Rob Widmer on Hefeweizen

Rob Widmer on Hefeweizen

American Hefeweizen
First Brewed
May 1986
Malt Varieties
Pale, Wheat, and Extra Special
Hop Varieties
Willamette, Cascade, and Alchemy
Old World Ale Strain from Northern Germany
Light Cheeses, Brats and Onions, Soft Pretzels, and Bread and Butter.
Widmer Brothers Brewing Co.
Rob Widmer on Hefeweizen

Rob Widmer, co-founder of Portland, Oregon’s Widmer Brothers Brewing Co. answers our ten questions about their flagship beer, “Hefeweien.”

1. What is your flagship beer and when did you begin brewing it?

Widmer Brothers Hefe. In 1986.

2. Who wrote the recipe and how did that come about? What was the inspiration for it?

Kurt (Widmer, Rob’s brother – ed.) came up with the recipe. It actually started out as Widmer Weizen, our interpretation of German Kristal Weizen.

Backing up to the beginning, our first beer was Widmer Altbier, styled after the Alts of Dusseldorf. Widmer Alt was everything that the American palate of the day didn’t like (remember, we’re talking mid-80’s): dry, bitter, astringent and aggressively hopped. There were only a handful of people who appreciated our beloved Altbier, certainly not enough to keep us in business, so we were slowly ‘circling the drain’ and knew we had to try something different.

We knew that we needed to brew a beer that was more familiar and approachable. Kurt had homebrewed a nice wheat beer roughly based on those of Germany, so we ramped up his homebrew recipe and Widmer Weizen was born, really a wheat pale ale featuring Cascade hops. It proved to be very popular.

Fast forward a few months and Carl Simpson, proprietor of the Dublin Pub, an Irish pub in Southwest Portland, was one of our very best and most enthusiastic customers. Carl was pouring our Altbier and Weizen and asked us to brew more beers for him. At that time, we were severely limited in our ability to brew multiple beers, but we had an idea. Since in Germany wheat beer is sold as Kristal (filtered) or ‘mit Hefe’ (with yeast), the next time we were kegging a batch of Weizen we simply bypassed filtration and filled a few kegs straight from the fermentation tank, and the Hefe was born.

At that time beer drinkers were very skeptical of our beer. Our experience had been that if our Altbier or Weizen had even a tiny amount of haze the reaction was very negative, people assuming it had ‘gone off’. Because our Hefe was so cloudy we were concerned that beer drinkers would reject it, but just the opposite happened. No one had ever seen a beer that looked like that and once they tasted it, they were hooked!

3. Did you go through several tests or were you happy with it right away?

We were very happy with all our beers, but we were constantly improving our brewing technique and equipment as we could afford. Kurt likes to say that for the first ten years we never brewed a recipe the same way twice.

4. Has it changed at all over the years, or is it still the same as when you first brewed it?

The basic recipe for Widmer Brothers Hefe is the same as it was in 1986.

5. Did you think it was going to be your most popular beer or did that take you by surprise?

We were pleasantly surprised! We were so concerned that people might reject the beer based on its cloudy appearance, we considered removing the Widmer name completely and selling it to Carl as Dublin Pub Ale.

Widmer Brothers Rob and Kurt at a Widmer Oktoberfest a few years ago.

6. When did you realize it was your flagship beer?

The Hefe quickly became our best-selling beer and remains the beer we are best-known for today. Something about which we are very proud: Widmer Brothers Hefe is the single best-selling craft beer in Oregon!

7. What do you like best about it and what is unique about your flagship compared to other similar beers (assuming there are any similar ones)?

It’s delicious! It really hits the ‘sweet spot’ of balance –not too strong, 4.8% ABV, not too bitter and has the pleasant citrus character of Cascade hops. Arguably, Widmer Brothers Hefe is the original cloudy/hazy beer. It certainly sets the standard for American Hefe.

8. How much of your early success do you attribute to your flagship beer?

All of it!

9. What is your favorite story involving your flagship beer?

Not long after we started selling Widmer Brothers Hefe at Dublin Pub, I was sitting at the bar one Friday evening. Carl was tending bar and said to me “watch this” as he filled six German-style half-liter wheat beer glasses with the Hefe and garnished each with a lemon wedge. He called one of the servers over and put all six glasses on her serving tray and asked her to walk through the room. Carl and I watched as conversations stopped and people pointed at those gorgeous glasses of beer. An hour later. every table in the room was filled with glasses of Hefe! It was awesome!

10. What else would you want people to know about your flagship beer?

Over the years we’ve taken some heat because we didn’t use a traditional Bavarian yeast, but it’s important to remember that things were different in the mid-80s. The simple truth is that in the beginning our lab and yeast handling techniques were so primitive that we didn’t have confidence we would be able to maintain two yeast strains in our brewery. So we simply used our Altbier yeast to make both the Weizen and Hefeweizen. We did our best to describe the beer as our interpretation of the style or as American Hefe, and the good news is that most people were not all that concerned with style and loved the beer anyway!

And lastly, it’s pronounced ‘HAY-FA’!!!!

Tired of working in the corporate world, brothers Kurt and Rob Widmer decided to do what most people only dream of: quit their jobs and turn their homebrewing beer hobby into a vocation. So, they scrounged up equipment from wherever they could, including a dairy tank turned mash tun, a shrimp cooker turned whirlpool and a 1970 Datsun pickup truck “borrowed” from their dad. Cobbling it all together, they built the Widmer Brewing Company in an industrial part of NW Portland, what is now the Pearl District. The brewery officially opens on April 2, 1984. Inspired by their German connections, the very first beer they brewed was Altbier, which translated from German means “old beer.” Shortly after, the brothers follow up with Hefeweizen, their interpretation of a Bavarian wheat beer, and the rest is history.

Flagship beers were chosen by the individual writers with no input from the #FlagshipFebruary partners or sponsor breweries.

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