Interview – Rob Widmer of Widmer Brothers Brewing

We were recently approached by the fine folks (Sam) of Maxwel PR and asked if we wanted to talk with Rob about the latest release, Drifter Pale Ale. Not needing to be asked twice, we jumped on the chance. For those that follow, we have a new blogger that is supposed to be writing with us… he is just taking a bit to get ramped up… but he was able to join me for 21 minutes of some jolly good conversation.

We want to thank Rob for his time… it was an honor and a priveledge and we learned a ton! Here you go for the podcast and written transcript.

Podcast Link

Here’s to beer, Rob, here’s to beer.

  • Dug: We wanted to make sure you understood how much we appreciate your time.  We understand it is valuable and this is a pretty big honor for us being the first of this type of thing since starting the blog.  Thank you very much, we appreciate it.
  • Rob: Well I appreciate you thinking of me.
  • Dug: So the first round we wanted to find out, really why did you choose Drifter in the pale ale style of beer.
  • Rob: We do a lot of test brewing.  One of the nice things about our facility is we have what we call our pilots.  We actually call it the Rose Quarter brewery ‘cause where it is physically is down where the Trailblazers play.  But it is a 10 barrel system which is the same size that Kurt and I started with.  But much nicer than what we had.  That’s kind of where we do all of our R&D stuff.  That’s where the collaborator beers come from so we are always kind of fooling with whatever.  That summit hop, you know we first brewed it just to check a 10 barrel batch and just really like that.  Have you guys had a chance to try it?
  • Dug: I, yes I have.  I think Nabil is waiting, unless you …
  • Nabil: No, I have tried, it.  I caught it out and had to have a 6 pack to bring home.
  • Rob: All right… I’ve always, just personally, been a real big fan of cascades, that just really like that citrusy pine character and a lot of us do around the brewery.  But that summit… there was something… you know there’s lots of other hops around that are kind of similar to that but that quality in the summit was really interesting and I we just found it really kind of delicious but different than anything that we’d had before or anything that I could recall out there. And you know it proved to be really popular at our pub and you know, we had it as the W’07 where it did really well and so you know, we kind of filed that away and just felt that there was a chance even though the pale ales, you know there’s an awful lot out there we just felt it was different enough that it had, you know enough to stand on its own.  We’ll find out shortly we’ve just been rolling it out… That’s what I was doing in Seattle and Tacoma on Monday and Tuesday, you know people really did seem to enjoy it, so… we’ll see how it goes.
  • Dug: I think you have fans of both of us.  It is definitely different than most of the pale ales that I’ve tasted and I can appreciate that.  Plus you know, it sticks close the heart it’s not too out there that you can’t bring home a 6 pack and appeal to just about anybody..
  • Rob: Exactly. That kind of, you know fits well with us, that sort of our philosophy around brewing that you know we want to make beers that are you know interesting but not so huge that you can’t drink them.  Sometimes I worry about myself a little bit but I am a beer drinker.  I like to drink  beer and I like to drink a fair amount of beer.  I like to do things, go camping, or be at a game, or something, you know I like to have a beer in mind hand all day and Kurt’s kind of the same way so we try to build beers that you know you can do that with, you know I like all different styles but a lot of beers I kind of put in that their interesting to taste but then give me a beer.
  • Dug: You don’t want any questions on what you are drinking.
  • Rob: So I mean, Drifter really does fit into that. It’s a little bit for kind of a session style, its 5.7% so it you know gets a little bit higher than maybe you would for most sessions but the nice thing it just seems that you know that really pungent people describe it as different things, you know I describe it as tangerine like or juicy fruit gum like, you know it is so smooth that at that level of hops you get a fair amount of bitterness and I think that is where it is going to appeal to a wider group.  You know my personal opinion is that you can’t have too much hop aroma or flavor but you can have too much bitterness. And that is where for sort of the common beer drinker that is what scares them off you know I never read anywhere where anyone’s done any research on it but I think most people find those flavors nice but they don’t like the bitterness. 
  • Dug: Right, not too bitter for sure.
  • Rob: even though it is 32 IBUs which is right there with a lot of pale ales, you know Sierra Nevada is right there but it drinks so much smoother than a 32. 
  • Dug: Very true.  So I have a question about the release.  Last time I checked you guys didn’t have anything up on your website about it.  Is that intentional?
  • Rob: I don’t know.  I’d have to ask.  I don’t think so. 
  • Dug: It is interesting because we do a lot of stuff virtually with the blog and with beer, we rely a lot on the breweries to provide information, you know, have a product face to link to.  That is something we keep an eye on… who gets their websites up when the release or not.  Just wondering if you guys… well.. I guess a different question is how much do you rely on the website for part of your brand marketing and getting the information out there.
  • Rob: It is important but… you are talking to a 52 year old guy so tech wise I am still kind of an old school… what I was doing on Monday/Tuesday was kind of the way we built the company we throw a keg in a guys rig and go around and pour glasses for people.  We have a Facebook page, we are using Twitter, but quite honestly, you know, I don’t I guess I’m a little bit of a dinosaur.  You know I know our younger guys are all over it but for me it’s not natural to go to those things to find out about stuff.
  • Nabil: So Rob, you guys joined up with the craft brewers alliance an your heavily involved in that, there’s a bunch of really cool beer brands across the nation kind of Hawaii all the way over to Goose Island in Chicago.  With those guys is there a beer you’re a fan of from some of your sister breweries in the alliance? 
  • Rob: You know I like I’m just a fan of all kinds of beer.  But one of the nice things about having a brewery you get to brew what you like so I guess… people always ask what my favorite beer is.. well you know their our beers.  Kurt and I… you know if you own a pub you get to put on what you like and if you own a brewery you get to brew what you like.  Instead of a specific style, people are always asking and I think they want me to name names, but I guess I prefer beers that have hops over everything else.
  • Nabil: Ahhh true Northwest.
  • Rob: Without going any further than that, you know I’m a big fan of pales, IPAs, I think a lot of times I don’t know why people don’t really pay attention to it I guess but Widmer Hefeweizen uses a ton of cascade hops its right in there with the pale ales.  That is where the citrus quality comes from.  So those styles I think.  It’s not to say I don’t enjoy lots of other styles, but you know when it comes to drinking then those are the styles I like.
  • Nabil: You know one of the other things you mentioned brewing what you like and the test or pilot brewery.  How did collaborator come about with the Oregon Brew Crew?  I know you are OSU grad… I am a Duck myself but your brother’s a Duck so I guess I can forgive you.
  • Rob: It’s alright.  Well before we started the brewery Kurt and I were home brewers and members of the Oregon Brew Crew and once we started to brew, we were awfully busy with it and then the mid-90s it kind of got to the point where I decided to re-up with those guys and back then, this was before you could get smack packs of yeast and everyone was using powdered yeast and having a good pitch-able viable yeast starter was a valuable thing which we always had here at the brewery and so you know guys at the brew crew started asking about stopping by and getting some yeast they could use off their brew days and… you know it’s a little bit hazy but kind of the way I recall it is that we would say sure enough, no problem buit bring us some of the beer that is the result of using our yeast and then we were just interested in seeing what our yeast was capable of and guys started bringing really good beers and then it was… I honestly can’t say who had the original idea but it was I think we were all just kind of sitting around and it was like you know some of these beers are too good not to do something with.  Out of that the collaborator project was born.  That’s where the recipes came from the home brewers and originally it was with our yeast and it quickly came to just the way it is currently which is guys submit beers they are judged by their peers in the club and the beers that are selected usually the guys get to work with our brewers at the pilot plant, work up from 5 gallon batch to a 10 barrel batch and then it gets sold under the collaborator label.  So that’s kind of how that whole thing came about.
  • Dug: It’s pretty interesting.. .would you call… I guess you would call Widmer brothers a craft brewery, wouldn’t you?
  • Rob: Well, we do… there’s obviously there’s a debate about that going and I am sure you guys are aware of. 
  • Dug: I guess I see you as that, so… what do you think of, you know, I’ve read a couple of different things but what I call a good increasing number of craft breweries and craft beers that are making it out into the marketplace for us to try and enjoy.  What are your thoughts on that?
  • Rob: I just think that it’s kind of a slow growth thing but once people are introduced to really good flavorful beer, there’s no going back.  Like I was doing on Monday and Tuesday in the Pacific Northwest its pretty rare anymore that you get somebody that hasn’t tried a craft beer. In lots of parts of the country you do it all day and you don’t get them all but I think you get some and I think it’s just we’re out there doing that and so is everyone else and it just builds over time and more and more people decide to give it a try and they find something they like and they become a craft beer drinker.
  • Dug: There you go… and their instantly turned.
  • Nabil: Rob I have to say a personal thank you for expanding the distribution of Widmer because I was down in Dallas for about a year when I first started with MS and it was sort of this wasteland of beer and I remember when I moved down I had about six cases of Northwest beer mostly Widmer an Portland Brewing company and I was rationing them like gold until I could get back.
  • Rob: That’s been an interesting market down there and its come a long way.  When we first rolled out you would get a lot of people who would… actually one of the things I’ve noticed that I think is kind of unique to the Northwest is that here when you bring out a new beer, say we walk into a bar and as I mentioned before that is what I do… run around with a keg, fill up a growler and walk in and you know pour for the bartender and the bar owner and whoever is sitting at the bar.. and in the Pacific Northwest and we do that, everyone is like, bring it on… yeah we want to taste it but in some parts of the country the guys sitting at the bar are like… no… this is the beer, that is what I drink… not interested… you know, you’re kidding me… you don’t want to try some free beer?  No.. that’s what I drink and end of story.  You know it’s a lot harder in parts of the country to get people to try it and if you can’t get that far you aren’t getting very far…
  • Dug: I guess we are kind of lucky in the fact we have a lot of local products and a good environment and culture for drinking beer and for trying stuff that is new.
  • Rob: No question.
  • Dug: It just kind of all adds up.
  • Rob: you know there are pockets in the country but you know the more I travel the more I am convinced that if you like beer, no better place on the earth than the Pacific Northwest.
  • Dug: Although there’s a lot of good stuff coming out of CA these days too.
  • Rob: No question but I still think there’s… I don’t know.. .I’m a Portland native and I say we are the best…
  • Dug: Maybe a little biased but we are ok with that.
  • Rob: Not a question that there’s good beers coming out of CA.
  • Dug: We were reading on the blog that you have a silver medal for running the 50 yard dash when you were in fifth grade and we had a question if you were willing to race all three of us and if all of us beat you if you would give over the silver medal?
  • Rob: Yeah I don’t know… my knees… those were like twelve year old knees.   I don’t know if I have it in me anymore.
  • Dug: How do you come about with the name of the beers?  Drifter is a good example.  Where did the name come from on that one?
  • Rob: We always kind of open it up to everybody internally but we also have an agency.  It isn’t very sexy but we work with the agency that also works on names and its troubling as a brewer but I see it all the time and with any consumer product it’s the same.  You can have a pretty mediocre product but if you have a catchy name it can really go and just the reverse you know I think there’s lots of great beers out there that just for one reason or another just don’t catch on and I think a lot of its surrounding the name and the logo and the look and stuff.  So with Drifter, quite honestly, what we were trying to invoke is kind of the easy drinkability, the easy going nature of the beer.  We’ll find out if it works.  The flipside to that is our IPA, Broken Halo, that there is an involved storey there, but one of our brewers came up with a festival beer that was kind of an imperial IPA and his name is Angel and the brewing team called it Halo… and then when we brewed the IPA which was a little bit smaller and more drinkable instead of an Imperial IPA it was just IPA and they called it Broken Halo.
  • Dug: It can’t hurt that there is an extremely popular video game called Halo that…
  • Rob: It’s quite funny because right when that was coming out and Angel was also a big gamer and when I first heard it I wasn’t thinking I guess but I was thinking that that was why they called it Halo.
  • Dug: it can’t be a bad thing, though…
  • Rob: We had, some years ago, a pale ale called Hop Jack and I thought that was an awesome name because that is the type of equipment that you use and it is funny to tell people that story and the beer just didn’t go and whether it was the profile of the beer or whether a lot of people thought the word hop scared people away… you know what we talked about that hops people associate with bitterness, you know if you heard the story and didn’t know what a hop jack was… you know I thought it was a great bar call and fun story but it didn’t go.
  • Dug: Maybe it was just a bit before its time ‘cause I know a lot of beers that have hop in the name now.
  • Rob: Well actually when we were working on the Drifter team I was kind of in the camp of resurrecting hop jack but I got voted down.  Everyone was afraid that we would be scaring off.. .it’s kind of tricky because we have pretty big aspirations for Drifter and so you know we want to sell it not only here in Portland and Seattle and stuff but we want to sell it in Charlotte and South Carolina and all that….
  • Dug: You’re mass market now…
  • Rob: Not really… we have campaigns that we try to.. they’re certainly not like a national campaign or anything.  We have tools that we use and then in different markets we try and customize a little bit.  But really Kurt and I have never been really big fans of the traditional ads.  As hokey as it sounds, I keep coming back to it’s us and our crew out there getting people to try the beer.  You know that is what it’s all about..  its slow but it’s the most… I think its powerful.
  • Dug: It’s hard to taste the beer over the internet to be honest with you.
  • Rob: We call it wet sampling. You go out and you pour a glass of beer for people.
  • Dug: That is awesome.  So hey, we are cognizant that our time is up.  But one last question.  Give us your favorite prost to end on.
  • Rob: My favorite prost…
  • Dug: Or at least a memorable one…
  • Rob: Oh man… I would say… Here’s to beer.
  • Dug: that’s about as good as it gets right there.
  • Nabil: thanks again for your time rob.  We really appreciate it and we appreciate the effect you’ve had both on the micro and craft brewing industries around the US so far.  We really appreciate the time.
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About dugpark

I'm really just happy to be here on this wild ride we call life.
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