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Monday, March 25, 2019

The Widmer Way: Boys Make Good

In an annals of Oregon brewing history, there are a few names that come instantly to mind. Henry Weinhard is automatic. He wasn't the first to brew here, but he was so significant that his legacy endured for more than a century. Arnold Blitz is another icon and a part of the Weinhard story. Then there's Kurt and Rob Widmer.

The Widmers were members of the group that launched the craft beer revolution in Oregon. They might well be the most successful of the founding brewers. It's a tough call only because the McMenamin's collection of properties is sprawling. Kurt and Rob Widmer built a beer brand that captured the imagination of mainstream craft fans in Oregon and beyond. None of the others managed that.

Jeff Alworth's new book, The Widmer Way: How Two Brothers Led Portland's Craft Beer Revolution, charts the Widmers' course from their relative youth to the conception and realization of their brewery to the partnership with Anheuser-Busch, Redhook and the formation of the Craft Brew Alliance.

I might have chosen a different title. The Widmers no more led the craft revolution here than did Bridgeport or Portland Brewing or McMenamins. Each of the founding breweries played a unique role. Widmer's key contribution was Hefeweizen, which set a standard in bars and popular restaurants, lending the craft movement an aura of status and credibility at a crucial moment.

Much of the story reported here is not new to me; I knew some of it thanks to my work on Portland Beer. But Jeff's book goes into much greater detail, which figures since Kurt and Rob are the main subjects. Their story is intriguing and instructive. Nothing came particularly easy for these guys. They meticulously built their business on hard work and remained true to that value long after they had achieved great success.

Putting together a craft brewery in the early 1980s was no easy task. The challenges were significant and are fairly well appreciated today. Jeff outlines issues the Widmer's faced as they assembled their brewery and began brewing. The makeshift system was a menagerie of pieces that weren't designed to function together. That meant brewing was arduous, requiring extensive time and labor. It meant jumping through a lot of hoops to get the job done.

Kurt and Rob were young, hardworking and dedicated to quality. Having started out as homebrewers, they put up with crappy ingredients and somehow managed to make decent beer. The initial batches of beer produced in their brewery were much better than their homebrew. But they sewered the first 10 brews, anyway, considering the beer not good enough to sell.

It's a pretty good guess that the Widmer dream would have failed had it not been for their father, Ray. Ray grew up on a farm and knew how to fix things and solve quirky problems, the kinds of problems you're apt to find in a cobbled-together brewery. He was retired by the time Kurt and Rob began working on their brewery. But Ray joined the fun and provided crucial assistance as the boys navigated numerous challenges.

A prime feature of the story is the cautious approach the Widmers took to everyday business. Once they landed on Hefeweizen as their flagship beer, orders poured in so fast they couldn't keep up. A small brewery at B Moloch's in downtown Portland provided brief respite. When they finally moved to Russell Street, they installed a 30-barrel brewery. Incredible. That brewery should have been at least twice as large...just one case of the thriftiness wired into the Widmer DNA.

The most fascinating part of the book involves how the partnership with Anheuser-Busch was formed in 1997. At the time, the Widmers needed to expand again, but were also looking for a partner that could help them reach a wider audience. They discovered they had a lot in common with August Busch III, then the CEO of Anheuser-Busch. The AB partnership evolved largely out of a shared set of values. The Widmers were widely criticized within the growing craft community at the time, but the partnership with AB was one of the smartest decisions they ever made. More than cash to finance expansion, they got access to the nationwide AB distribution network.

Out of the arrangement with AB (which purchased 27 percent of Widmer) eventually came the partnership with Redhook and formation of what became the Craft Brew Alliance in 2004,  as well as the decisive purchase of Kona in 2010. Jeff covers these developments nicely, but wisely avoids investigation of the modern CBA, which is run by sociopaths and only indirectly germane to the Widmer story. Small favors.

If there's a weakness here, it involves the circumstances under which the book was written. Kurt and Rob trusted Jeff to accurately tell their story and paid him to do so. The problem is that paid-for biographies often tend to be too friendly to their subjects. While he was writing the manuscript, Jeff asked me to read several chapters and provide comment. Knowing me to be an honest asshole, he figured I'd provide an honest assessment. I did.

How much of my advice he took is unclear. The flaws in this book are largely related to words here and there that might have been chosen differently. What those occasional words do is create a more friendly, pandering picture than is needed. You'll see what I mean. That approach explodes Aliens-style in the final chapter, the Legacy of Beer, which is full of loving anecdotes from friends and family, and way too syrupy. I would have dispensed with that chapter or toned it down.

Another shortcoming involves the photos, which are small and murky. The Widmer archive contains a lot of photos and it's unfortunate that they aren't handled better here. It's not clear who made the decision to present the photos in this way. Jeff didn't have access to them, so this isn't his doing. Either the publisher, the Ooligan Press, or the Widmers, who negotiated to have the manuscript printed, made the call on the photos. This isn't a disaster, just an opportunity lost.

Even with the noted flaws, I give this book very high marks. The occasional bits of pandering are offset by a story that is expertly written, illuminating and essential reading for fans of craft beer and Portland history. Hiring Jeff to write their story, similar to their decision to partner with Anheuser-Busch, was a wise move on the part of the Widmers.

The book is available through area bookstores and on Amazon. There's an audio version in the works, but I don't know when it will drop. I urge interested readers to purchase a copy at a local bookstore. Doing so won't help Jeff, who got his money up front. But it will help those retailers and let the publisher know that books like this do have an audience. For those who want to read the book without owning it, the Multnomah County Library has 21 copies that can be checked out.

For hardcore fans, Jeff has set a local launch event for Tuesday evening, April 2, at the former Widmer pub on Russell Street. He'll do an introduction, possibly a short reading, and Kurt Widmer will be on hand to talk. Rob is unavailable, apparently hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, which is perfectly appropriate. A list of related events can be found here.

You can indirectly support your local beer writer/author and historical inquiry in general by buying a copy of this book. Just do it.

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