Alumnus’ popular brewery celebrates 30th anniversary, hosts Portland Science Nights

Kurt Widmer (right) is an ardent supporter of the UO, and the PDX Ducks’ Portland Science Nights are held at his brewery every three months. (Courtesy of Widmer Brothers)

Kurt Widmer earned his bachelor’s in psychology from the University of Oregon in 1978, then moved to Germany to work for a pharmaceutical company, registering foreign-made drugs for sale in the German market.

Six years later, he and younger brother Rob launched Widmer Brothers, a brewery that started in a garage and that, over the last 30 years, has grown to become the ninth-largest brewery in the United States.

A slight career detour, to put it mildly.

“I lived in Germany for a couple of years in the 1970s, and that broadened my beer horizons,” Widmer said. “When I moved back to Portland, I began homebrewing, trying to recreate the styles I’d been a fan of while living in Germany that I couldn’t get here.”

With Rob in Big Sky, Montana, brewing his own beer, Kurt brewed in Portland, starting with Altbier—which happens to be the “king of beer” in Dusseldorf, Germany, where Kurt and Rob’s mother’s family hails from.

The two swapped notes as they brewed, and using relatively primitive beer making equipment—Kurt describes modern homebrew technology as “sophisticated, and orders of magnitude better” than what was available to them—the Widmer brothers spent five years honing their craft, throwing out fully one in three batches brewed.

Kurt Widmer ’78 (left) launched Widmer Brothers with
brother Rob (right) in 1984. Thirty years later, it is one
of the biggest craft breweries in the United States.
(Courtesy of Widmer Brothers)

Widmer Brothers opened for business in Portland in 1984, and started trying to make a name for itself in the Pacific Northwest market. The original brewery was rudimentary to say the least, paid for by loans from family members and assembled using recycled equipment, including dairy tanks and vessels originally intended for a nuclear power plant. In the beginning, the fledgling brewery sold only two beers—the Altbier and a Weizenbier—and one slowly began to catch on in the Rose City.

“Altbier was a bigger beer than the marketplace was ready for in the 1980s,” said Kurt. “Our second beer used Altbier yeast, and that was a wheat beer that sold quite well.”

Carl Simpson, the owner of The Dublin Pub, was an early supporter of Widmer Brothers, and sold both their Altbier and Weizenbier to his customers. When he asked for a third beer, though, this presented a problem: Widmer Brothers only had two fermenters, and was not yet ready to brew an entirely new third beer.

“We wanted to accommodate him, but with only two fermenters that made a third beer difficult,” explained Kurt. “We took the Weizenbier out without filtering it, and that became our Hefeweizen. We put it straight into kegs and took it to him.”

The brothers were concerned with how the beer would reflect on the fledgling enterprise, but the rest, as the saying goes, is history.

“[Carl] was the first person using 22-ounce pilsner glasses, and he presented our beer in those with a lemon added,” said Kurt. “People were fascinated—when it comes to beer, people in the Northwest are always willing to try new things. They tried it and liked it, and that’s what we ended up building our company around. It was more serendipitous than part of a meticulous plan.”

Widmer Brothers went from strength to strength as their Hefeweizen exploded in popularity. In 2007, the brewery merged with Redhook Ale Brewery to create the Craft Brew Alliance, the second-largest craft brewer in the country behind the Boston Beer Co., makers of Sam Adams beer. Anheuser-Busch now owns a minority stake in the company, enabling it to ship and sell the Widmer beers—which retained their label during the merger—nationwide.

Despite their success though, the Widmer brothers remain grounded, with Kurt saying, “There’s no guarantee for continued success, so we approach every day with the mindset that we have to delight our customers, or we’re toast.”

Kurt’s customers aren’t the only people to benefit from his success though, as the growth of Widmer Brothers and the Craft Brew Alliance has enabled him to help fellow UO alumni in a very tangible way.

In 2013, the PDX Ducks approached Craft Brew Alliance Banquet Manager Alison Swingle with a request to hold the Portland Science Nights gatherings at the Widmer Brothers Brewery. Swingle took the request to Kurt, who agreed immediately, and the partnership has resulted in one of the most popular events on the UOAA calendar.

Held every three months, the Portland Science Nights bring UO faculty members to the brewery to speak about scientific topics that have included everything from the Higgs Boson to evolution to bionic limbs. A recent addition to the PDX Ducks and UOAA calendar,  the science nights have quickly become a hit, with Ducks filling the brewery to listen to the topics while enjoying complimentary helpings of Widmer Brothers beer.

“To the extent that I can, I like to support the university,” said Kurt, who attended the UO because it was in state and affordable, and offered the broad range of arts and sciences that he was looking for. “I got a good education there, and it’s put me in good stead. Anything I can do to give back, I’m happy to do that.”

Join the UOAA and the PDX Ducks for the next Portland Science Night.