By Andi Prewitt
Of the Oregon Beer Growler
It wasn’t that long ago when the dirge for the American family business began to crescendo. Big box stores and transnational corporations had pushed and prodded small mom-and-pop operations ever closer to the grave. But there’s at least one industry where the family-run model has thrived — craft beer.
The business of brewing has long involved kin. For instance, Anheuser and Busch were joined by a hyphen only after the families joined in marriage. Closer to home, the most well-known relatives to start a brewery — Kurt and Rob Widmer — also helped launch the craft revolution in the 1980s. But they’re not the only brothers who’ve decided to make beer under the same roof. That duo is joined by the Hughes behind ColdFire Brewing; the Coombs, founders of Alesong Brewing & Blending; and Three Mugs Brewing Company had the Jennings (before the older brother departed); just to name a few.
While siblings seem abundant in the beer industry, one type of family pairing is rarer to find: the father-daughter team. Much of that is likely due to the fact that men still outnumber women employed in brewing. But that doesn’t seem to bother Lisa Allen, who joined her father Rick Allen at McMinnville-based Heater Allen in 2009. In fact, working closely with each other on a near daily basis in physically demanding roles has only strengthened their relationship over time. And while there certainly have been challenges along the way, right now both are more focused on Heater Allen’s big accomplishment — 10 years in business.
Lisa Allen never pictured herself hovering over her dad’s brew kettle or cleaning tanks as a full-time job. In fact, she didn’t even have full confidence that his mission to make good, local pilsner on a commercial level would ever take off.
“I remember thinking when my dad first started kind of like, ‘Yeah, we’ll see how long this lasts,” she recounted. “When he first was working on recipes and stuff like that, I would come and brew a couple of times and that sort of stuff. I was interested in the process and I’d been interested in craft beer for a while, but I never really thought that I would actually be brewing.”
Instead, she was focused on a different fermented beverage: wine. Lisa Allen spent several years living the life of a vineyard vagabond. It’s not unusual to jump from tasting room to tasting room and even follow the harvest from the West Coast to the Southern Hemisphere since regular positions can be hard to come by. Lisa Allen guesses she moved at least once a year after finishing college, including stints getting grapes off their vines in California and New Zealand. Even her dad thought she was bound for a career in that industry.
“I have to admit my first thought was that she was going to dominate in another male-oriented field, and that’s wine,” said Rick Allen. “Because she’s always had a terrific palate and always been someone who basically could detect flaws and, you know, really kind of understand the whole sensory analysis side of things.”
But after a while, Lisa Allen discovered that brewing was more fulfilling than winemaking. The seasonal downtime with wine didn’t keep her as busy as she liked to be, so the year-round nature of the beer business was one plus. Another is the more hands-on nature of brewing — providing assistance to those microorganisms that complete the crucial task of turning sugars into alcohol.
“The thing that I really like about brewing is that you’re not just relying essentially on nature. You actually get to create something,” described Lisa Allen. “I mean, the one thing I always found coolest about wine was the fermentation process. I wasn’t actually as interested in the growing process and stuff like that. I was much more interested in the actual fermentation.”
Lisa Allen’s experience with winemaking helped her easily transition to the brewhouse. However, there were still obstacles.
“When we first started out, there was a certain amount of yelling and screaming and people going away mad,” said Rick Allen. “In the past, there have been a few times where things were thrown. I don’t think anything’s been thrown for a while,” he added with a laugh.
Aside from hurtling objects, working with a family member has several hazards — there are hurt feelings, head butting and moments of miscommunication. Not everyone would work well with a relative, particularly a parent or offspring. But with time, the Allens figured out how to pull it off.
“When my dad and I first started working together, I would say it took about a year to kind of know how we work together,” explained Lisa Allen. “I think part of the problem is that we are pretty similar in our personalities. We both kind of like being in control and doing things a certain way. And I still sometimes have to tell myself I take things too personally.”
Rick Allen said they’ve both become more sensitive to the way they give and receive feedback. And their similarities began to work in their favor. Rick Allen noticed areas where his daughter could improve were some of the same issues he once struggled with.
“It’s always easier to encourage them to spread their wings and understand their weaknesses or the things they need to work on a bit better,” Rick Allen said.
And that begins to touch on the unique benefits of working alongside a family member — you witness improvement and mastery over time. Few parents have that opportunity once their child reaches adulthood.
“You’ve got your own flesh and blood that you’re working with and they’re taking over and they’re taking more responsibility, and you get to see the growth up front and personal that you don’t normally get to see with your children,” Rick Allen described. “I don’t get to experience that with my son who’s off doing something else. But I can see that with Lisa.”
Both father and daughter take pride in the fact that they work a little harder and care a whole lot more about a brand that doesn’t just stand for quality beer. It also represents their family.
“It’s a family product, so I do think I have more investment in it than someone who would just work at a random brewery,” said Lisa Allen. “You know, it’s my name on the label as well, so I want that product to show really well.”
Lisa Allen is marking eight years with the brewery, and she knows she’s fortunate to have bypassed some of the discrimination other female brewers face — particularly those outside of Oregon. That’s not to say it never happens, though. There’s always the salesperson who wants to talk to a man at the brewery, the vendor who will only address Heater Allen’s male buyer instead of the woman who will actually make the purchasing decisions about equipment. And even getting singled out as a “woman in beer” can be a bit exhausting.
“I mean, it would be nice to just be seen as a brewer and not a woman brewer,” Lisa Allen said. “But because it’s a male-dominated field, that is going to happen. You are going to be seen as a woman brewer because there’s not that many of us.”
One way she’s reached out to support that industry minority is by participating in a group meetup that includes other female brewers from the Portland-metro area. They invite new women to join in order to share, learn or just seek camaraderie. While Lisa Allen described Oregon’s overall beer community as encouraging and helpful, she said meeting solely with women provides a safe space that’s free of judgement.
“It’s good for women to have a support group in a male-dominated field,” she said.
Many of those women are likely to pay the Allens a visit on Saturday, May 27 for the business’s 10th anniversary party. There will be a special zwickel beer tapping, a release of their kolsch in 500-milliliter bottles, commemorative half-liter ceramic mugs and possibly even a cake. Neither Lisa Allen nor her dad are ones to go on bragging about their milestone. But it has sunk in that they’ve done something pretty special in an industry that’s grown increasingly competitive.
“To think that it’s been 10 years is pretty amazing,” said Rick Allen, “because I really had no idea where this was going or how far it would go. But it’s gone further than I ever thought it would.”
“And I will say that even the impact on the Oregon beer culture too — no one else in Oregon made a craft pilsner before we started our Pilsner. And now there’s a bunch,” Lisa Allen said. “It’s really cool to think that we’ve been around for 10 years, so hopefully 10 — maybe 20 more.”
Heater Allen Brewing
907 NE 10th Ave., McMinnville
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.