Archive for July 12th, 2019

Portland’s Brewmeisters!

My husband and I moved from NYC to Portland, Oregon Nov. 11, 2005.  John used to brew beer in our kitchen back east and living here in Portland reminded me of those days.  According to The Brewers Association of America, craft beer had a 17.8% increase in supermarket sales for 2006–more growth than any other alcohol beverage category in the supermarket sales channel. Portland has 28 microbreweries within its city limits which is more than any other city in the world. There seems to be a brewery or a pub on every corner.  Beer is worshipped here, and in fact, it seems to create a subculture of “hopheads” in the know.  It has a magical power over this town and it captured me in its web as well.  I am not much of a beer drinker, more of a wine and vodka person.  But through getting to know the founders and brewmasters behind these Portland breweries I began a love affair with the whole process as well as the product they created.

I wanted to understand the type of person behind a brewery and I wanted to know what it takes to stay on top, or at least, in the running.  I interviewed a dozen founders/ceo’s/brewmasters.  I sat down with each of them, face to face for about an hour and asked a series of questions I felt were pertinent to their industry and to their involvement in it. I interviewed Kurt Widmer, one of the founders of Widmer Brothers Brewing, Brian McMenamin of the Mcmenamins  chain, the founder of hair of the Dog, Alan Sprints, also John Balfe and Scott Barnum, the CEO of Pyramid Breweries and Mactarnahan, Karl Ockert, the Brewmaster and founder of Bridgeport Brewing, Ron Gansberg the founder of the Racoon Lodge and Mike De Kalb the founder and owner of the Laurelwood Brewing Co.  and a few others.  I have found them to be incredibly intelligent, kind, humble and witty.  It is exhilarating talking to people who truly love what they do.

Variety, innovation, leadership,  persistence, creativity and entrepreneurship,  all rolled up into one in a town  of immense possibility and expanding infrastructure. The Portland metro area is the largest craft brewing market in the United States (U.S.).  It is the only area to sell more than 1,000,000 cases of micro brewed beer according to Information Resources Inc.  Seattle and San Francisco are the second and third largest markets respectively.

The largest craft beer producer in Oregon is Widmer Brothers Brewing Company of Portland, which produced 269,000 barrels in 2006 making it the third largest craft brewery in the nation.  The Portland area beer industry is keeping right along with the tremendous growth of this underdog city, one whom many are flocking to from all over the world.  Many a Portlander would recommend their town’s beer as some of the best they’ve ever had.

In the last 20 years, a group of 20-somethings all fell in love with beer and invested every last penny to pursue beermaking.  Their predecessors did the same, although often with much less success and in smaller batches.

Kurt Widmer, one of the two brothers that owns Widmer Brothers Brewing,  always loved beer, since the day his brother and him visited the breweries of Germany, brought back recipes, tasted them out in their tiny Portland kitchens.  The 48 year old co-founder is part of the “elite” beer brewing group making history and leading the pack with innovative  recipes and fresh ideas.  “Brewing is still growing up, the variety will keep changing as tastebuds mature.”  Kurt exemplifies the energy and the creativity of this group of beermakers.  A group that includes Karl Ockert, Art Larrance,  Mike Dekalb, the McMenamins brothers, etc…Many of these men have degrees in beermaking and many simply learned by trial and error, like the McMenamins Brothers. Follow me on a journey in beer making with these amazing beer meisters!

Kurt Widmer in Portland, Oregon March 2007

Kurt Widmer

Widmer Brothers Brewing


Walking into the offices at 929 North Russell Street.

Finding a quiet space was difficult since there was major construction going on across the street, an extension of the brewery itself was in the process of being erected.

We did find a recently drywalled conference room to use and sat down at a large empty table.

Kurt, on the background of the brewery’s inception (in interview)

“My inspiration was, in the mid 1970’s I lived and worked in Germany for a couple of years and I had been a beer drinker before that but I developed a greater appreciation for it and then I came back and when I returned to Portland found that the beers were not at their best so I begin home brewing, feeling a little bit travel weary….just to see if I could brew the beer that I had been enjoying in Germany.  My brother also started home brewing with a different inspiration.  His inspiration was our uncle who made his own beer and cheese and we thought it was neat and when we were like ten, we would go to his house and he would offer us a beer.  So we were home brewers for abut five years and towards the end of that time,  we got better.  We stuck to very traditional styles, I did try to get lagers but they were kind of disappointing, very time consuming.  I learned to identify when a European port was fresh on the shelf and what I found was that the ones I tried to brew myself were not as good as the ones that arrived fresh.  There is no reason to do something if it’s not better.  So I went back to doing ales. Stouts and porters and all kinds of variations on that.

My brother was the Food and Beverage manager at Big Sky Montana,  a very popular ski resort in Montana near Bozeman, Montana and he used the kitchen there, after hours for his production area and he had everything shipped in Mail order and it arrived in a very fresh state.  What’s available to home brewers now is much superior what we had back then.  We enjoyed the process a lot, it was fun and our friends enjoyed drinking it with us. After doing that for five years we kind of felt that doing it on a commercial scale was the logical next step.”

Were the banks open to your ideas at the time?

“They all thought it was a very fascinating idea but there weren’t any models around so, you can only imagine, it’s like walking in and saying I want to buy a piece of property on Mars…so therefore they weren’t willing to loan any money to us.”

So what we did to raise money is called “private placement”.  We sold stock on a private basis to family and friends.  I believe there were sixteen investors then.  Aunt and uncles, great aunts and uncles, sisters and parents and a few close friends.  I don’t think any of them envisioned that it would be anything more than a fun idea and nobody put in very much money, like a thousand dollars here and there, five hundred…We raised somewhere around sixty thousand dollars and that allowed us to buy and assemble all of our equipment when we first began.  We were renting our building, in the Northwest part of Portland at 14th and Lovejoy.  We were over there for five years, opened a second brewery downtown, still renting it, it used to be called the Heathman Bakery and Pub.  It was more of a brew pub, that space.  Then we sold both breweries and bought this building in 1989 and started fixing it up.  It was pretty bombed out.  Then we moved in here in 1990.”

In what direction do you think the microbrew industry is going:

According to CNNMoney.com, Internet-style rise and fall in the late 1990s, craft beers are on the climb again, with $4.3 billion in U.S. sales in 2005, a 13 percent lift from a year earlier. (By comparison, mass-market beer sales slipped 1.5 percent over the same period.)

“In the 80’s the whole Craft brewing industry grew in double digits.  The typical annual growth was around 50%.  Then in the 90’s the whole segment, nationwide went pretty flat, it never went backwards and it picked up in the late 90’s and it’s been growing ever since in the double digits for the last six years.   Once you have craft beer, it’s hard to go back to something else…(like a Budweiser?) 85% of the population drinks lighter domestic lagers and who can say that 85 % are wrong.  What we find is that each wave of growth finds more people liking craft beer and each time it goes up a little bit higher.

We have panels sit in every day and do comparison taste studies. The taste panel has been together for quite a while, Rob is on that, and there are people from all over the company that are on the panel. Finance, front office, engineering, brewing, they have been together long and they trained together, which is very important because they all have to speak a very common language.  Everyone understands each specific word being used.  For the Hefeweizen, (German for “yeast wheat” is a variety in which the yeast is not filtered out), they meet every day and taste every batch of beer before it goes out.  The criteria is how close to the target is it that that specific sample is.  Our quality insurance guys analyze that on a regular basis, whether consistently above or below target, and if it’s not on target, why.  That’s what they do after the tasting.  We are constantly adjusting for trends…raw materials change, water changes, ambient temperature changes, the sun, the moon and the stars change…brewing is an art, as much as anything else…

Would you say there is any competition for you in the market, in the Hefeweizen market?

“Yes, there is a cheap knockoff, but nobody has been able to exactly craft what we do.  Some get fairly close but most don’t get very close at all.  Once thing that’s kind of nice is that we’ve forced some of these knockoffs, since they can’t compete on flavor or quality they have to compete on price.  They’re generally discounted.

What would you reveal as the secret to your Hefeweizen?

“There are several things going for it.  One is that it’s the most flavorful and the freshest in any given market.  We send it out as soon as it passes our quality assurance and we go to great lengths to assure that more distant markets get the freshest, if it’s a week old in Portland, it’s a week old in Austin, Texas. We also have a relationship with Anheuser-Busch that allows us to use their distribution system which is the best in the known universe.  All of their trucks and warehouses are refrigerated, they take shelf life very very seriously.  There are about 1000 bars and restaurants in the Portland area that carry Widmer and according to the VP of Marketing 20,000 on the West Coast in total.  We do most of our business West of the Rocky Mountains.  

How do American Microbrews or Craft breweries compare to traditional techniques of brewing?

“I use both terms, craft and microbrew.  Most of the craft beers in the U.S. are ales.  Almost no one would use adjuncts, like corn or rice…

(The Reinheitsgebot, dating back to 1487, meaning literally “purity requirement”, sometimes called the “German purity law” in beer making, in the original text, the only ingredients that could be used in the production of beer were water, barley, and hops.)

Most craft beer in the U.S. adheres pretty close to that although some use fruit in their beers and do not comply to the Reinheitsgebot rule.  

What does it take to stay on top?

“I don’t think that we would even say that we were on top.  But there has to be a constant perpetual commitment to quality.  Our beer gets better every day.   If it’s not perfect we dump it.  We have five people here that are just dedicated to that. We send our people to schools for education and we have very educated brewers and our QA people come with great backgrounds in quality assurance.  My brother and I try to participate in every interview, every hire and we look for people that are smart and hardworking and modest.  And then we figure we can train them to do what we want them to do.  We would rather do that than have them bring bad habits from their past jobs.  If they have a work history that shows they are honest and smart hardworking people we can work with them.  And then our equipment gets better every year and we just get better at what we’re doing every year.  The freshest beer is always in the marketplace, that’s simple but it’s actually kind of complicated.  We have about 300 wholesalers that we are shipping to individually and we have to coordinate that their inventories always have the right amount. Never want them to run out or have too much, then the beer gets stale.  They do a great job.  Having a passion for great beer, and Rob and I love beer. That’s our life.  But even if we were not in the business we would be enthusiastic beer drinkers.

What is your favorite type of beer?  

“I very much enjoy our hefeweizen, it’s flavorful enough that it’s a nice compliment to just about any food and does not overpower it, it’s also good by itself.  When I’m in the Gasthaus for example, I’ll try one of our experimental beers first and the alt beer that we have is one of my old standbys (an Altbier is a German style brown ale, the “alt” literally translates to “old” in German, and traditionally Altbiers are conditioned for a longer than normal periods of time and are fermented at colder temperatures.)

What is your opinion on going “green”?

“We recycle about 95% of our solid waste.  We take it very seriously, our kegs get reused, our glass gets recycled, the malt and the yeast, after we use it is excellent cattlefeed.  The leftover beer from returned kegs and bottoms of tanks, we send out to our cattle farmer.  It’s very nutritious, very low in alcohol.  He is down in the Willamette Valley.  We have a bunch of farmers that pick up our waste.

The Portland metro area is the largest craft brewing market in the United States (U.S.).  It is the only area to sell more than 1,000,000 cases of micro brewed beer according to Information Resources Inc.  Seattle and San Francisco are the second and third largest markets respectively.

The largest craft beer producer in Oregon is Widmer Brothers Brewing Company of Portland, which produced 269,000 barrels in 2006 making it the third largest craft brewery in the nation. 

Why did the term microbrew shift to the more common term “craft” beer?  

“It was always a reference to size.  When we started micro was 5,000 barrels annually, then it kept going up and then it stopped at 25,000 and when it crossed that it became a craft beer.  I am not offended when someone refers to us as a microbrew because compared to big domestic brewers we are very tiny.  We did 269,000 barrels last year.  With any luck we will do over 300,000 this year.”  

Micro beer is amost all malt or all malt, correct?

“Yes, except those that specialize in Belgian style fruit beers.  Generally craft beers are more flavorful, not necessarily more alcohol and not necessarily higher quality.”

Do you consider Heineken a competitor?

“We think that people that buy Mexican imports or European imports should be our customers.  We compete against all the imports basically.  It’s never made sense to us why someone would not buy craft beer, anywhere in the U.S. if its better and fresher than one that’s tired and stale and oxidized, light struck and everything else, not even close to one that’s of better quality.  I know the answer but it’s one of those things that always mystify me.  People are looking for the prestige that’s associated with European imports.  But I think that’s changing and people are looking for more flavorful beers, which is where we are.

Do you see any of your beers changing drastically in the future?

“We almost never change once we’re out in the marketplace.  That’s one of the things that beer drinkers should expect, consistency.  We’re very careful to make sure that that’s what happens.

Is there something that you are hoping, wishing for, dreaming about for this company in the future? A vision that may seem unreachable now.

“I guess that our hefeweizen would be universally recognized as the world class beer that I think that it is.  More and more people discover it every day but since we don’t have a gigantic advertising budget it’s pretty hard to make the world aware of it but it’s getting out there.  It would be really nice if all the beer drinkers of the world went “wow, this is the best beer I’ve ever had in my entire life”.  American hefeweizen is what we call it.  It didn’t exist before we brewed ours.  It’s not a Belgian style, it’s not a German style.  This is American style.

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