Taking a Gamble on Craft Brewing
How psychology alum Kurt Widmer invented a profession no one had ever heard of and launched Widmer Brothers, now the 11th largest brewery in the U.S.
For Kurt Widmer, it all started in the small-town taverns of 1970s Germany, when he first encountered a stammtisch.
A stammtisch is a table reserved for the regulars. Every Thursday night, say, they’d show up: Fathers and sons, there to visit with one another, discuss the matters of the day and drink beer. They earned a seat at this table of honor through unwavering loyalty to the tavern; in some cases, families had been frequenting the same pub for more than a century.
Widmer, then in his late 20s and enjoying a two-year tour of his grandparents’ homeland, would see a sign reserving the table and feel warm appreciation for beer’s singular ability to bring people together.
“They’d just discuss the local weather, politics—there was no agenda,” Widmer said. “When you say to a close friend or a new acquaintance, ‘let’s go get a beer, let’s have a nice conversation,’ the communal aspect of that is just magical. It’s fun to be a part of that.”
Widmer, who graduated from the UO in 1978 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, still makes time for the social side of beer-making, even as the Widmer Brothers craft brewery that he began with his brother Rob more than a quarter-century ago has become the 11th largest brewery in America.
Now 60 and living in Portland with family, Widmer had his first taste of beer when he was six years old. The brothers were allowed to sip from the adults’ glasses at a young age to “demystify” the beverage as much as anything, Widmer said.
His time at the university also prepared Widmer for what lay ahead. Brewing lives at the nexus of art and science, Widmer said, and it was as a student in the UO’s College of Arts and Sciences that he developed a love of learning, an interest in travel and an openness to new experiences—all of which would serve him years later when he and Rob decided to gamble on a profession no one had ever heard of, craft brewing.
“When we started the brewery, there was no how-to-do-it blueprint—it was, in a real sense, self-education,” Widmer said. “The university taught me how to learn. There was no Internet; I checked out every book in the library that I could find. We cobbled our brewery together by hand. The university equipped me with the confidence to be able to go out and do that.”
The early years were scary. The Widmer brothers relied on family and friends for the start-up capital to launch the brewery. There were times when, after a 16- or 18-hour day, Widmer would come home and confide to his wife that the endeavor might fail, leaving them unable to return their loved ones’ investments.
But the brothers persevered, embracing a stubborn commitment to quality; they readily dumped any batch that didn’t meet their exacting standards. The turning point came in 1986 when they created the first American-style Hefeweizen, a refreshing, naturally cloudy wheat beer served with a lemon that proved as attractive to the eye as to the palate.
“It’s very eye-catching,” Widmer said. “When it’s sitting in front of somebody other people notice it—‘what in the world is that?’ People in the Northwest—when they’re curious about something, they try it. That beer is what we built the company on, effectively.”
The Hefeweizen has become one of the best-selling wheat beers in the country and today Widmer Brothers Brewing Company is the largest brewery in Oregon. Based in Portland, their 28 varieties include Drifter Pale Ale, Nelson Imperial IPA, Rotator IPA Series, Drop Top Amber Ale and Pitch Black IPA.
Widmer spends his time these days keeping abreast of legislative issues that affect the company, visiting the marketplace for feedback on his labels and showing up at Autzen Stadium for Ducks football. There is also the relentless pursuit of new offerings; the brothers recently rolled out a gluten-free beer, Omission, which is America’s first to retain traditional beer ingredients such as malted barley.
One of Widmer’s fondest memories from that seminal trip to Germany is the sight of two women in a restaurant, both in their 80s and passionately debating the merits of the sizable beers in front of them. He’s got that same passion today.
“We take known ingredients—barley, hops, water, yeast—and we do this time and time and time again and each time there’s a minor variation,” Widmer said. “There are hundreds of different kinds of malts and hops and thousands of different yeasts. It really is artistry to combine these known ingredients and have something magical come out—namely, beer.”
— Matt Cooper
Photo: Brian Stechschulte