Widmer Brothers Brewing started in 1984, when six breweries controlled 90 percent of the American beer market. With the help of family, including their father, Ray, brothers Kurt and Rob Widmer opened their business with $50,000. Soon those five figures were down to two.
"We had about $35 and 10 cents in our reserves," says Kurt, 61, above left.
"I was still a school bus driver," adds Rob, 56, above right. "We didn't pay ourselves for a year."
Nearly 30 years later, Craft Brew Alliance, formed when Widmer and Redhook merged in 2008, is the ninth-largest brewer in the nation. That success is largely due to a single beer: Widmer Hefeweizen. This is that beer's story.
Kurt Widmer: "'Craft beer' hadn't been coined. 'Microbrew' hadn't been coined. People thought [our beer] must be illegal and that it must've been making people sick. Part of our unsophisticated research was that imports did well in Oregon. Our first beer was an Altbier—our mom's family is from Düsseldorf. We thought it had to be a dramatic departure from anything in the marketplace. We really screwed it up. We made it so bitter…. People wanted to like it, but struggled to finish one glass."
Widmer's second beer, a filtered wheat they called Weizen, was introduced in 1985...
Rob Widmer: "This is going to seem inconceivable now, but back then there were dark beers and regular beers. Altbier fell into the dark-beer category, and your average person didn't want anything to do with that. When I poured Steve, who used to run Produce Row, a glass of our Weizenbier, he said, 'I'm gonna sell the shit out of this.' And he did."
The beer also caught on at the Dublin Pub, owned by Carl Simpson, who died in 1999, and Katie Bullard...
Katie Bullard: "We had Rainier, Bud and a few taps, plus German bottled beer. The [Widmer] boys brought in their maiden beer, Alt. Nothing special, but we sold the hell out of it. Then they brought in their Weizen. It was gorgeous. Carl said to them, 'Ya know, we're selling a lot of this unfiltered hefeweizen in the bottle. Why don't you make that?' So they promised they'd hold off a couple kegs before they cleaned it up."
Rob: "With the Weizen, our filtration was really rudimentary. If it was hazy, people would call and say, 'There's a problem with your beer.' They didn't even taste it, they'd just say it wasn't right. So with the prospect of putting out a beer that looked almost like a glass of orange juice, our concern was that it wouldn't fly."
Kurt: "We just gave it to them and said, 'Are you sure you wanna do this, Carl?'"
Rob: "It was only intended for them. We wanted to let Carl call it Dublin Pub Ale."
Bullard: "Weizen was a gorgeous beer, but it didn't have the mystique that the cloudy beer did. It was exciting to be so revolting. We were leading a revolt."
Much to the surprise of the Widmers, the beer caught on…
Fred Eckhardt, 86, legendary Portland beer writer: "It revolutionized the craft-beer availability in town. It had flavor. As an alternate to Bud, Coors, Miller crap."
Kurt: "The Dublin was popular with bartenders as an after-hours place. They would see [the Weizen], notice that people were enjoying it, and by law, we'd have to give it to them. Oregon law prohibits giving anyone an exclusive. We spent a lot of time trying to talk people out of it. 'It's cloudier than hell. What're your customers going to say?'"
Rob Maletis, president of Maletis Beverage Distribution: "I was literally stalking them. When I first tasted it on draft early on, it had everything going for it. Being unfiltered made it a point of difference—like green bottles for Heineken."
Kurt: "Even after five years when we'd go into a new market, we'd get calls from wholesalers saying, 'There's something wrong with your beer.'"
While Widmer's Hefeweizen was unfiltered, it was made with the same house yeast used in the Alt. Meanwhile, Bavarian hefeweizen is known for banana and clove aromas produced by its yeast...
Stan Hieronymus, author of Brewing With Wheat: "I wouldn't describe German beer as abundant...in the early '90s, but there were bar-restaurants that stocked it fresh on tap and with a good bottle selection. I'd learned to approach a wheat beer brewed in the U.S. with a minimum of expectations. I also knew that, by then, it pissed off 'purists' that Widmer called the beer Hefeweizen."
Rob: "The European-style wheat beer is a style and a flavor I really like. If you poll 10 Americans, half of them will like it and half of them will really not like it at all. It's kind of what I call the love-hate flavor."
Garrett Oliver, brewmaster at the Brooklyn (N.Y.) Brewery: "There is simply no excuse for using the German here. 'Hefeweizen' means only one thing. Suppose an American winery started making a sparkling red wine and calling it 'Champagne'? Widmer should be proud of having led the way on American wheat beer. But they do not make hefeweizen."
Dan Engler, founder of St. Johns' Occidental Brewing, which makes only traditional German beers, including Altbier and hefeweizen: "There are two camps. People primarily drinking American-style hefeweizen go, 'Whoa, this is not what I was expecting.' And some people say they don't like American-style hefeweizen, but when they try ours, they go, 'Oh, this is different.'"
Gary Fish, president of Deschutes Brewery, founded 1988: "We initially had three beers: Cascade Ale, Bachelor Bitter and Black Butte Porter. As we began to distribute, yeah, hefe was hot. Jim Kennedy at Admiralty Beverage said we could duke it out in lighter color beers or take dark beers and own that smaller pie. That was fundamental. They represented Widmer and sold Hefeweizen and Black Butte as salt and pepper."
Even as India Pale Ales have become the best-known and best-selling style locally, Widmer Hefeweizen remains the top-selling craft beer in Oregon...
Maletis: "There's a lot of great beers out there. IPAs are 25 percent of beer sales to consumers in Oregon. Nothing else comes close."
Eckhardt: "IPA is one of my favorite styles. If I don't get enough hops, I get two IPAs."
Maletis: "9.2 percent of the craft category is wheat beer. Widmer Hefe is a staple…. It's our MVP year after year."
Kurt: "I've gone from wanting a flavorful beer, to 'it can't possibly be too bitter,' to going back to wanting it to be more balanced. Beer shouldn't be a struggle."
Rob: "Someone said or blogged, 'I climbed beer geek mountain and now I'm coming down the other side.'"
And the Widmers are still a little misunderstood…
Rob: "We've spent 30 years trying to teach people how to say HAY-fuh-vy-tsen. This past weekend, I ordered a hefe and the guy said, 'You mean heff."
Kurt: Half of Portland still struggles with our last name. It's pronounced exactly as it's spelled. My wife calls the local pizza place. Orders a pizza. They say, âLast name, please?â She says, âWidmer.â And they go, âOh, you mean Wid-meer?â She goes, âNo, itâs Widmer.â And they say, âWe know people at the brewery, and itâs pronounced Wid-meer.â