Tucked away in an inconspicuous warehouse in North Portland is the former workhorse at Widmer Brothers brewery. The vehicle that did much of the heavy lifting in the early days is a faded red pickup that now rests under a tarp just across the street from most of the action at the brewhouse and pub. The 1970 Datsun is showing its age, with a few rusted-out patches in the tailgate and foam stuffing peeking out from the driver’s side seat-cushion. You can imagine its bed sagging under the weight of 10 kegs headed up I-5 for Seattle. That delivery method is a far cry from the tractor-trailers that transport Widmer beer much farther now. But the little pickup’s role in the startup 30 years ago won’t soon be forgotten by two brothers who are still very active in their craft. Most people would agree that three decades of working in the same field and shaping consumer beer taste is an occasion worth recognizing. But not if you’re Kurt and Rob Widmer, who are as modest and hard-working as the Datsun they still display on special occasions. The brothers, who say their family never made a big deal out of things like birthdays, had to be convinced by employees that the milestone was worth celebrating this year.
“I guess in my mind I thought, okay, 25—there’s something about 25. And we had some nice parties. But I thought that’s it until we turn 50. And people around here said, ‘No, it is a big deal!’ So it really didn’t come from us,” says Kurt Widmer.
Fortunately for beer lovers, 30 became a number to celebrate in a grand way with the release of 30 beers from the brewery’s archives. Some of the revived recipes are based on original, hand-written notes, and the exercise in selecting beers for the anniversary was admittedly fun. Revisiting the archives is a personal experience for the Widmers—one that’s more like thumbing through a photo album rather than reviewing old chemistry notes. Naturally, some of the memories are better than others, such as the time the brothers had to scramble to keep their first two fermenters warm when January temperatures plunged. At the time, the brewery wasn’t heated, which meant the uninsulated vessels continued to cool in the 30-degree room after they’d pitched the yeast. Resourceful thinking led to, of all places, the bedroom where electric blankets were pulled of mattresses and wrapped around the fermenters like winter jackets.
Other recipes remind the Widmers of their steep learning curve. In the beginning, the drain guzzled more gallons of beer than did people. While being picky about batch perfection was to be expected, health hazards on the job were more of a surprise. Caustic sodium hydroxide is what Kurt Widmer describes as “horribly aggressive stuff.” And he would know, having been drenched in the cleaning solution along with his brother. The temperature of the substance was too hot for their hoses, one of which ruptured next to them. Kurt Widmer, soaking wet and fed up, wanted to call it a night. But Rob Widmer noted that they needed to neutralize themselves by hosing off. Kurt Widmer admits that was the smarter idea:
“I jumped in my car and drove home. It was raining and I remember reaching out to the windshield, taking rain off, and splashing my face to keep it from melting before getting home. Stupid, stupid, stupid. He was much smarter. Still is! I survived. We got lucky so many times.”
Since then, the Widmers’ roles have changed quite a bit. Rob Widmer says he misses elements that were miserable at times. Mashing is the perfect example. It was hot and sweaty business. Grain dust filled the air. And at the end of the day, he’d be a sticky mess since some of the mashing—or conversion of sugar—would happen on his body. However, “the best time was in the winter when it was really cold. When you mashed in it was cozy. It had this kind of cereal smell,” recalls Rob Widmer.
Whether brewing or running a business, it becomes apparent after talking to the Widmers that they genuinely enjoy hands-on, collaborative work. Today, that passion translates into their experiences with employees and customers. The brothers aren’t the sort of company founders who rule from afar—never leaving the safe confines of an office. When both Widmers arrive at the brewery (Rob Widmer goes by bicycle) they often begin their day by walking through the entire facility in order to personally connect with employees and track down any problems —even something as small as a cooked forklift battery. But as Rob Widmer points out, the details matter when your name is on the label:
“There’s something about owning it. Having your livelihood depend on paying attention to things—we have this knack. We see things other people don’t.”
The walk-through is often followed by a quality check tasting panel. Some might guess that would be the highlight of the Widmer’s day since every batch of beer must be approved before it leaves. But what really seems to excite the brothers comes after the panel during lunch. Earlier this year, they both began sharing the mid-day meal with three employees at a time. Since the business has grown over the years, it can be difficult for people in various departments to interact. The lunches help the Widmers get to know as many of their employees as possible and “coax little gems out of them” such as hobbies and hometown stories, says Kurt Widmer.
After working with beer all day, the Widmers get to leave some of the job behind and enjoy what they produce. Kurt Widmer is likely out on the town for dinner with his wife and friends. He uses the opportunity to thank businesses who serve their beer. Meanwhile, Rob Widmer’s front porch is the place to be on a sunny evening. Consider yourself lucky if you live in his neighborhood because you’ll likely end up hanging out with the guy who has the biggest beer supply on the block. Ultimately, the brothers appreciate how beer is an inherently social beverage. Not every drink or meal facilitates a sense of social connectedness in the same manner. For example; while necessary to life, conversation doesn’t seem to flow as freely over a round of water. Beer, perhaps more so in the Pacific Northwest than any other part of the country, has helped shape local identity and culture. While they won’t take credit for it, the Widmers had a role in shifting consumer beer tastes over time. Kurt Widmer appreciates the fact that their beer styles eventually took off because people in the Northwest are open and receptive to new things:
“We couldn’t have picked a better place in the known universe to start a brewery than Portland, Oregon. The people who live here — it starts here — they’ll try anything and if it’s good they’ll stick with it.”
That’s not to say they haven’t experienced disappointments along the way. For Rob Widmer, the failed Rotator IPA series still stings. The idea seemed like a perfect fit for the area. Given the fact that the heart of hop country is just a car ride away, the debut of a different IPA every few months seemed like it would excite the palates of promiscuous craft beer fans. But the ever-changing varieties caused confusion with average drinkers.
“I thought it was brilliant and genius and was going to be huge. And we just weren’t able to communicate that,” explains Rob Widmer.
Meanwhile, Kurt Widmer still wonders why their first beer has been a critical darling while failing to find a mass audience. Altbier has won awards and acclaim since 1984. But it never really caught on with the public. The Widmers even tried rebranding it as a bottled spring seasonal, however, the disguise didn’t work.
“We’ve never been able to make a go of it. So that’s been a personal setback because that was our first beer—still one of my absolute favorites. And it just can’t get out there,” says Kurt Widmer.
The ability to overcome obstacles is a necessary skill in both brewing and business. But doing that with grace speaks to the nature of one’s character. When faced with a challenge—perhaps a beer that flops or the Brewers Association changing the definition of craft beer to the exclusion of Widmer— the brothers press on with a positive outlook. A lot of that boils down to work ethic, which their parents helped instill.
“There have been brewers who have come and gone. And I think it wasn’t necessarily that we’ve been any smarter, but I think we just worked harder. Whenever we set out to do something we want it to be the best that we possibly could. And a lot of times because we weren’t that smart it meant working a lot harder and longer,” says Rob Widmer.
Logging those hours shoulder-to-shoulder with a sibling might prove disastrous for some, but the Widmers seem to draw on each other’s strengths. The two even share an office, which contains two desks pushed together so that they’re always facing while seated. When asked to describe the other brother, the Widmers tend to focus on shared traits rather than differences. And brotherly teasing is peppered throughout their conversations. Kurt Widmer sums up the dedication in their relationship:
“Some people say, ‘I can’t be in the same room as my brother.’ Some people marvel that we worked side-by-side for 30 years. But when we look back on it, we were working 17 and 18 hour days, seven days a week, and there was never a time where I even questioned whether Rob would be there at 4 a.m. the next day.”
Commitment will keep the Widmers coming back to walk the brewery floor, share a smile and conversation with employees, and hit the road to personally introduce themselves and their beer across the U.S. Of course, these days, there is more time to slow down and enjoy a vacation. But these brothers don’t see much changing in the next 10 years.
“We never set out to be the biggest, but always wanted to be the best. And I think that as long as we’re here those are some of the functions we serve: as that anchor, touchstone, reference point,” explains Kurt Widmer.
Widmer will continue to grow. Craft beer will continue to grow. And the brewery will continue to build recipes that reflect the quality of life in the Northwest that Kurt and Rob Widmer are so passionate about. Thankfully for beer drinkers everywhere, the Widmers never had a Plan B if brewing didn’t work. They admit it’s the only thing they’re qualified to do.
“We have our good days and our bad days. But at the end of the day it is the beer business and it’s pretty fun. I mean, if I look around what else would I rather be doing?” says Kurt Widmer.
The only other option, it seems, is offering us one of life’s best invitations: Would you like to go have a beer?
Widmer Brothers Brewery
[a] 929 N. Russell St., Portland
Owners: Rob and Kurt Widmer
BY JOHN FOYSTON
Kurt and Rob Widmer incorporated in 1984, though they didn’t sell their first kegs until 1985. With the help of their dad, the late Ray Widmer, they assembled a small brewery out of used dairy and restaurant equipment, and by fall had begun running test batches of beer inspired by those that Kurt had tried in Germany. They first brewed Altbier and Weizen, but in 1986, publican Carl Simpson of the Dublin Pub wanted a third beer from a brewery with just two fermenters. Kurt, ever the perfectionist, didn’t want to send out a cloudy beer, but finally relented and came up with an unfiltered version of their Weizen with the yeast still in suspension — Hefeweizen, they called it. Things really took off a decade later, when the brothers sold a minority share of the business to Anheuser-Busch to gain access to A-B’s nationwide distribution network, and began bottling. But until then, it was a slow process of taking samples to bar owners to convince them to buy beers that were utterly unlike industrial lagers and twice as expensive in the bargain. “There were times,” remembers Rob Widmer, “when they’d look at me like I wasn’t even speaking English.”
But when they did get a keg tapped at a tavern, they’d call out the “designated drinkers” — friends who’d descend on the place and order those weird new microbrews, so the brothers could go by the next day and ask the tavern owner how the new beer did. Kurt Widmer used to make brewery deliveries on Friday afternoons in the little red Datsun pickup truck they bought from their dad. (They still have the truck at the brewery.) He remembers one day he had five or six kegs in the back when some guys pulled up next to him in traffic, rolled down their window and shouted, “Dude, where’s the kegger? Can we follow you?”