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Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Widmer Brewing at 30: The Beat Goes On

Thirty years ago today, Kurt and Rob Widmer launched what would eventually become one of Oregon's leading craft beer brands. Through the years, Widmer Brothers Brewing has stayed relevant by producing solid beers that attracted wide appeal. That theme continues on.

Ray, Kurt and Rob Widmer in the early days
There are some special events on tap this week to celebrate Widmer's 30 years in business. There's also the grand reopening of a newly remodeled pub and more. I'll get to the specifics of those events down the line. First, a bit of history, because 30-year-old businesses typically have lots of it.

When the brothers founded their company on April 2, 1984, they had no grandiose plans. They hoped to be able to make a living doing something they enjoyed. Kurt had spent significant time studying the beer market and thought they could carve out a niche. The growing popularity of imported beer convinced him a local product could compete well in that segment.

It didn't take long for Kurt to convince Rob of the potential. They soon recruited their dad, Ray. As construction of their brewery and business moved along, Ray played an important role. He was a farm boy who could fix things and figure out solutions to all kinds of mechanical challenges. That was a crucial skill to have in a brewery cobbled together largely from scavenged parts.

History recognizes Bridgeport as Portland's oldest craft brewery. In fact, Bridgeport founders Dick and Nancy Ponzi, along with Karl Ockert, began assembling their brewery on Northwest Marshall about the same time the Widmers were doing the same on Lovejoy. Bridgeport is considered the oldest because they began selling beer in late 1984. The Widmers got their beer to market a few months later.

The original space on Lovejoy
The success of Widmer Hefeweizen is well-documented. It's a largely forgotten detail that Hef was not their first beer. That honor belongs to Altbier, a bold interpretation of the German style that Fred Eckhardt, then writing about beer for The Oregonian, named "Beer of the Year" for 1985. Altbier remains a favorite of Eckhardt and is also high on John Foyston's list of favored beers. I like it, too.

When it arrived on the scene in 1986, Widmer Hefeweizen was a sort of accident. The brothers had started making Weizenbier (later shortened to Weizen) to provide something lighter than Altbier for customers. Soon, they were asked to make another beer. But they didn't have the brewing capacity to do that. Their solution was Hefeweizen, unfiltered Weizenbier.

Hefeweizen became hugely popular. Good news. Except the boys had not really planned for the kind of growth they quickly experienced on Lovejoy. They had originally hoped to have a pub there, but the brewing operation soon consumed all of the available space. Thus, they wouldn't have a pub until after they moved to Russell St., where they eventually opened the Gasthaus in 1996.

Another thing not generally recalled is that Hefeweizen was draft only for many years. Bridgeport and Portland Brewing, two of the four founding breweries here, started bottling in 1989. Due to some problems with keeping the yeast in solution, Widmer Hefeweizen wasn't available in bottled form until 1996. It's hard to fathom, looking back.

Once Hefeweizen hit store shelves, Widmer experienced a dramatic growth spurt. The move to Russell St. in 1991 had increased capacity, but it soon became readily apparent that they would have to expand again. That was partly what drove the partnership with Anheuser-Busch, announced in April 1997. By selling an interest (27 percent) in their company, the Widmers got money to expand their facilities and access to AB's distribution network. It was an ingenious move, though some didn't like it.

Widmer's business continued to flourish through the end of the decade and early years of the 21st century. They formed partnerships with Seattle's Redhook and Hawaii's Kona Brewing, which subsequently evolved into the Craft Brewers Alliance in 2008 (shortened to Craft Brew Alliance in 2012). Their portfolio of beers has continued to grow.

To celebrate 30 years, Widmer is holding a grand reopening of its Gasthaus pub Thursday evening. Frankly speaking, the pub remodel was overdue. What they've done with the remodel is vastly improve the experience there. The berms that previously separated the booths and tables are gone. Beer taps have been relocated to the wall behind the bar, immediately below placards showing what's on. The feel is much more open and contemporary. Very nice effort, indeed.

Thursday evening's party will feature the first three releases in Widmer's 30 Beers for 30 Years series. They're essentially going back and brewing beers from their 30 years. The first three are Altbier, Weizenbier and Hefeweizen. Perfect symmetry. Each beer in the series will be produced in limited quantity. Thirty cases of each release, packaged in 22-ounce bottles, will be available in the Portland market. Draft will be limited to select markets and, I assume, accounts.

Next up is the launch party for Blacklight IPA, a collaboration between Widmer and Boneyard Brewing of Bend. Blacklight, a session style black ale, is the first of six collaboration beers Widmer will release to celebrate their 30th. The event is happening at Kelly's Olympian on SW Washington St. Friday evening. The party starts at 7:00, with music kicking off at 9:00.

Finally, Kurt and Rob will toast the official launch of Green & Gold Kolsch, a collaboration with the Timbers Army, prior to Saturday's game at Providence Park. The recipe for Green & Gold was the winner of a 2012 Timbers Army homebrew competition, and subsequently brewed for commercial release by Widmer last year. It is being re-released, they say, due to the resounding positive response. This is a pre-game toast...game time is noon.

When you look at Oregon's four founding breweries, it's fairly clear that Widmer has been the most successful. No need to go into any great detail. McMenamin's has a ton of properties, but Widmer beers are sold across the country. Through innovation, diligence and business smarts, the brothers have piloted their company to great success. They remain vibrant and relevant because they continue to pursue the lofty goals they've been chasing all along. The beat goes on.

Happy 30th, guys! Cheers!

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