Rob Widmer Interview, Part 3

Happy 25th Anniversary to the Widmer Brother! Today is the actual anniversary date, so raise a glass to Oregon beer history, and the brothers for keeping it real for a quarter century. Today they will be rolling back prices in the Gasthaus to circa 1984.  To celebrate its milestone, Widmer Brothers will be releasing a commemorative 25th Anniversary limited-edition brew, a double alt dubbed 84/09. Though inspired by the brothers’ very first offering, Widmer Alt, 84/09 will provide drinkers with a whole new beer experience at a whopping 9.8% ABV. The 25th Anniversary 22 oz bottle will be available in 12 select West Coast markets in May.Check it out!

Widmer Brothers is the largest brewery in Oregon, and the 11th largest brewery in the United States.  Here is the third installment of our interview with Rob Widmer. When we left off last, we were asking Rob about sustainable and organic beers.

What’s your take on certified organic beer? Is this as important than locally sustainable?

Rob Widmer: If it was doable, I’d be all over it. At the same seminar we were talking about earlier, one of the local hop farmers was talking about water usage and his efforts to grow hops organically and it sounded like a nightmare for the guy.  He said he did know how he would ever be able to make any money growing organically.  He said he could lose his entire crop in a week if things went wrong. I love the idea behind (growing hops organically) and we’d certainly be all over it, but both hops and malted barley are produced separately with lots of plagues. That said, there’s another hop farmer we’re working with who is forth generation, and she was saying that her great grandfather was growing organic because they didn’t have all the stuff back then that they have today.  So she’d trying to figure out how he did it so she can do it.

Switching gears, let’s talk about Widmer’s expansion of the brewing facility across the street from the Gasthaus.  This is prevalent news for you.

RW: It related back to the organic growth we were having.  It mainly related to storage. We were out of fermentation tanks and we also took the opportunity to put in a new kegging line. Our old kegging line was a mistake. It was never a very good machine. Our own in-house engineering team ended up completely redesigning it because it was just never designed very well. The two remaining miserable jobs at the brewery was on the keggin line because it was pretty physical. The guys really had to muscle the kegs to palates. The new kegging line involves two robust that do all of the heavy lifting. So, as I was mentioning earlier about breakthrough gadgets that make your life easier, those are one of them. No more injuries or beating people up. It got to the point that we were running so often that we were using temporary labor because those guys were tough to schedule.  But now, robot…never sick, always happy, lift the kegs like crazy.

You have named your new brewery after your father Ray.  His passing this past year must have been difficult for you.  Tell us what sort of an influence he had on Widmer.

RW: He was a pretty simple guy who was raised on a farm.  His job was selling farm machinery but he was a handy guy. He could fix a car with a hammer and some duct tape. He was that kind of guy. Both Kurt and I are sort of gearheads and we got that from him. Instead of having somebody else fix something, he’d just fix it. I guess fortunately for us, when we started, he was retired and bored stiff. He was just a working guy.  He liked to fish and camp but he wasn’t a golfer. He was a pretty simple guy. As he described it, he came down to see what we were doing and we put him right to work. He stayed there until about a year ago when he passed away and he was still working on the bottling line in December. So, it was great, but as you can imagine, it wasn’t all roses, working with your brother and your dad. But in the end it was very cool.We certainly would have had a much tougher go without our dad’s involvement.

Is Kurt your only sibling?

RW: No. I have two sisters. One has been in Germany most of her life and the other lives here in town. But neither of them are really involved in the brewery.

Your merger with Red Hook made big news in the brewing community. How did your relationship with Red Hook and the idea to merge come about?

RW: Well, we both had the same relationship with Anheuser-Busch. In the 90’s we realized that distribution was a key. We’d always used kind of a patchwork of distributors as we’d brew. What we came to realize is that Anheuser-Busch distributors were just really good. And mostly, when it came to taking care of the beer and the concern of beer quality, and it is really important in that system. It may sound hokey, and people sometimes might not believe it, but the Busch family and specifically August III was just a fanatic when it came to beer quality.  (August Busch III) put into place these regulations that if you were an Anheuser-Busch retailer, there was this laundry list of things that came down to ensuring that Budweiser was taken care of. With our relationship, we were under that halo. So our beer was always taken care of…rotation, making sure it was always refridgerated. In a lot of system, the philosophy hoped for these ideals, but it happened great…if not…eh…But in the A-B system, you could very well lose your job if you didn’t do these things. Lots of guys were gone.  People lived in sheer terror of old beer and mistreated beer. It is so key. A good example of how bad it can be is over in Germany where the beer in the breweries is excellent, awesome. German brewers are the best in the world. But so often, the beer out in the marketplace is beat up. It’s gone around the bend. And it is because their distribution system there. It is just amazing to me. German brewers must know it because they’re out there drinking beer at the pubs and buy it in bottles. A lot of it is crap because they don’t refridgerate at all. It’s not a European thing to refridgerate. So, the beer is warm-stored and it gets beat up. The distribution network in the United States is far superior, and within that, A-B’s system is head and shoulders better. Having said that, there has been a major change, that you guys are aware of. But still, it’s hard to wrap my brain around that. It’s no longer the Busch family running it and already, I see it as relaxing standards because there is a cost of the demands that August Busch put on his beers and the relaxation has hurt those standards. Maybe they were excessive at times, but I’ve always appreciated that obsessiveness with beer quality. It’s kind of like if you were going to have heart surgery and you’d want a guy who is absolutely nuts about doing heart surgery versus somebody who is like “Ehhh…close enough.”

There are some obvious bad feelings about Anheuser-Busch in the Oregon craft beer community.

RW: Oh, absolutely.

Was there any conflict internally for you guys in signing on, despite the quality control and distribution advantages?

RW: The reality is that our beer was better for it. I think the problem that people have with it is separating the business of beer from the beer. You may not like Bud, Miller, or Coors, but all those beers are made by guys who really care about what they are doing. They’re passionate brewers and those beers are all very well made. You may not like that style, but there’s no denying that those are high quality beers. I think that a lot of people don’t like the business side but it’s kind of like a quirk in our society that people like to root for the underdog, but once you are on top, we love to see you go down in flames. The same people who have a problem with A-B, Miller, Coors, or whatever, well, they drive Toyotas, they use Microsoft software, they have Dell computers, they wear Nikes…It’s like, wait a minute, those are pretty good brands. Why is it that you have trouble with the big beer brands? I think it’s because beer is very emotion to people, but I think it really boils down to separating the beer from the business of beer. It’s a brutally competitive industry just like everything else is, and A-B is a fierce competitor. That’s another thing that August III was about: take no prisoners. When he took over, they weren’t the king like they were at the end. He built that. I don’t think you do that without being kind of ruthless, you know. But that is sort of the American way. If you’re not growing, you’re falling back. Look at what’s going on with the basketball players right now (March Madness in full swing). Those games are awesome to watch, ’cause those guys are putting everything they’ve got into it. I think that’s the way that A-B runs their business.

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