Widmer Brothers Hefeweizen, An Oral History
This is the second part of a pair of posts on the legacy of Widmer Brothers Hefe. For the sibling post, a reconsideration of the beer itself, go here.
Good beers that manage to survive any time at all pass from the ownership of a brewery into the hands of a community. They survive because they create a strong impression in people's minds, often associated with key moments in life. I put out a call on Facebook and via email for reminiscences, and they form a rather striking portrait. I've arranged these chronologically, and interspersed among them are quotes from Rob Widmer, whom I spoke to earlier this week. Some of the folks are private citizens and beer fans, others may be familiar to you. But all tell a similar story.
I'm going to get things rolling by telling my own story. Widmer Hef--the name I've used for 28 years--was never one of my go-to beers. The doorway into good beer for me was stout, but I happened to live in Portland in the 80s and I had eyes--you really didn't need anything more to be aware of this beer. I first became aware of it in about 1988, the year the brothers installed a test brewery in the B. Moloch restaurant in what is now Southpark. It had already been gaining steam for a couple years, but that brewery, in a downtown location (all the little breweries at the time were in the cheaper, industrial areas), really helped magnetize people. Holding a vase glass of Hef and a wedge of lemon became an early status symbol in Portland. The visual presentation was so distinctive that people really wanted to be a part of it. Widmer Brothers Hefeweizen was astonishingly popular, and took beer from the pubs into the upper echelon of Portland's eateries. It transcended gender. I have very little doubt that one of the reasons craft beer became so broadly adopted was because Hefe crashed through so many barriers so early on.
“It was not long after we started pouring Hefe at the Dublin Pub. It was a Friday night and I was sitting at the bar with Carl Simpson, the proprietor, and he said, ‘I’m going to do something here. Watch what happens—this is incredible.’ He was already using the half-liter weizenbier glasses, so he filled up the four glasses, garnished them with lemon, put them on a tray, and had the waitress just walk around. There were tables full of people, and conversations would stop. When she would walk through, people would look at the tray, they would point, and you could tell how it completely grabbed their attention. By midnight everybody had one of those half liters of Hefe in front of them.”
The combination of the look, the flavor, and the approachability made it a big status symbol in the city.
"My own recollection has to do with my racquetball club, where I have now been a member for 27 years. In the early days, they had three taps…Bud, Bud Light and Widmer Hef. We played a lot of racquetball games for beer throughout the 1990s. If you really wanted to go for the gusto, you played for Widmer Hef. It was considered the gold standard. They kept lemon slices in a plastic bin behind the counter for all the folks who ordered pitchers of Hef. Man did that stuff taste great when it was paid for by some poor suckers. Major status symbol when you were drinking Hef while the other chumps sipped Bud or Bud Light."
When he visited Oregon several years back, Stan Hieronymus noticed that haziness was a unifying theme in local beers. One reason is because so many of us were introduced to good beer in the form of that cloudy, yeasty Hefeweizen.
"I first had Widmer Hefe in the fall of 1988. I had moved to Portland to go to college, and we drank a ton of Henry's ale. But the Widmer Hefe was a revelation. There wasn't another cloudy beer, the flavor seemed remarkable, and everyone would freak out when a keg got tapped. That beer was a huge favorite for everyone all through college - really the preferred keg to buy if you had an extra $20 or whatever it was. I do recall the sort of buzz and excitement whenever you heard that someone had a keg."
"I recall drinking it in the very early 90's and was surprised by the enormous amount of yeast in it. It really looked like a milkshake back then. I had just spent a semester in Vienna (not the Weizenbier capital, mind you) and had enjoyed a few Bavarian Hefeweizens, but wasn't an expert at that point. When I talked with Rob Widmer in 1997 before starting my studies at the VLB, he said they renamed it an American Hefeweizen. That, I thought, was a great addition to the moniker. The yeast load has definitely dropped since then, but it was one of the first fresh and local micro brews I had and it was special."
“We have all of our recipes, including weizen. But it was not really a batch of Hefe, it was just weizen. I have the kegging log that shows that when we were kegging that batch, we bypassed filtration and just went direct to keg, and those are the ones that went to the Dublin Pub. So there isn’t really a Hefe recipe. Some we filtered, and some we didn’t, and that was Hefe. That was the thing—the weizenbier was just a bitch to filter and once Hefe really started to go, we were like, ‘this is the greatest thing in the world.’ We could go right out of the tank and into the kegs; it saved us a day. Filtering ten barrels of Weizen was ridiculous, and all of a sudden—boom!—didn’t need to.”
And then of course there's the issue of the lemon slice. Now we regularly add citrus to beer, but back in the 80s, this was seen as a lot of things--innovative, transgressive, gimmicky. It seems now to be mainly recalled with affection.
"In 1992, there was a small beer shop just off campus in Eugene called Taste of Germany. It had mainly imported German beers with one notable exception, this cloudy yellowish beer called 'Hefeweizen' from Widmer Brothers. I had never heard of it, having a naive beer palate. We ordered a pitcher, and the host gave us a small plate of limes... and it was heaven. A cloudy taste of flavor unlike anything I had ever had at that point. A Widmere Hefe with a lime not lemon, to this day, remains my all time favorite beverage."
"I remember living in Ashland in the mid-90s. This was prior to Widmer Hef being available in anything but kegs. We would go sit at Omar's on campus and order pitchers, the rims of which would be lined with lemon slices."
“I guess it was Carl Simpson at the Dublin Pub [who first garnished with lemon]. Carl was already doing that with our weizen. When we went with Hefe, it just stuck.” After considering it more, he continued, “Well, honestly, I don’t know. Did we start it? I don’t know if Carl started it or if we started it.”
It seems that the Widmers' flagship was also something of a siren, calling people to this land of cloudy skies and cloudy beer.
"In the mid-90's I lived in Illinois, a craft beer wasteland. If you wanted a beer in the Land of Lincoln, your choices were macro. Miller Lite and Bud Lite where essentially your options. I chose to avoid beer entirely. Around this time, I visited Portland for the first time on a business trip. While at dinner, one of my co-workers suggested I taste a local beer. I recalled hearing something about Portland having decent beer, so I figured I'd give it a try. I asked the server to surprise me, and she brought back a tall curvy glass filled with what appeared to be orange juice. After attempting to send back the orange juice, she told me it was a beer called Hefeweizen."
With a few sips, the seeds of my beer journey were planted, and I have the Widmer Brothers to thank for it. Widmer Hefeweizen has always held a special place in my heart because it was my first good beer. It was unlike anything I ever tasted."
"My first taste of Widmer Hefeweizen came from a 6 pack I purchased from a convenience store in Washington D.C. Seeing a Portland brewery on the shelf, while picking up snacks, was a landmark moment for me. This was during my nascent years as a beer drinker. At the time, as an east coaster, all beers from the west coast seemed exotic and were presumed to be superior. The limitations of distribution in the early 2000s meant that I had few occasions to drink west coast beer. I returned to my friend's apartment. We sat on his porch and drank the beer straight from the bottle. I recall the seed of moving to Portland being planted in my head on that day. I wasn’t savvy enough to appreciate the construction of the beer, or its legacy. But I liked it, and bought another 6 pack before I returned home to New Jersey. The Hefeweizen provided a distraction from the beers I was exposed to at the time. It didn’t taste what I thought of as ‘German.’ It wasn’t laden with crystal malt. But in the beer I was able to capture an essence of something changing. It was intriguing enough to get me thinking about something beyond what’s inside the bottle."
I had my first Hefe in 2002 in Pittsburgh, PA. It was fantastic. I worked at a bar that was on the forefront of supporting craft beer, and it really was life changing.
"One of my favorite memories I have was when Rob and I delivered an hours-old keg of Hefe to the Dublin Pub for the kickoff of the first 100 Days of Hefe celebration. I had the honor of donning Kurt's leather apron, and the signature red carnation that the brothers would take to each delivery in the old days. We loaded up the old Datsun and made the (slow) trip to the Dublin, where Rob pulled the keg-unloading move with the tire he had done thousands of times before (I think there is video somewhere. I'll try to find it, or maybe Brady has access to it). It was a special experience that I'll remember always, and the beer that flowed after we tapped that keg was the best tasting Hefe I had ever had (and I've had a lot of Hefes)."
Aaron Burget (who left Pittsburgh and ended up working at Widmer for a time)
And since no story is complete without the alternate view, we go to a drinker who came to this beer knowing what the word "hefeweizen" meant. With predictable (and fairly common) results.
"I remember being very excited to taste my first Widmer Hefe back in 2002. Having grown up watching my grandpa get home delivery of Maisel's hefe by the case and drinking it leisurely in the garden on summer days, I couldn't have been more stoked to return to my birthplace and begin feeding those olfactory memories (of beer!) from childhood."
"So when I got my first beautiful looking pint in the classic Hefe glass (and tossed the lemon slice away), I took a big strong sip ... and exclaimed "bleaugh! What is this crap on tap?" Thus my introduction to something called 'American style Hefeweizen.'"
You may wonder why I buried the negative recollections--and I'm sure there are some. But perhaps people decided this was the moment to praise this icon of American brewing rather than bury it. In any case, no one sent me an unkind word.
Please feel free and invited to share your own stories in comments. Prost!