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Thursday, January 17, 2013

Widmer Rolls into 2013 with Renewed Look, New Beers

The folks down at Widmer Brothers Brewing celebrated the new year with a beer release party the other night. It was fun event, with beers all around, gourmet cheese appetizers and a mildly spicy stew for the main course. Three ice creams and stouts made up the desert mix. Great stuff.

Ice cream and stout...yummy!
Kurt and Rob Widmer, as well as members of their brewing, marketing and other teams were present. Thirsty operatives from virtually every beer-centric media outlet in the area also stopped by. No one in their right mind wants to miss a party like this.

Just to be clear, this was strictly a Widmer affair. There was no mention of the other Craft Brew Alliance brands...Omission, Redhook and Kona. This was all about what Widmer is doing and where they're headed for 2013.

Big Picture
I'll get to the star of the evening momentarily, but first the big picture. Widmer is in the process of revamping its packaging for 2013. You'll notice it right away when you see the seasonals and Rotator IPAs on store shelves. It's a bolder look than before and will eventually be applied more broadly.

They're calling this "revised" as opposed to "rebranded" packaging. There's a big difference. If this were a full rebranding, there would certainly be a new logo...and there isn't. What they've done is brighten up the presentation. The big idea seems to be clearer differentiation between the various brands and that's what you'll likely see as the new packaging rolls out in coming months.

Sixer side view
It seems to me the new packaging is part of a reevaluation of their overall marketing plan that began in 2011. Why did it start then? Because that's when they started to seriously address the dipping performance of Hefeweizen, the main meal ticket for many years. This reality is surely driving many initiatives as Widmer moves to solidify a broader portfolio.

One interesting quirk with the packaging is that the beer specs are on the bottom. Yep. Don't bother looking for info on ABV, IBU or other ingredients on the side panels. Nothing there. You'll have to lift that six-pack above your head to see what's in the beer. I'm not sure how 12-packs and cases will be handled, but I suspect they're be the same.

Stars Out
The star of the show in my mind was the newly released Columbia Common Spring Ale. I was talking about the rise of lower ABV, session beers the other day; lo and behold, I ran into this beer that very evening. What a great find!

Bottoms up details!
Backing up, brewer Ben Dobler told me this beer was in the pipeline when I met with him a couple of months back. He gave me a bunch of details, which I wrote it down in my notes and mostly forgot because, well, because I knew it wasn't going to be released for a few months. Then I forgot about it.

Columbia Common features a nice combination of flavor and drinkability. At 4.7% ABV, it has less kick than Budweiser. Make no mistake, though, this light amber beer has great character. The zesty hop notes are derived form Columbia hops, which were nearly extinct before Widmer brewers rediscovered them. Another part of the equation is the combination of Hefeweizen and lager yeast, which seems to create an almost creamy body.

Fine cheese!
Although it has the makings of a year-round beer, Columbia Common is billed as a Spring Seasonal, with January-April availability. That's seems odd. I'm guessing the timetable is related to the wide distribution of Widmer beers. Some of this beer has to be shipped to distant markets and that takes time. So they've built that into production and marketing.

The other new seasonal is Chocolate Russian Imperial Stout '13. This is a nice beer. They used the KGB Russian Imperial Stout recipe and added Ecuadorian cocoa nibs. The result is a complex beer that is mildly sweet with hints of cocoa and coffee. Hops are in the background. This thing clocks in at 9.3%, so you have to be careful.

Another of the evening's beers was O'Ryely IPA, one of the Rotator IPAs from last year. Widmer is re-releasing O'Ryely in the revised packaging. They say this is "a big punchy IPA with notable hoppiness and just a touch of caramel malty sweetness." But it's 6.4% and only 50 IBU, so it isn't too punchy.
O'Ryely sixer side panel
It's good to see O'Ryely back out there. The revised packaging will certainly make it easier to spot than the (too busy) old packaging. The beer itself seems to have a bit more zip in hop character than what I remember, but Dobler said the recipe is the same. Perhaps minor ingredient variations are responsible for any change...or maybe I'm just crazy. Sure, that's it.

Of all the recent Rotator IPAs, I like O'Ryely the best. The others (Spiced, Falconers and Shaddock) never came close to my IPA sweet spot. For my money, the best of the Rotator IPAs was the original X-114, which came on the heels of Broken Halo...both retired. Maybe Widmer will bring these beers back as part of the new approach. Hope springs eternal.

All and all, it seems the folks at Widmer are heading into 2013 with a solid game plan that mixes innovation with tradition. I look forward to seeing what else they've got up their sleeves.

Disclosure: Like everyone who attended this event, I was treated to snacks, free beer, dinner and a take home beer of my choice.

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