Rob Widmer Interview, Part 1

Rob Widmer
Rob Widmer

Portland, Oregon native Rob Widmer and his older brother Kurt founded Widmer Brothers Brewing Company in 1984.  One of Oregon’s first breweries at the forefront the craft beer revolution, Widmer Brothers has since grown to become the state’s largest brewery. Their dedication to maintain a craft approach to the trade has afforded the company’s continued success, not only in the Pacific Northwest, but nationally.  On April 2, 2009, Widmer Brothers will celebrate their 25th anniversary.  Brewpublic recently sat down with Rob over a pint at his Gasthaus to learn about the inspiration, creativity, and business evolution behind the success story that is Widmer Brothers. Here is the first part of an interview conducted recently with Rob:

You are celebrating Widmer Brothers’ 25th anniversary.  This must be very exciting for you.

Rob Widmer: It’s a big milestone. Sometimes it seems like it was just yesterday that we started.  Other times, it seems like a lifetime ago.  By any measure, it’s been a pretty good run.

What special events do you have planned for the 25th?

RW: Our anniversary is on the 2nd of April.  In the Gasthaus…well, when we started, there was no Gasthaus…We’re rolling back prices to $1.50 (per pint) for a limited period.  Also, we’re doing a commemorative bottling of the Altbier, the first beer we brewed…a double Alt called The ’84/’09.  We’re going to bottle that on a special, limited release run. Then we’re going to have a party here at the pub and in the brewhouse, too.

When you think back over the pat 25 years, what are some of your favorite memories that stand out most to you?

RW: There’s so many. I guess one of the things that has been fun for Kurt and I…when it comes to the beer, we’ve always spent our money on things that would improve the beer quality…But there are sometimes breakthrough gadgets that you buy, that not only make your beer better, but make your life simpler. And I think that the early ones were the ones, when the brewing was very physical, that not only gave you the ability to do your job and not get completely beat up at the end of the day. Like our first forklift, that was huge, and it sounds crazy, but we didn’t have a loading dock and we didn’t have a forklift, so we built this bench that was kind of like a table and we’d carry it out.  A truck would pull out in front of our brewery and we’d put the table behind the truck.  Then, the two of us would jump up onto the table and throw the keg up onto the truck. That’s the way we would load trucks, and when you are doing that repeatedly all day, even though you are in your twenties…I remember going home and being so tired that I just couldn’t eat.  I’d make it to the couch and wake up and it was time to go again.  Yeah, the forklift! I also remember when we were buying all of our grain initially in 100-pound bags and humpin’ those around.  We got malt and we were able to auger it into our hopper. I remember just thinking “Wow, this is awesome!”  So things like that have been special.  The original brewery (on the Northside of the street) that is no longer here, the first mash tun that had a mixer, versus stirring, did a better job and saved a lot of the physical labor. I could go on and on (laughs)…

How would you describe your relationship with your brother Kurt and what roles do you play in the daily operation of Widmer?

RW: Well, obviously we get along. In our office, our desks are head-to-head. It’s a pretty small office. We have been working side by side for 25 years and certainly have our differences, but I guess we’ve learned to deal with those. It’s like any relationship that lasts.  I don’t know of anybody who gets along perfectly, but once you learn to accept the other parties, and the foibles…We’re really kind of interchangeable.  I was interviewed recently and this same question came up. Typically, one person is sales and marketing and the other is the brewer and the two hardly ever cross paths.  But Kurt and I have always been a little interchangeable. He’s got some strengths and I have some strengths. But it was never that typical division.

Who is the oldest of the two of you?

RW: Kurt’s the oldest.

When you and Kurt started off brewing, what was your take on brewing and how did you vision for Widmer develop?

RW: I can’t speak for Kurt, but as for homebrewing, I picked up the hobby coincidentally .  Our uncle was a homebrewer and he was the one whose example was the first that I thought “Gee, that’s cool.  He makes his own beer.” So, I guess it was a combination of the satisfaction that you get when you make something yourself and the economy of effort.

You obviously started off quite small and now you are the largest brewery in Oregon…

RW: That happen organically. People have always said things like “How big do you want to get?” or “Where do you see yourself in twenty years?” And 25 years ago, Kurt and I never had a plan to be sitting here today with a brewery like that across the street. In our wildest dreams we hoped we’d brew and sell enough beer in Portland that he and I would be able to brew and sell beer for a living. Our first business plan called for that if we had twenty good draught accounts we’d be able to make it. We had no idea that all of this would take place in the next 25 years. I guess we’ve always felt like if people want our beer than we want to get it to them. That lead to growth. And people kept wanting our beer, and so initially we were like “I guess we’d better add another fermenter” then “Oh, better add another fermenter” , “Oh, we’d better look at moving.” So, it just kind of happened like that, organically. Now we have projections, but I still think we just have to go with the flow, I guess (laughs).

What do you cite as your main influences in developing Widmer?  There’s obviously a strong German influence.  What role did this have in Widmer coming to fruition as to what it is today?

RW: My mom is German and my dad’s side was Swiss. So beer was certainly an important thing. My great grandmother on my mom’s side brewed, but other than my uncle, there were no brewer’s on our side. But, beer was certainly something that my dad always had-a beer or two in the evening when he got home from work. So there wasn’t any problem with us being brewers (laughs).

What sort of brews were you drinking when you first got a taste for beer?

RW: Well, I guess the most memorable ones were way back when my uncle, the homebrewer,  at family gatherings, even though I was just a little squirt, would say to me “Hey, come and help me get some beer” and he would take me down to his beer cellar and he’d pour me a little taste and say “What do you think, is this good enough for those folks upstairs?”  I was really flattered by that. I’d help him carry his beer upstairs and I thought that was pretty cool. So, that is where I first got the idea that you could make your own beer.

On a large scale, you are a part of Oregon’s rich craft beer history that included the likes of Henry Weinhards.  What does that feel like, or are you even cognizant of this on a regular basis?

RW: It’s still kind of hard to think of us more than just a couple of homebrewers who turned their hobby into a pretty nice gig. I know that we are a part of it, but I don’t really dwell on it.

Your flagship beer, the Hefeweizen, came about on the scene when Hart Brewing (now Pyramid) was also doing a wheaten ale.  What is it about wheat beer during the craft beer revolution in this area, and Widmer’s decision to make this type of your signature style?

RW: Consumers made it so. We started with our Altbier which we still brew.  That’s never been a commercial success. The beer geek community really loves it but for most folks, its not their cup of tea. In the beginning, we were just about to go out of business because of it, so we recognized that we needed to do something that was more approachable, and at that time we were carving out the German style beers as our niche. We were aware that Germans made a beer with wheat malt.  So we did our interpretation of that beer. Certainly (ours) was more heavily hopped, as we are in the Pacific Northwest…lots of Cascade hops. The key thing, I guess, is that our yeast handling was very rudimentary and we were terrified of things microscopic. So, we were certain that we didn’t want to bring a second yeast strain into the brewery. So we went ahead and used our Altbier yeast strain to brew this beer. So, it was lacking that clovey, phenolic essence that typical European wheat beers have.  People loved it.  We still take some heat sometimes.  I still hear people say, mostly people on the East Coast, “that’s a terrible representation of the style…blah blah blah” but in the mid-80’s, we weren’t thinking style, we were just brewing. There was nobody here…Fred Eckhardt wouldn’t say “Oh, that’s crap because it doesn’t have that clovey-phenolic flavor. We were just brewing and people were happy for it and liked the way it tasted. Honestly, a little bit of serendipity, what I’ve learned in the last 23 years of sampling a lot of beer, the clovey flavor in the European styles, if you take ten people, three of them will really like it. The other seven probably won’t like it very much. Of those seven, three or four of them are going to hate it. But if you take the same ten people and poured (our) beer, half of them are really going to like it…and the other half are going to think it’s pretty darn good, too. It’s just much more approachable. As for the clovey thing, I’m in the camp that really likes that flavor. Paulaner has always been one of my favorites. But I consider it a completely different type of beer than this. There’s some common ingredients, but the taste profile is completely different. To me, it’s as much as a pale is from a porter.

Do you think that your Hefeweizen popularized the American style of Hefe?

RW: Here in the Northwest, it did definitely. On the East Coast, it is different, because the import influence is so much stronger there. I am still amazed when I go back there how many imports are on tap. You just don’t see that here on the West Coast. So, back there, a lot of people have the European style as a point of reference and I think that is where we’ve gotten into trouble. Because it’s called Widmer Hefeweizen, you might expect it to taste like a Paulaner or Franziskaner, and it doesn’t, so you go “oh that’s crap!” I think that might be our fault.  But if you just look at it as “here’s a glass of beer, what do you think?”

Do you think you’ve popularized or created the American style wheat?

RW: Yeah. It’s kind of hard to say without sounding like I am boasting, but before, the style didn’t really exist. I lobbied the Brewers Association for years to have it designated as a new category at the GABF. A lot of beers have wheat in them, as it is great for foam and things like that…I remember some years back at GABF, Shiners winter beer won in the wheat beer category, the same category our beer was in. It was a dark beer with some wheat malt in it, and I was thinking “Wow, that’s a huge category!” while in the meantime, I’m thinking that the number of categories (at GABF) has gotten kind of crazy. I made a pretty good case, and they agreed, that this is style, the American wheat, represents about 5% of the total craft beer in the country. So, it is a significant style and worthy of having its own category…not just any beer that’s got wheat in it.

Stay tuned…more of this interview to come…