If you are a loyal BREWVANA friend who subscribes to our newsletters, you already know that our Brewery of the Month is essentially synonymous with craft beer in Portland: Widmer Brothers Brewing. If you don’t know the story, the SparksNotes version is that brothers Kurt and Rob Widmer quit their day jobs to pursue brewing full time. In 1984, Widmer Brothers Brewing was born. Finding success with their German altbier style, Widmer became an icon with the first ever American Hefeweizen. This unfiltered wheat beer was a massive hit, and still serves as the brewery’s flagship beer to this day.
Portland beer writer, Jeff Alworth, describes the style’s popularity in the 80’s and the 90’s thusly, “This style was so incredibly popular—It’s difficult to convey now. For about a decade, when many people wanted what we’d now call a craft beer, they just said ‘hefeweizen.’ All of that was because of their beer. As I started writing about beer, I came to see that a focus on quality separated them from others. It was not common for breweries to have labs and tasting panels and QA programs in the 1990s, and all that effort stood out.”
Jeff’s latest book, “The Widmer Way,” (available from booksellers everywhere, but this is Portland, so here’s a link to Powell’s) gives readers the most thorough and definitive look at what makes Widmer so special to both Portland and craft beer in general.
Nowadays the most ubiquitous style is the IPA, so how did a hefeweizen come to dominate the early craft beer scene?
According to Jeff, “My theory about Hefe is that it had a flavor profile that was at one bold compared to light lagers, but familiar because of the two predominant flavor elements—the wheat, which is instantly familiar to anyone who likes bread, and the light citrusy character from the Cascade hops (citrus-flavored beverages are super common). The fact that it looked so weird was also a benefit. It made it stand out and gave people the sense they were drinking something unusual and daring—even if the flavor profile was actually light and familiar.”
Did I mention Jeff has a great new book out? He does. You should read it.
Personally, Widmer was my first connection to craft beer. I’m sure I’ve told this story on here before, and I’m sure you’ve forgotten, so I’ll tell you again. When I was a college student in Florida, I got sick of the boring beer at parties. I experimented with a variety of different craft brews from liquor and grocery stores (I hadn’t yet discovered bottle shops, and our town only had one brewery that I didn’t even know existed), but nothing caught my fancy more than Widmer’s Drifter Pale Ale. If I hosted a party, the pale ale and the hefeweizen were the only options. My guests had to drink craft beer, and they liked it!
Weirdly, ultimately, Widmer is how I ended up in Portland. Their taproom was the first I visited after arriving. Its unceremonious closure broke my heart. I asked Jeff about Widmer’s future, and whether or not we’d see a taproom again. He noted that the Hefe is “quite contemporary in both appearance and flavor profile, so it could be a strong seller for decades.” With regards to the taproom? “Trying to guess is a mug’s game, though.”
Well, I don’t want to be a mug, but I would like to continue drinking out of one. Prost to Widmer!
P.S. - I’m not kidding around here, you should absolutely check out Jeff’s book.