Widmer Brothers' Slow Descent
In less than three week’s time, Ooligan Press is going to release the book I wrote for Craft Brew Alliance (CBA)—The Widmer Way. When the company first approached me about writing this book, the Widmer Brothers brand was in a bit of trouble, and CBA had already moved to its “Kona Plus” approach. Still, Americans bought 175,000 barrels of Widmer—a giant amount of beer. (Forty-three million pints of the stuff, if you’re scoring at home.) The brand was such an institution, and its central brewery was located in Widmer Brothers’ hometown, that I didn’t ever worry about its survival. Well, CBA’s 2018 annual report is out, and I’m worried now.
Widmer Brothers now sells fewer than 100,000 barrels of beer. You have to go way back into the 1990s to find the last time that happened. In fact, the last year Widmer Brothers was an all-draft brewery, in 1995, it sold 68,000 barrels. (That’s one of the many fascinating details you’ll find in the Widmer Way.) Meanwhile, CBA has added three more breweries to its collection of brands, which now totals seven, plus a brewery, and a new division, announced this week, called pH, to make alcoholic seltzers and the like.
CBA is doing fine. With new acquisitions and the continued growth of the Kona brand, it looks well-positioned to thrive the next few rocky years. But while Craft Brew Alliance may survive hard times, I’m beginning to worry about Widmer Brothers. Not only did CBA inexplicably close the Widmer pub, but it has begun to rely less and less on the brewery in which it is housed. The new annual report includes worrying comments like this:
We continued to drive value through our enhanced agreements with Anheuser-Busch (“A-B”) in 2018. As part of our brewing agreement, through which we leverage A-B’s Fort Collins, Colorado brewery to brew up to 300,000 barrels a year at a savings of $10 per barrel, we came closer to fully unlocking the estimated $3 million in annual cost savings in 2018.
When I wrote The Widmer Way, the idea was to tell the story while most of the people who witnessed it were around. We wanted to capture the legacy so future generations would have a contemporaneous account. 98,000 barrels is still a lot of beer, and I continue to hope Widmer rallies. (Product sales often bounce around through valleys and peaks.) But as that graph illustrates, now would be a good time, otherwise, The Widmer Way may read more like a eulogy than a celebration.