By Pete Dunlop
For the Oregon Beer Growler
It’s been a wild year for Ben Dobler. After 20 years at Widmer, he took over as head brewer at Mt. Tabor Brewing in February. Soon after they opened their doors in late September, Dobler left — unhappy with the direction of the business. Shortly thereafter, he became head brewer at Laurelwood.
“We’re super excited to have Ben on board,” said Mike De Kalb, Laurelwood owner and founder. “He brings a wealth of experience and knowledge to the table. His role will be to maintain and enhance quality and consistency, and to bring increased innovation to our brewing program.”
Don’t expect the classic Laurelwood recipes to change much, if at all. Beers like Workhorse, Free Range Red and Red Elephant are well established and well loved. Dobler has no plans to disturb the continuity, though he does have a few ideas.
“I look forward to maintaining and building on what my predecessors accomplished here,” Dobler says. “Laurelwood has had some fantastic brewers and produced a variety of great beers in its 15-year history. I hope to delicately add my fingerprints to that tradition.”
Some of the beers will receive subtle tweaking to smooth out the edges, he expects. Another priority is to develop a line of lower-alcohol beers. Laurelwood is a family-focused business and the beer menu could be more accommodating to folks who don’t want to drink more than a pint of 7.5% Workhorse.
“We realize mom and dad aren’t going to throw back multiple pints of Workhorse,” Dobler says. “Well, they shouldn’t. I’ll put some effort into producing flavorful, low-ABV beers. That’s been a big part of my mantra because I like to drink beer, which means I like to have more than one.”
The innovation angle is important and it applies to the beers brewed at the Sandy headquarters and Hood River’s Full Sail, where Laurelwood has a production brewing arrangement. Dobler worked in new product development at the Craft Brew Alliance (CBA) for 10 years and seems nicely suited to freshening up Laurelwood’s beer palate.
“We’ve had pretty much the same pub lineup except for seasonal beers for the last 15 years,” De Kalb said. “We’re looking to Ben for innovation that will enhance the beers available to our pub customers. IPA may be king, but our patrons and fans are always seeking alternatives.”
Dobler has a similar view of the opportunities.
“I see a definite need to enhance the experience of pub patrons,” he said. “The beers served there should always be somewhat different than what is sold in stores. I’d like to use that theme as a catalyst that brings people into the pub and also generates excitement outside it in the retail channels.”
Dobler’s biggest challenge will almost certainly be managing the relationship out in Hood River, where Laurelwood brews the bulk of its packaged lineup. That includes Workhorse, Free Range Red and seasonal six-packs. Experience acquired on his watch at Widmer/CBA will be handy.
“My job is to make sure the beers made in Hood River match the ones made here,” he says. “During my time at the CBA, I learned a lot about scaling production from 10 to 250 barrels and how to execute that successfully. I think my exposure to larger-scale brewing operations is a big part of why I’m here.”
For now, Dobler is working to get a handle on what the Full Sail relationship looks like, short-term and long-term. It’s an evolving relationship involving changes in strategy and tactics on both ends. His goal is to maximize what Laurelwood is getting out of it.
“Packaged product is an important part of our business and the processes need ongoing attention” Dobler says. “A significant amount of my time will be spent managing how we do things in Hood River.”
Dobler succeeds Shane Watterson as Laurelwood head brewer. Watterson is joining Geoff Phillips of Bailey’s Taproom and Jason Barbee, formerly of Ex Novo, in Level Beer, a new brewery in planning. Rodney Stryker, formerly of Heathen Brewing in Vancouver, Wash., has taken over for Dobler at Mt. Tabor.
Laurelwood beers are currently sold in Oregon, Washington, California, British Columbia, Idaho and Alaska. In addition, a small amount of their beer is exported.
[a] 5115 NE Sandy Blvd.
[a] 6716 SE Milwaukie Ave.
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].
By John Foyston
I've been banging this drum for a few years now — that the corporate owners of Pyramid and Portland Brewing are squandering valuable, historic brands by running them by remote control, as it were, from corporate offices far away from here.
Recently, I got to meet Rob Rentsch, the new Portland-based general manager of Pyramid and Portland Brewing, whose job it is to restore the luster to a couple of great Northwest brands and make them a vital part of our craft beer community again. I think he's just the man for the job.
We met in the beer garden off the Portland Brewing Taproom over pints of fresh-hop Mac's Amber, and Rentsch — tieless in an open-collar white shirt — told me of his career in the beverage business, which includes stints with high-end wine and spirits distributors as a brand manager for tipples as varied as The Macallan whisky and Piper-Heidsieck Champagne. He and his family moved to Portland eight years ago and he worked most of that time at Craft Brew Alliance, where he helped reinvigorate the Red Hook brand and develop the CBA portfolio.
“I love craft beer,” he said. “That's where I'm staying because it's the most dynamic part of the beverage industry. My job as general manager of Pyramid and Portland Brewing is to restore the luster of those heritage brands in an ever-more competitive marketplace and to make them vital parts of the Northwest craft brewing community again.”
The brands are lackluster performers in the current market for a couple of reasons. Pyramid Brewing bought Portland Brewing in 2004, and was subsequently bought by Magic Hat Brewing, then North American Breweries in 2010. Which was bought in 2012 by the Costa Rican company, Florida Ice & Farm Co., so it's easy to see how two Northwest brands could get lost in that shuffle.
“The business has had multiple owners and multiple strategies over the last few years,” Rentsch said, “and the brands were run from places other than Seattle or Portland.”
Rentsch, whose office is in the Portland brewery, says the exciting part for him is that this new general manager position signals the desire to run the brands from their home base. “For the past few years, Pyramid and Portland Brewing have been largely silent — we haven't had a place at the table. I want to restore the greatness of these heritage brands because you can't buy or manufacture that kind of history.”
He acknowledges that laurels are nothing to be rested upon in the current market, which worships the latest/greatest/hoppiest/oakiest/sourest/newest/most extreme beers and breweries, but he's confident that there's room for reinvigorated Pyramid and Portland Brewing brands, and recent beers such as Pyramid's Lord Alesworth English-Style Royal Ale affirm that the brew crew is more than up to the task. “We can't just look back, we have to be relevant to today's markets and consumers,” he said, “a bit like Porsche: the first 911 was from the 1960s, but modern Porsches are still identifiable as an evolution of that basic form.
“I want to acknowledge our history and heritage and become an ongoing part of Portland beer history as it’s developing now. We have great beers, great people and a great culture that will help us do that. There's a real drive and excitement about becoming more involved with our craft beer community again.”
And Rentsch is staying in Portland, which he says feels like home after years on the East Coast. He's even commuting by bicycle out to industrial Northwest from his Southeast Portland home ... “But ask me how that's going when February rolls around,” he laughed.
By Alethea Smartt LaRowe
For the Oregon Beer Growler
How much water does it take to make your favorite beer? What about energy and other natural resources? This is probably not something you normally consider when you drink a pint, but thankfully for the environment, many of our local breweries are trying to lessen their impact with the help of Energy Trust of Oregon.
At Widmer Brothers Brewing in Portland, modifications to their refrigeration systems helped reduce their kilowatt hours per barrel by 6.9 percent, according to Julia Person, sustainability manager. The company’s participation in Energy Trust’s Strategic Energy Management initiative also provided valuable tools for engaging employees and identifying low- to no-cost energy-saving opportunities.
Person points out already-implemented or ongoing projects at the production facility on North Russell Street. In the brewhouse, they are currently testing various LED bulbs in the existing overhead fixtures to find the desired color and brightness. The new, more efficient bulbs will contribute to a further drop in kilowatt hours per barrel. Widmer has already replaced all inefficient fluorescent lamps with T5 lighting and has installed occupancy and daylight sensors throughout the facility, so lights automatically turn off when not needed.
Person describes another Energy Trust project, which involved installing smart thermostats in the office space. Heating and cooling systems can now be controlled remotely, thus saving energy, and money, by raising or lowering ambient temperature when no one is present. “The HVAC project, which includes these smart thermostats as well as other measures, such as retro-commissioning of our entire system, has resulted in Widmer receiving a $56,000 rebate check for completing this project,” Person says.
Back in the brewhouse, Person explains how a reduction in boil times by only five minutes equals significant natural gas savings when you consider that the 250-barrel brewery brews nine times per day and typically operates 24 hours, six days per week. “For water efficiency, we have worked on reusing rinse water at our bottle filler and preventing beer loss,” says Person. In 2013, the Portland brewery’s water usage ratio was an industry-leading 4.07 gallons per gallon of beer. In 2014, they were able to reduce that number even further to 3.5 gallons per gallon of beer.
One challenge familiar to all breweries is how to dispose of the high-quality organic wastewater that is a byproduct of the brewing process. An Oregon BEST Commercialization Grant helped Widmer collaborate with researchers from the Oregon State University researcher-led startup Waste2Watergy. Now working under a National Science Foundation grant, the company is already on the second phase of testing an innovative microbial fuel cell technology that is “capable of generating electricity directly from wastewater, while simultaneously accomplishing highly efficient wastewater treatment,” explains Person.
Widmer Brothers Brewing already boasts that 99.5 percent of their waste is diverted from landfills, including truckloads of spent grains, yeast and hops, as a result of recycling efforts. The company has recently identified a new partner that can recycle more plastics including grain bags, polyester strapping for packaging, keg caps and Mylar hop packaging.
After making the beer, it still has to be packaged for distribution. Craft Brew Alliance’s Redhook Brewery in Woodinville, Wash. switched to a dry-running System Plast bottling conveyor in 2014, which yielded savings in energy, maintenance and materials, along with 111,000 gallons of water. Redhook was subsequently named a 2014 Safer Chemistry Champion by Washington’s Department of Ecology for the project. Person says they are already exploring its application at the Portland facility.
If you like to consume your beer as close to the source as possible, you’ll be happy to know that the Widmer Brothers Pub was recently recertified as a three-star Green Restaurant. Certification is based on the accumulation of points across seven environmental categories: water efficiency, waste reduction and recycling, sustainable furnishings and building materials, sustainable food, energy, disposables, and chemical and pollution reduction. One hundred percent of the pub’s electricity is sourced from renewable wind power through Pacific Power’s Blue Sky program.
Having met their 2014 objectives of achieving 5 percent savings across all utilities, reducing the impact of materials, increasing packaging efficiency, and achieving third-party certification, Person says the company is now focused on “tracking our greenhouse gas emissions’ intensity and continuing to pursue innovative projects such as capturing renewable energy from biogas.”
Widmer Brothers Brewing is not the only company that is committed to minimizing their environmental impact across their breweries and brewpubs. Energy Trust of Oregon has also partnered with Deschutes Brewery in Bend and Portland, Gilgamesh Brewing in Salem, Ninkasi Brewing in Eugene and Worthy Brewing in Bend, helping each of these businesses implement energy-saving improvements that have resulted in financial gains from both energy cost savings and Energy Trust cash incentives.
It’s amazing when you think about the positive impact that a few simple conservation actions can make on the environment. No matter how big or small the operation, Oregon breweries are finding ways to produce your favorite brew more sustainably while still providing the same quantity and quality of beer that we’ve come to expect and love.
In the collaborative fashion that makes Oregon brewing so darn friendly, Laurelwood Brewing Co. in Portland has contracted with Craft Brew Alliance, borrowing the larger company’s local equipment to expand by as many as 15,000 barrels per year. Laurelwood owner Mike De Kalb said the company now is able to produce its beer in 12-ounce glass bottles, which will now be available nationally.
Craft Brew Alliance, the parent company to Widmer Brothers, Red Hook and Kona, has made possible the expansion “on our terms,” De Kalb said.
“We didn’t want to change our line-up or the fact we are a Portland business by selling shares to outside interests. Instead we found a way to increase our production and keep Laurelwood a locally owned independent company.”
Laurelwood’s brewmasters will continue to oversee quality and consistency, using the company’s own yeast strain and sources of ingredients. “Laurelwood’s beer will continue to be distinctive, delicious and daring,” DeKalb said.
Some changes are in the offing, although not entirely because of the expansion: Free Range Red will no longer be a certified organic beer, although Laurelwood will offer organic beers at its public houses. With regional organic hops in tight supply, as well as 2013 changes in the Certified Organic standards, De Kalb said he and his brewers will concentrate their organic program on Organic Tree Hugger Porter and a line of small batch specialty beers.
Laurelwood’s owners De Kalb and Cathy Woo-De Kalb first began producing certified organic beer in 2001. After many national and international beer awards, Laurelwood’s handcrafted beers can on draft and in bottles throughout Oregon and Washigton. Laurelwood’s handcrafted beers can be found on draft, in bottles and at its five pubs in Oregon and Washington. For more information about Laurelwood, visit www.laurelwoodbrewpub.com.
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