Of Weizens and Widmers
Brothers Rob and Kurt Widmer turned their enthusiasm for home brewing into an empire. Starting out as a draught-only family-run operation with the assistance of their father Ray in 1984, the duo grew their business as the American specialty beer market boomed during the 1990s—thanks in large part to the success of their signature beer, Widmer Hefeweizen. Today they’re the ninth-largest craft brewery in the world, yet their passion for small-batch beers remains.
What was beer culture like when you first started your brewery?
Kurt: The Eighties were an interesting time. The economy wasn’t booming then. Our business plan was realistic, perhaps a bit pessimistic, in retrospect way too conservative. We opened up the pub on 14th and Lovejoy with 10 draught accounts. If only we could have known how rapidly that craft beer would grow in popularity. We underestimated our needs. With every expansion we thought we had enough space to last a lifetime.
Why has craft beer taken off?
Kurt: Portland and the Pacific Northwest was an excellent place to start. When we were setting up our original business plan, we noted that Oregon had one of the highest rates of beer sales on-draught and also imports. We took those factors and combined them. Drinkers of draught beer are considered more sophisticated, and folks were demanding more flavorful beers, which then were more commonly found in imports, not domestic.
Plus, the weather here is conducive to sitting in a nice camper or restaurant and having beers with friends.
And the Northwest has a legacy of small regional breweries instead of large national chains. There were only a handful of microbreweries when we started out—Lucky Lager on Vancouver Island, Rainier in Seattle—all wonderful regional breweries that are all gone today. We grew to fill that void. People were just ready to be exposed to full-flavored beer. It’s another of the great things about the Northwest: people are willing to try new things.
Rob: Back then, craft brands didn’t exist. People hadn’t learned about styles yet, they just wanted craft beer. Nowadays, people have awareness. We’ve trained people to want varieties.
Hefeweizen didn’t exist before you guys brewed it. How did that come about?
Rob: We felt like our beer had to be dramatically different from what was available in Portland at that time. Most people found our altbier to be too bitter, so we produced a filtered wheat beer. I wish it was our genius, all part of our plan, but it was really serendipity. We built this brewery on that beer. For a while we were the largest draft brewery in North America.
Now wheat beer is commonplace. It’s no accident that every craft brewer does some version of wheat beer. Hefewiezen was the first craft beer many people have had and can describe what they were doing, where they were at when they had their first craft beer.
The number of beer varieties has exploded the past few years …
Rob: If there’s one thing brewers like to do, it’s experiment. I’ve seen them put everything from chocolate bars to loaves of pumpernickel bread just to see what happens. Sometimes it works, and sometimes …
1984: Hatched plans for craft brewery
1986: Released first Hefeweizen
1987: Released first seasonal beer: Fest, a malty, hoppy winter warmer
1990: Expanded into new, larger production brewing facility in North Portland
1996: Added bottles to the line-up; opened Portland pub and brewery on
NW 14th and Lovejoy
2007: Merged with Redhook Brewery
2010: Merged with Kona Brewery