The Babe Ruth in this 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.
Humulus Maximus IPA
If you’re looking for a little atmosphere with your beer, the Ninth Avenue Public House, the home turf of Yamhill Brewing, probably won’t be high on the list. While other brewpubs make a point of catering to families with hearty portions of comfort food, Ninth Avenue’s menu is a work in progress. True, there might be a band rocking the warehouse area, and recently there was a sketchy fortune teller (her tarot cards had the divine meanings already printed on them) holding court in the back of the room. But as for strategically placed fripperies, it’s all pretty spartan. To be fair, the place has only been open to the public since last November, so maybe the ferns have yet to sprout.
Tucked away among warehouses and auto-body shops in inner Southeast, Ninth Avenue Pub is a place for folks focused on superior suds. Brewmaster and co-owner Tim Glenn came over from Tugboat Brewing about 10 years ago and has been assembling his gear and trying—in fits and starts—to secure the financing to launch the pub side of the operation ever since. A 25-year veteran of the local brewing game, Glenn is a laconic fellow, more at home tinkering among his tanks than out front glad-handing the customers—unless the subject is beer, in which case his knowledge is as deep as a grain silo. Like Dr. Frankenstein periodically emerging from his lab, Glenn can be seen restlessly pacing the premises with a glass half full of his latest concoction, trying to divine its malty merits.
His most magnificent creation thus far is Humulus Maximus, a vivacious IPA that bursts like fireworks with each successive sip, making it an ideal leadoff hitter. It’s light and well balanced, but sturdy, with a majestic wave of hops that doesn’t override the malt. It’s easily one of the finest examples of an IPA in the city.
“Humulus is hops,” Glenn says simply of the beer’s moniker, which refers to the Latin Humulus lupulus.
Glenn observes Portland’s hoppy hegemony as a practical part of his new business, but he has bigger plans in the tank. “It’s something someone needs to survive in the local market,” he says of the IPA. “We might do something even hoppier in the near future.
“But a beer needs to have aroma, body, flavor, color and balance—anybody can overhop a beer and call it good.”
But not good enough to make this team.