Widmer Brothers Marks 30 Years Of Craft Beer -- Yes, Craft Beer
PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- Heading off of Interstate 5 onto Russell Street in North Portland, the first landmark a traveler sees before hitting the Portland TrailBlazers' home arena, the bridges across the Willamette River or Downtown Portland itself is the Widmer Brothers brewing facility and Gasthaus.
It isn't the oldest brewery in a city filled with dozens of them, but it's been a landmark here since brothers Rob and Kurt Widmer brewed their first batch at a much smaller location in 1984. In the three decades that followed, the brothers helped brewpubs become an Oregon staple, revived small German brewing on the West Coast in an era of mass-produced light lager and nearly lost everything in the process.
Today, the Gasthaus sits newly renovated as tractor-trailers filled with Widmer Brothers beer wind their way up Russell Street to I-5. A selection of beers that consisted only of dark Altbier and a golden, wheaty Weizenbier in the brewery's earliest years has expanded to a broad portfolio that fills dozens of taps in the brothers' home base.
In the brewpub store just behind those taps hangs a photo of the fresh-faced brothers -- Kurt in his early 30s and Rob in his late 20s -- working at their first brewing facility that's since been converted into a bank branch. Since then, Kurt, 62, and Rob, 57, have made their brewery part of the more than 600,000-barrel Craft Brew Alliance that includes Hawaii's Kona Brewing and Washington neighbor Redhook, as well as breweries in Washington, Hawaii, Portland and Portsmouth, N.H.
That decision gave them a big hand with distribution, courtesy of a 32% stake in the company owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev, but also saw the Widmer Brothers kicked out of the Brewers Association craft beer trade group in 2007 by colleagues who weren't in business when the brothers brewed their first batch. As a result, there are corners of the beer community that refuse to consider Widmer Brothers a craft brewer.
Other industry observers -- and the brothers' large slate of offerings that only expands with its 30 Beers For 30 Years anniversary event this year -- allude to the contrary. The brewery has already released versions of its 1984 Altbier, its 1985 Weizenbier and its 1986 Hefeweizen to mark the occasion and continues to collaborate with brewers including Tampa, Fla.-based Cigar City and Bend, Ore.-base Boneyard on limited releases. The brothers, meanwhile, can still be found leading the supporters of Major League Soccer's Portland Timbers in a pregame toast, hanging their banner in the Timbers' home stadium, filling tap handles in local pubs and spreading their expanding array of styles from coast to coast.
As one of the few craft brewers with their family name attached to their brewery, the Widmer Brothers continue to take their brewing, their business and their public image personally. They pride themselves on being the Craft Brew Alliance's experimental, inventive creative engine and being able to more than hold their own on a coast saturated with bold craft brewers. Beer snobs, backstabbing colleagues and near-bankruptcy haven't rid the industry of the Widmer Brothers in three decades, and it doesn't look as if they're going anywhere as long as they draw breath.
Though we had the chance to speak with Rob Widmer at length a few years ago, we were able to get time with both Kurt and Rob to talk about their history, their 30-beer party plans and how it feels to spend three decades brewing craft beer only to have certain craft beer comrades only acknowledge 23 years of that history: