism. As craft beer gets ever larger and more industrial, that haze becomes a more potent proxy for artisanal. This is all something Rob and Kurt learned in 1986.
  • Late hop flavors. American wheat beers have become their own thing. Made with neutral yeast, they accentuate the soft breadiness of the grain and are brewed to be drunk in twos and threes. This style really flourished in the Midwest, where beers like Bell's Oberon and Three Floyds Gumballhead have become perennial favorites. Hefeweizen is not actually a member of this group. It's really a pale ale, featuring a lovely layer of citrusy American hop flavor. The Widmers were certainly not the first to feature the bright notes of Cascade hops, but they understood how well it worked with a beer highlighting a citrus smack. 
  •  Sessionability. The life-cycle of craft beer has come back to where it started. Beer was a sessionable drink, and people rarely sat down to drink just one. As craft beer evolved, beers got ever more intense, pulling the focus away from sessionability. Ultimately, drinkers started coming back around to sessionable beers that were full-flavored but not so intense they resisted having a pint or three. Hefeweizen, which combines light hoppiness with a layer of soft malts, is a perfect session beer, and has the complexity even beer geeks admire.
If you look at where American beer is right now, Hefeweizen looks remarkably contemporary. It even predicted the move to fruit. That slice of lemon, once derided by purists as a gimmick, doesn't look at all out of place in a world where grapefruit IPAs are the hottest trend. Go pour out a Hefeweizen and then grab another old-time craft standard--a Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA, for example--and pour that out for comparison. Which one seems more in keeping with the mood of 2016? Not that strange, heavy, bitter old IPA, that's for sure.

Sustained Success
It's also worth noting how few beers introduced in the 80s are still on the market. Beer is a commercial product, and breweries can't afford to keep any brand alive for nostalgic reasons. In the thirty years since Widmer Brothers released Hefe, they've introduced scores of beers to the market. They would happily be brewing, say, Drifter Pale Ale now if it were still selling well. But breweries can only afford to sell what people are buying When I spoke to Rob Widmer earlier this week, he mentioned how this phenomenon affected Hefe's predecessor, Weizenbier. It was actually just a filtered version of Hefeweizen, but it couldn't compete with its unexpectedly alluringly cloudy incarnation:
“Backing up even further, there were very few people who appreciated Altbier. We were kind of circling the drain—there wasn’t really any velocity there at all. We introduced the Weizenbier because we realized people wanted something that was a little more approachable. So Weizen really saved us. Originally we hoped to have Altbier, Weizenbier, and Hefe on tap. What we found was that Weizen drinkers, once they discovered Hefe, they just stopped. Over the course of the rest of ’86, we just slowly wound down Weizen. It was bittersweet; we hated to see that Weizenbier go.”

Over the course of thirty years, the craft beer segment has changed radically--and gone through several stages along the way. Each one of those shifts in preferences killed off a certain number of formerly-popular beers. But ever since its introduction, Hefeweizen has been far and away the most popular Widmer Brothers beer, even as other brands in the portfolio came and went. Over the thirty years since its introduction, they've brewed millions of barrels of the stuff. There's never been a time when it didn't account for the lion's share of the brewery's production and sales.

Sometimes craft beer fans are wary of the old. When he was master brewer at BridgePort, Karl Ockert called this the "novelty curve"--that period when a new beer sells well simply because its new. Other industry watchers call it "drinker promiscuity." Popularity is a double-edged sword, though. Everyone's trying to capture that lightning, but holding on to it--that's the trick. One of the reasons Hefeweizen has had this sustained success, year after year, era after era, is because it has a classic timelessness that people respond to.

I will confess that in the 1980s and '90s, I was not much a Hefeweizen fan. It had a status in that era of an entry-level beer. In the '80s, it also had an association with yuppies that warded me off. (For youngsters, yuppies, though very different in class and status, were sort of the hipsters of their day: a lot more people were called yuppies than claimed to be one.) It wasn't until sometime in the 2000s that I rediscovered Hefeweizen, and I was startled by what I found. My own palate had gone through that shift toward balance and subtle complexity, and I discovered what a triumph Hefeweizen was. In the years since, I will occasionally find myself in a place with a mediocre tap list that includes Hefe. I smile as I order it, knowing I've discovered this wonderful gem hiding there among the Stellas and Blue Moons.

After years of seeming like they were vaguely embarrassed by Hefeweizen, the Widmer Brothers have started to give full-throated support to their flagship again. Sales are up. They've even begun extending the brand a bit with beers like Hefe Shandy. (I'd love to see a cloudy, wheaty, late-hop IPA next; it would bear all the fingerprints of its ancestor and be on the cutting edge of the new trend.) My sense is that even beer geeks have come back around to it.

If you survive long enough, you're no longer old. You're classic. Maybe Widmer Hefeweizen has, after thirty years, finally gotten there.

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