“If anyone says they got into brewing for money 25 years ago they’re liars,” says a smiling Kurt Widmer hoisting his goblet of famed Hefeweizen in a toast at The Partisan, “I think the same is still true today.”Kurt’s sharp wit and depth of character are not confined to the beer he’s been brewing over the last 30 years, in fact he’s quite open about his personal rise to the top with his brother Rob and Widmer Brothers Brewing (www.widmerbrothers.com).
Kurt saw the west coast blow up in the ‘80s and ‘90s with the first wave of independent craft brewing, and today I’m full court pressing him on the state of the industry, how he succeeded and where we’re going here on the east coast, as our area has seen an unprecedented brewery renaissance, with new ones opening almost monthly.
Currently Widmer is targeting the east coast with a streamlined portfolio of their classics including their famous Hefeweizen, Okto Festival ale and other “W” Brewmasters’ Release Series seasonal brews and their most recent gluten free Omission offerings — all in an east coast market that is growing by leaps and bounds.
“There’s too many good beers….you can’t just start a brewery for a business, passion comes first.”
In 1979 craft brewing was legalized in Portland, Oregon and avid home brewers like the Widmer Brothers found themselves in a unique time in west coast brewing history. The timing was right and a new craft beer industry ready to be forged was peaking over the horizon.
“We had one craft brew pub in town we all went to,” he laments, “and they had old equipment and made bad beer [laughter], but despite this the community supported them because they wanted and took pride in local beer. We saw this and thought why couldn’t we do that and be better at it, so we quit our jobs and we did it. We were inspired to try to make our own beer because we saw you didn’t need all that fancy equipment (the big brewers had) and we saw a market (supported by the neighborhood around us) for us to succeed. We never dreamed we’d get rich—our original business plan was only to start a brew pub and have five (off premise) accounts.” So the brothers started with humble beginnings in an industrial building in Portland with spare parts and small expectations, and began to micro brew and embrace a community thirsty for local suds. Before they knew it they we’re growing. “Why work 40 hours a week for someone when you can work 80 for yourself,” laughed Kurt. Widmer Brothers went from brewing for a handful of pubs to brewing nationally in the years that followed, and success is something they continue to build on and strive for.
“Our real success came when we took a chance and launched an unfiltered American wheat beer,” says Kurt, “and I think when it comes to brewing on the east coast you’re going to see similar success stories. You may have the best equipment, a great product, great distribution or a distinct advantage being one of the first breweries in the market but taking a HUGE chance (with our unfiltered wheat beer) is what got us on the map and to where we are today.”
Huey Lewis said it best in his song, “I need a new drug,” but I think he meant beer. Right Huey? In DC Kurt thinks “taking a chance” and “creating the next big thing” is going to be the BIG difference for a few of the breweries in our area and I can’t help but agree. Similar local success stories such as Mad Fox’s gold medal winning unfiltered Kellerbier Kolsch, DuClaw’s Sweet Baby Jesus Peanut Butter Porter and perhaps even the GABF 2015 Best Small Brewery/Brewer Port City’s Optimal Wit tend to lead credibility to his creed.
“…But you’re only as good as your competition,” said Kurt, “Once we had success others followed and I think you’re seeing that here on the east coast. There’s a similar beer market out here now with a lot of opportunity for brewers to brew a lot of variety of beers, but drinkability is the key.” You may have seen this theory proven over the summer as craft brewers turned out in full force with a seasonal cornucopia of sessionable, easy to drink offerings.
I can only tell you that from my interview with Kurt that one thing is for certain here in the East. The craft beer market will continue to grow, but only a few will rise to the top and expand to other markets (as Sam Adams and a few others have) – and I have a feeling those DC area breweries that have the same passion in their hearts, the wherewithal to take chances and at the same time to make great drinkable beer will be the ones to emerge. Kurt Widmer just shared his blueprint folks, so I encourage to pick up a sixer of Widmer to share with your friends until we all find the next local brewery success story together.
To learn more about Widmer Brothers Brewing visit www.widmerbrothers.com, find them on Twitter @WidmerBrothers and on Facebook at Widmer Brothers Brewery. Find their tasty brews on tap at area bars and restaurants and at local retailers like Total Wine & More and Whole Foods.