Widmer Brothers Brewing: Building on Hef in North Portland

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Beer Portland

Of course beer is one reward for taking a Widmer Brothers tour, along with a glass and bottle opener.

Robert Luehrs spends five days a week working for a Portland computer company, but there’s no doubt that his real passion is beer. He’s been a part time Widmer Brothers Brewing tour guide for the past six years, he’s a home brewer, and listening to him discuss beer on our brewery tour, we could hear the excitement in his voice.

Robert led us to the second story meeting room with round tables and a projection screen. The play button wouldn’t work, so Robert said, “The remote is willing, but the battery is weak.” Thankfully, he’s so knowledgeable about beer that he didn’t need a canned message. After all, the man completed the Beer Training Certification Program, evaluating over 1000 beers at over 300 breweries nationwide. Here’s a micro-fraction of his beer knowledge.

East of Mississippi, Widmer Brothers Brewing offers Hefeweizen. Up and down the West Coast, there’s hefeweizen, Broken Halo and seasonals like Crimson Wheat, a dunkelweizen.

Every year, Widmer Brothers pays for malt, hops and yeast for the Collaborator Project. Home brewers invest time and water and submit brews for consideration. Sometimes there are dozens of submissions, and sometimes it’s just one or two. Home brewers submit two bottles for judging and two for chemical analysis. The home brewer who wins gets to name their beer, brew it at the Widmer facility, and it’s distributed around Portland. An example of a winner is the Snowplow Milk Stout.

Kurt and Rob Widmer started brewing beer in 1984. They ran two tons of grain daily, brewing beer at 4 AM and running fermenters before made sales calls. Robert said the process was truly “homemade.” They had a shrimp cooker for the mash. The turning point for the brothers’ success was beginning to produce hefeweizen. For the first 12 years, Widmer Brothers was available by draught only, to save on packaging and storage. Now the brothers have graduated to their fourth brewhouse.

Before he provided us with four tastes of Widmer Brothers beer, Robert suggested we focus on the color and clarity, take a deep sniff to get “the nose,” take a swig to have beer at the front and the back of the tongue, then notice the “finish,” since aroma is such an important component.

The Widmer Brothers brewing process utilizes 100,000-pound silos of grain. To make 250 barrels of hefeweizen (31 gallons each), they use 10,000 pounds of wheat. 4800 pounds of pale malted barley, 4300 pounds of pale malted wheat and 900 pounds of Munich and caramel malt. The cloudiness comes from live wheat and extra protein. Hefeweizen has been brewed in Germany since 900 AD, focusing on yeast and wheat.

Drop Top Amber Ale has an amber color, with an emphasis on honey malt. It’s known to be velvety and creamy. Robert said that when paired with vinegary foods, the hint of sweetness cuts the vinegary bite.

Broken Halo IPA is “one of the hoppiest styles of beer.” It’s made with one pound of bitter hops and 200 pounds of aroma hops, making it less bitter than other IPAs. Robert says Broken Halo is ideal for a “hoposaurus.”

Robert passed around two canisters of American hops – Cascade and Amarillo – revealing American hops are more potent and aromatic, almost “pine like.” The bitterness of the hops is balanced with sweetness. Amarillo is more expensive, so it’s used as a finishing hop. Cascade is used earlier in the brewing process.

Crimson Wheat is an American dunkelweizen made with pale malted barley, white, red and roasted wheat. Robert said, “It’s so smooth, it’s like a beer popsicle.” Crimson Wheat is a spring and summer seasonal.

He said that every two weeks, each Widmer Brothers employee gets a case and a half of beer. Every quarter, they’re entitled to four cases or a quarter barrel. That’s a serious perk.

I asked Robert why he thought Portland is so well known for beer. He said Portland has the most breweries and beer festivals anywhere, and has the “highest per capita consumption of craft beer in the world.” Grain is close by in the Yakima and Willamette Valleys. Those valleys also grow the best hops, with 6-18% Alpha acids, blowing away weak German hops. Bull Run Watershed is one of the five communities in the U.S. that doesn’t have to treat their water, New York City being another one. Finally, Portland is home to two of the top yeast culturing labs in the world.

Robert concluded his presentation and led us across the street to the Widmer brewhouse. We passed the 3-story grain tower. Nothing goes to waste at Widmer. Spent grains are fed to cattle, and so is beer from under-filled bottles. Apparently beer spurs milk production.

We entered the room with the beer vessels, five massive silver tanks that looked like some kind of Richard Serra sculpture. There was a mash tun, a lauter tun, a brew kettle and a whirlpool.

We walked upstairs to see the Krones bottling system, which handles 500 bottles per minute.

Between the beer vessels and bottling system were grain silos, plus palettes of Weyermann wheat.

Robert said craft beer is a combination of traditional ingredients and brewing processes. Last year, each brewer lifted over 120,000 pounds of grain. For comparison’s sake, Coors has 2 brewers for 122 brewing vessels, and the process is “totally automated.” Robert said, “They probably spill more beer than we make.”

Back to the beer vessels. It reaches 160 degrees Fahrenheit in the mash tun. In the presence of enzymes, starch is converted to sugar.

The lauter tun is broad and shallow. There’s a big strainer for husks of grain, which siphons off liquid. Husks of grain settle and you get liquid with a golden-reddish hue.

In the middle of the room, brewers take samples and use a hydrometer. They’re looking for 1.048 gravity and the right ratio of sugar and starch so the Hefeweizen is 4.9% alcohol by volume.

The steam-powered “calandria” in the brew kettle brings 7,750 gallons of wort to a boil in just 16-18 minutes, using convection. A vigorous boil coagulates proteins and allows Widmer to dissolve bitterness.

The hop cooler, located just off the room with beer vessels, keeps hops fresh, since hops are only harvested in the fall. They’re stored in 40-pound bags. Robert said, “Hops are the spice of beer.”

The whirlpool uses centrifugal force to separate heavier liquids. You can’t add yeast yet because it would cook it. In order to add yeast, brewers cool the brew from 212 to 68 degrees Fahrenheit.

The fermenter room holds six 3-story tanks, each filled with almost 40,000 gallons of beer. After all, “Yeast loves a party.” Robert enjoyed the fact that, “We’re surrounded by billions of tiny organisms working to supply us with great beer.” Yeast provides beer with flavor and body.

Widmer Brothers brewhouse contains 10 miles of stainless steel pipes and employs four engineers to fine-tune and maintain the brewery. Robert admitted, “As a home brewer, there’s no way I can compete with this.”

Robert’s tour was informative, entertaining and well worth the hour. We also sampled four quality beers and even left with a door prize, a Widmer Brothers beer glass and bottle opener.

Free Widmer Brothers Brewery Tours:
Friday: 3 PM
Saturday: 11 AM & 12:30 PM


Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

Blog Comments

That’s our boy!
We live in FL but twice a year visit our son Robert and his family in Portland.
We enjoy his enthusiasm and knowledge – he’s always been a joy in our life.
Widmer is lucky to have him as a promoter and guide!
Love your beer which we can now get in Florida!
Thanks for making all the wonderful varieties.
Susan Luehrs

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