Rob Widmer provided his assessment of changes in the brewing industry during the last 30 years. His take on brewery acquisitions: “Make sure you’re making the decision that you’re still making the best beer that you can. That’s what we’ve done. Haters gonna hate. Whenever I’ve had the opportunity to explain the relationship to A-B, I rarely have anybody walk away with a continued negative attitude.” Photos courtesy of Widmer Brothers Brewing
By Anthony St. Clair
For the Oregon Beer Growler
Oregon’s brewing industry is changing faster than ever, and few people have seen as many changes as Rob Widmer, co-founder of Widmer Brothers Brewing in Portland. In this conversation, Rob looks back to his early days with his brother and fellow co-founder Kurt, discusses the industry and looks ahead.
Q: It’s been 30 years since you and your brother introduced Widmer Hefe. What has kept you engaged in this industry all these years?
A: Kurt and I started as homebrewers. It’s been our love and passion for brewing. For me, that extends to how I love pubs and pub culture. I enjoy the people who drink beer. I haven’t lost that love and passion for beer. It’s one of the things that makes life worth living.
Q: Is the bubble going to burst, or is there enough market for growth to continue?
A: Things were so different when Kurt and I started in the ‘80s. The term craft beer hadn’t been coined. No one knew brewers or homebrewers. People didn’t talk about style. Now there are people who never knew any other time. It’s amazing to me. Back in 1985 when we were trying to sell beer, at first pub owners thought it was illegal. Second they thought it would make people sick.
It’s a great time to be a beer drinker. Oregon is probably the best place in the world to live if you’re a beer lover. You can get examples of any style you can imagine. The pace of breweries opening has actually been accelerating. There’s a ton of run room for people, maybe not so much in the Pacific Northwest, but where people haven’t been introduced to it before.
Q: If you and Kurt were starting now, what would you do differently?
A: There’s always going to be room for a small brewery: nano, less than 10 barrels, with a pub. If you were trying to start a larger size, you’d have to have something pretty special or it’d be a tough go. The farther we got from Portland in the ‘90s, the harder it was to get distribution. The Anheuser-Busch arrangement is how we solved it. It’s a distribution agreement, though people have tried to paint it negative things.
People ask if I thought it could grow like it did. I say that our original plan in 1984 — 10 pubs pouring our beer and had our own tasting room — was to sell enough beer that he and I could make a living in Portland.
There were things we needed: really good people, we did that. We had to have excellent brewing, we did that. We had to have access to capital, we had that. But one of the things key to growth was access to market. Distributors are the unsung heroes of the beer business.
Q: What would you say are the top three most notable changes in the industry this year?
A: In no particular order:
Ballast Point selling for a billion dollars. That was breathtaking. It’s an indication of how hot the industry is.
The acceleration of brewery openings.
The retirement of Kurt Widmer was a pretty big deal, at least for me.
Q: Since your brother retired, how has your day-to-day work changed?
A: It really hasn’t. He was doing his thing, I was doing my thing, and that just continued. Where I bring the most value is to be out in the trade, as we say, and that goes back to how I love pubs, I love drinking beer with people, and I get to do that. It’s an important part of my job. There aren’t a lot of breweries where the founder still gets out, and I like to do that. When Kurt retired, I said, “Don’t expect me to work overtime. I’m one of the industry elders at this point. Take it easy on me.”
Q: How has CBA evolved over the years?
A: Being too big for your britches is something that we’ve been hearing since back in 1986, when Hefe was taking off. But growth enables you to do things, like attract really talented people, get better training for your staff. Growth enables you to afford really great equipment, all those things.
As CBA has evolved, we’ve grown and I couldn’t be more proud of the crew we have — our breweries. If it was still me and Kurt, jumping in and out of tanks, I don’t think I could physically do that anymore. I don’t try to lift kegs anymore. CBA has really been awesome. Brewing on a small scale is really physical. I don’t know any brewer who doesn’t want from growth the ability to do things like automate, get a forklift, ease the physical side.
Q: Advice for new breweries?
A: Make sure your beer is good. Don’t put out anything you’re not proud of.
Q: What do you want the new Innovation Brewery to accomplish?
A: We had a small 10-barrel brewery in the Rose Quarter in 1996. Every brew then was an innovation. The Rose Quarter brewery was 20 years old, worn out and it was difficult to operate, a half-mile away.
Innovation has been the essence of craft brewing and at Widmer since we started. I like to remind people that beers like Hefe blew people’s minds in 1986. No one had ever seen a cloudy beer or cloudy wheat domestically. A lot of what we’ve done over the years has been overshadowed by Hefe. We were one of the first to do hop-forward beers, Cascadian dark styles, but Widmer and Hefe are so synonymous that it can be hard for people to think of us as innovative.
Q: Why did CBA decide to pursue contract brewing with Anheuser-Busch breweries?
A: We wanted to have that door opened should the need arise. For Widmer specifically, we just completed a major expansion in Portland. We have a lot capacity to do Widmer beers and do them here in our backyard.
Over the past 20 years, we’ve taken a lot of heat for our relationship with A-B. A lot of breweries see the large breweries as the enemy. We see them as fierce competitors, not enemies. I’m pretty beer geeky, but there are times where I like to have a domestic lager. I admire how well they’re made.
Sometimes people find it fashionable to bash the large companies. Any kind of negativity around beer is a bad thing. Beer is a positive thing that brings people together, and that’s the spirit that should pervade the industry.
Q: What is your advice to breweries as they weather negative feedback from the public when their brewery is bought by or takes investment from a larger brewery?
A: Make sure you’re making the decision that you’re still making the best beer that you can. That’s what we’ve done. Haters gonna hate. Whenever I’ve had the opportunity to explain the relationship to A-B, I rarely have anybody walk away with a continued negative attitude.
Our deal was strictly about distribution. They’ve never been able to tell us how to brew, what to brew, how to market. It’s a quirk in our society that big is bad. But when you pursue people on why it’s bad, it becomes an emotional thing, and they can’t put their finger on it. But then they’re carrying an iPhone, drive a Toyota and are wearing Nikes.
The good news is that beer is really emotional for people. It’d be worse if people didn’t care at all. We’re still doing what we were doing in 1985. There hasn’t been any boogeyman. I met some of the top folks at A-B InBev here in the U.S. They’re like us. They love beer, they love to learn, they’re really nice.
Q: What is one of your favorite fall beers?
A: A lot of my favorite beers right now come from the homebrew community. Homebrewers set the stage for what’s coming.
Q: What are some of your outlooks for the industry?
A: This infatuation with hops is peaking. The next big thing is people are going to discover the flavors of malted barley, and it’ll be coming back to helles, pils, and styles like that. I’m seeing that in the homebrewing community.
Q: What are some things in the works for Widmer?
A: After 30 years, I’m still working on getting people to pronounce Hefe correctly. [Editor’s note: it’s “hay-fuh,” by the way].
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.