Tthe Babe Ruth in our lineup of titans is Widmer Hefeweizen (hay-fuh-vie-tzen). It’s the most recognizable beer in town, the fan favorite, a perennial slugger standing tall above the crowd, even as younger, flashier names try to coax the spotlight in their direction. And with more taps in Portland dedicated to Hefeweizen than to Budweiser, Widmer Brothers stands at a lofty No. 17 in beer production among the top 50 American breweries.
But the origin of the cloudy conqueror with the lemon perched fetchingly on the rim wasn’t exactly auspicious. Kurt and Rob Widmer entered the game in 1984 after getting bitten by the homebrewing bug five years earlier. Their inaugural effort, Alt, was a hoppy ale that debuted some 10 years before locals went loco for IPA.
“We had like 10 very enthusiastic beer drinkers, and the rest stopped at one glass,” Kurt Widmer says. “So we realized pretty quickly we needed to dial it back a little bit if we wanted to attract a broader audience.” Time for a little creative brewing.
“We had a request from one of our accounts (Carl Simpson at Dublin Pub),” he continues. “He had our Alt and Weizen on tap and he wanted a third beer–and we only had two fermenting tanks. So we just took our Weizen straight out of the fermenter and put it in a keg. And it was only supposed to be for him. But he really pushed it.”
Apparently the allure of the odd-looking and surprisingly mild beer was irresistible. Soon the unfiltered throw-in brew was the young company’s star attraction. Its domination of the local market prompted Anheuser-Busch to buy a minority share of the operation in 1997, adding substantial distribution muscle.
Unlike most beer barons, the Widmers have a farm team. The brothers are former members of the Oregon Brew Crew, one of the oldest homebrewing clubs in the country. And they keep up the connection with the Collaborator Project, which gives Brew Crew brewers a chance to test their mettle before a wider audience.
“We’ll put the best beer recipe on tap at the Gasthaus,” says Rob Widmer. “That’s where Snow Plow, our seasonal stout, came from.”
And with hard work, determination and expertly blended hops and malt comes a shot at the big leagues.