In the United States, beer writing seems to be entering a new phase in which books on the industry are going beyond ingredients, how-to, and cooking and starting to focus on individual breweries. With his new book, The Widmer Way, writer Jeff Alworth takes a look at a brewery synonymous with hefeweizen, the brothers who founded the company, and how it might be a larger case study for the whole industry.
Craft Beer & Brewing // Why is this the right time for a book about the Widmer brothers?
Jeff Alworth // We’re starting to lose important informants from the era when the brewery started. We’ve lost writers such as Fred Eckhardt, publicans such as Don Yonger, and we’re losing these voices who were there when the history was happening. Plus, folks are getting older, and they don’t remember quite so well. One of the brothers is retired, and the other is sliding toward retirement. I wanted to capture the story before it was lost.
CBB// This book was done with the support of the Widmer brothers, right?
JA// Yes, they paid for the book. That’s important to note. This is essentially an authorized biography. I was looking to do some consulting work with breweries but didn’t have a great sense on how it would work, so I called Rob Widmer. I’ve known him for 20 years, and he knows a lot about the business, so I asked his opinion. During the conversation, he asked me how I’d tell the Widmer story, and we started talking about larger ideas such as a book. A little while later, they contacted me and asked if I could indeed do a book and capture their story.
There’s a great story there, because Rob and Kurt have taken shit for a long time on decisions they’ve made, and their nature is not always to fight back. They never felt bad about their decisions, but this is a way to get their side of the story back. We get into it in the book, warts and all.
CBB// The brewery is now owned by Craft Brew Alliance, which is, in part, owned by AB-InBev. Still, it seems in the age of big-beer bashing, Widmer Brothers specifically hasn’t taken the same kind of hit that others have.
JA// When they first sold, I think there were a lot of Portlanders who were hurt and maybe stopped looking to the brewery or even drinking their beer. But when the Brewers Association came out and booted them from the craft definition and took Widmer to task, the locals really rallied behind them because they are still one of ours.
The local community still looks to Widmer for help as well. Smaller breweries without labs in the area can drop off samples for analysis and pick them up with no charge. The brewery is big with the local homebrewing community and does collaborations.
The point is that they still have a real grass-roots community and did a lot to foster that.
CBB// What do you think folks will take away from the book after reading it?
JA// It’s really true that the vast majority of breweries start off as scrappy and underfunded and thrive on elbow grease, and a few, as in the case of Widmer, hit meteoric success. And that led to courting of international breweries and customer fallout. This happens a lot, and Widmer had the whole circle repeated in one brewery, making it a metaphor for craft brewing, the industry, and how it really works.
The Widmer Way: How Two Brothers Led Portland’s Craft Beer Revolution will be released on March 26.
This interview was edited for clarity and length.