BY ANDI PREWITT
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 SAM WHEELER
Indigo Creek Outfitters can take you on more than a wild river raft ride Last year, the Ashland-based adventure vacation company expanded its traditional
whitewater tour platform into the world of fine tasting Rogue Valley craft beer.
Owner Will Volpert toyed with the idea of offering winery tours, but there was existing competition and – above all – the idea of chauffeuring high-class wine tasters around the valley didn’t suit his fancy.
“There are a lot of reasons people wouldn’t go on a wine tour with us. One, we’re using 15-passenger vans. We don’t have luxury vehicles. We’re using the same vans that we us on the rafting tours,” he said. “We really wanted something that was complementary to our rafting trips. We’re the kind of people who are going to have a pint of beer to finish the day rather than a glass of wine.”
Indigo Creek offers the about five hour-long brewery tours once a day, Thursday through Sunday, and gives customers the opportunity to taste about 20 beers from four breweries between Ashland and Medford. It adds up to a pint’s worth of brew per stop and includes a snack to soak up some slosh.
The cost is $70 per person.
Volpert got the idea for the tour while swilling a pint from Medford-based nano-brewery Opposition Brewing Company with its founder, owner and lead brewer Nick Ellis – who also happens to be a longtime friend.
“I remember chatting with him about the idea of a brewery tour before he started up, but he is the guy who came up with the idea,” Ellis said. “In our initial conversation, I thought it was a fantastic idea and encouraged him to pursue it.... It’s really helping to lay the foundation for the Rogue Valley’s brewery scene.”
Ellis’ enthusiasm toward the idea helped keep Volpert’s light bulb burning, Volpert said.
“I had never really put together any tour that wasn’t rafting-related, so we went into it with the thought that we would probably need to change the itinerary after doing a few of them, but we pretty much hit it right on the head the first time. We haven’t really had to change anything,” Volpert said. “The first thing that we hear from people who are really knowledgeable about beer is that we have good beer here. People are impressed with the product.”
The tour rotates between five breweries: Bricktowne Brewing Co., in downtown Medford, Swing Tree Brewing Co., in Ashland, Opposition Brewing Co., located in a warehouse in industrial northwest Medford, Walkabout Brewing Co., located next to a gargantuan Budweiser distribution center in north Medford, and Southern Oregon Brewing Co., also in north Medford.
Although both also make top-notch craft beer, there is a reason popular Caldera Brewing Co, and Standing Stone Brewing Co., both in Ashland, are not on the tour itinerary, Volpert said.
“The reason we don’t really go to those guys on our brewery tour is because you’re going to find them on your own. Our goal with the tour is to take you places that you might not find,” Volpert said.
For more information, visit www.indigocreekoutfitters.com or call 541-282-4535.
by Anthony St. Clair
As part of the kickoff for Eugene Beer Week and a new way to experience craft beer in Lane County, the Eugene Ale Trail launches Mon., June 2, 5-8 p.m., at the 16 Tons Café. Local breweries will be giving tastings of what people can expect to find on the Eugene Ale Trail.
The Eugene Ale Trail includes 10 Lane County breweries: Ninkasi, Oakshire, Falling Sky, Hop Valley, Claim 52, McMenamins, Steelhead, Agrarian, Track Town Brewery/Rogue, and the Brewers Union Local 180 (participants must be Travel Lane County members in order to be on the Eugene Ale Trail). Beginning June 2 at 8 p.m., the public can download a Eugene Ale Trail Passport from EugeneAleTrail.org or pick one up at participating breweries.
“We were inspired by other ale trails around the state and country,” says Molly Blancett, Public Relations and Social Media Manager for Travel Lane County. “We want to be a top craft beer destination, and this is our way of supporting that effort.”
In addition to working with a University of Oregon Ad Campaigns summer class, for over a year Travel Lane County collaborated with members of the Lane County brewing community to develop the Eugene Ale Trail. “We consulted with the breweries on nearly every aspect of the Eugene Ale Trail,” says Blancett, “from the name to the logo to the design to the map.”
One side of the Eugene Ale Trail passport is an easily navigable map with a list of participating breweries, their locations, and hours of operation. A panel lists where an Ale Trail traveler can fill growlers, such as at The Bier Stein, First National Taphouse, Growler Nation, The Tap & Growler, and 16 Tons’ two locations.
The other side of the passport includes details of how the Eugene Ale Trail works, how to redeem the passport for a prize, and alternative transportation options such as taxis and buses. There are also suggestions for other trip ideas, such as Hikes & Bikes, Wine & Dine, and Live Music.
Visitors present a passport at the breweries and receive a stamp or sticker. For breweries with multiple locations, only one site is required. Once a visitor has stamps from at least seven Eugene-area breweries, they can receive a free 16-oz. amber growler. For also visiting Brewers Union Local 180 in Oakridge, in addition to having stamps from at least seven Eugene breweries, visitors can receive a stainless steel pint cup (while supplies last). “The Brewers Union is surrounded by epic mountain bike trails, waterfalls, and unbelievable hikes,” says Blancett. “It’s more than worth the drive.”
Eugene Ale Trail prizes can be redeemed in person at the Eugene, Cascades & Coast Adventure Center in Springfield, or by mail (must include $5 for shipping).
“Travel Lane County developed the Eugene Ale Trail to give visitors an easy way to explore Eugene’s growing craft beer scene,” says Blancett. “Our breweries have an incredible product, and we want to help show that off. The Eugene Ale Trail gives us a better way of showing people how to find craft beer in Lane County.”
By Patty Mamula
Like all good things, developing a new hop variety takes time — lots of time — years, more than 10, usually. From the initial cross by plant breeders to the final public release, there are hundreds of research gauntlets to run.
TriplePearl, the newest aroma hop released by the USDA in 2012, was an exception. Its accelerated release only took six years.
John Henning, research plant geneticist and OSU crop and soil scientist, heads up the USDA- Agricultural Research Service’s hop program in Corvallis. Part of his work involves sequencing the hop genome and identifying molecular markers that can be used in selection.
“These markers allow us to better understand the biology of disease resistance, insect resistance, how different aroma compounds are made, yield and brewing characteristics,” said Henning. “They also can be used in a traditional breeding program to accelerate the rate of variety development and improve the accuracy of selection.”
And that’s what happened with TriplePearl. Henning said that the USDA-ARS hop research program receives federal funds and grant dollars from the Hop Research Council. The council funds research for disease resistance, integrated pest management, chemistry analysis, brewing studies, pesticide usage and emerging pesticides.
“It’s been a great relationship; it provides us researchers with clear direction,” said Henning. TriplePearl is one of several aroma hops being developed in response to specific needs expressed by the Hop Research Council. They have been high yielding, relatively disease free and of good brewing quality, based on pilot brewing. TriplePearl is unique because it’s seedless. Brewers wanted a seedless hop because the seeds only add weight, not taste, to the hop cone, and they buy hops based on the weight of the dry cone. “Brewers only want ingredients that add flavor,” said Henning.
TriplePearl, as its name implies, has three desirable traits:
-It produces NO viable seeds
-It grows easily, like a weed, and can be very high yielding
-The flavor is fruity with citrus notes, according to brewing comments. It’s very favorable for the development of ales and it does well in a lager, which is not always the case.
Although TriplePearl was released in 2012, Henning expects the first large harvest will be in the fall of 2015.
The other aroma hop varieties will be released piecemeal, depending on the level of interest and when brewers desire to use them on a regular basis. “We’ll continue to use them in on-farm operations and pilot brewing by Miller-Coors and AB InBev and brewers like Sierra Nevada.
Members of the Hop Research Council include major domestic and international brewers, craft brewers, hop merchants and three state Hop Commissions for Oregon, Washington and Idaho. Domestic brewer AB InBev is interested in a replacement for the Willamette hop. They want one that’s more disease resistant and higher yielding.
When developing hop varieties for major brewers it’s crucial that the hop maintains the same flavor year after year. “It’s difficult to get something that’s just like a Willamette,” said Henning.
Miller-Coors is also interested in specific hop breeding profiles, but their goals have been more flavor related.
Hop research is not focused entirely on aroma hops. Bittering or super alpha hops are also being developed.
Hop research has a long history going back to the 1930s. “The USDA breeding program has been here since the 1950s,” said Henning.
The Corvallis 14-acre research plots contain 150 different varieties from around the world and is primarily used for making crosses and breeding.
Because of the ever-present budget issues and a desire to work more closely with growers, Henning instituted a grower crop breeding program. The specific growers who are tending these research trials are Paul Fobert in Hubbard, Jeff Butch in Mt. Angel, Fred Geschwell in Woodburn and Brulotte Farms in Toppenish, Washington.
“Our program focuses on regional hop development for the Pacific Northwest.” The Northwest has traditionally been the best region of the country for growing hops in terms of disease resistance and soil and climate.
But, other areas are migrating back to growing hops, like Michigan, Wisconsin and New York, said Henning. All three grew hops a century ago but got out of it because of disease problems. The increase in craft brewing has led to an increased interest in growing your own.
PUBLIC or PRIVATE
Any USDA hop that is released is public, and, once sold, the USDA no longer has any say in how those are handled. Until the 1990s public hops were the only ones available.
The USDA works with Hop Commissions to sponsor nursery plots. Roots are sold to growers or evenly distributed to growers.
Publicly-developed varieties of hops can be trademarked and given a different name. Rogue has done that with five or six varieties.
“Private hops are no different from what’s happening with other crops,” said Henning.
Private hops are developed by a company and in order to regain costs for development, the companies maintain control of distribution and charge a royalty on it. Those same companies will take the responsibility of selling the hop grown by a hop grower. Private companies will pay hop growers to grow their hop and keeps a portion of the payment as a royalty for the right to grow it.
Private companies have their own marketing choices and control.
With public hops, there is much less marketing. Hop Growers of America and Hop Commissions do some marketing of publicly developed varieties.
“All of the hop breeders work closely together,” said Henning. The hop industry is so small, we all have to work together.”
BY ALETHEA SMARTT LAROWE
Situated on a large piece of property on the north side of Bend just off Hwy 97 and across the street from the Deschutes River, the RiverBend brewpub has gone through many incarnations. Built in 1992 and opened a year later as the Italian Cottage, the building was later leased out as the Country Cottage. It most recently was known as Rivals Sports Bar, featuring poker tables and karaoke.
Owners Gary and Linda Sobala reinvented the space again last year, wanting to make it more welcoming. The first thing to go was the poker, although there is still a small Video Lottery room tucked away in a back corner. They added a large
outdoor seating area with a gas-powered firepit and cornhole. The interior space still has a sports-bar vibe with lots of big TVs and sports paraphernalia hanging from the ceiling and on the walls. However, minors are now welcome at all hours.
Opened on November 6th, 2013, RiverBend Brewing & Sports Pub also has a new emphasis on food, which Gary refers to as “98 percent from scratch.” With typical pub favorites like sandwiches, burgers and pizza, the menu also features seasonal salads, sliders, mac and cheese, wings and dips, all made from fresh, local ingredients. Food pairs very well with the made-in-house beers.
The “if you brew it, they will come” vision is at the forefront of the new business’s identity. Adding the brewery across the parking lot was just another way to attract more customers. Lifelong beer lovers, Gary and Linda were at the Deschutes Brewery opening in downtown Bend in 1988. He remembers seeing an employee polishing the brewery’s front door and thinking “Just let us in so we can drink the beer!”
The new head brewer, Daniel Olsen, has been brewing since he was a 17-year-old in Colorado. He apprenticed at Silver Plume in Clear Creek County then moved to Bend to work at Deschutes as a pub brewer for nine years. He later became head brewer at Wildfire Brewing Co., now known as 10 Barrel.
Daniel is excited to “explore the concepts, materials and methods that have been on my drawing board for some time, including a line of soft drinks for our new guests.” After making more traditional beer styles first, he is now experimenting with herbs, fruits and spices. Recent choices at the pub include a variety of hoppy ales as well as a saison, nut brown, Irish stout and wintermint stout. When Gary purchased a rye whiskey barrel to make into taster trays, Daniel filled it with Imperial IPA before the saw blade made the first cut. He plans to age the as yet unnamed beer for two to three months.
Gary has spared no expense on the new brewery. All equipment was made by Marks Design and Metalworks in Vancouver, Wash. RiverBend opened with a 12-barrel system—1,800 barrels per year capacity—and have been brewing roughly 20 barrels per week. They are already in the process of adding two fermenters and three brite tanks, bringing their capacity to 3,500+ barrels per year.
Starting in May, RiverBend is now featured on the expanded Bend Ale Trail. They currently have 10 of their beers on tap at the pub plus eight others including a cider. You can also find their beer on tap at a few other Bend locations. With a focus on great beer, food and sports, all in a family-friendly atmosphere, RiverBend Brewing Co. has scored the winning run.
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