left to right: Tom Bleigh, Corey Blodgett and Dan Munch
As Oregon’s largest brewery, makers of the ubiquitous Hefeweizen, Widmer Brothers regularly brews on a 250 barrel system into 1,500 to 1,750 barrel tanks, but the brewery has never forgotten the small batch experimental brewing that got it to where it is today. The latest experiment comes on the form of a tba innovation tasting room that will showcase what’s coming out of the new pilot brewery and innovation brewing team.
Back in 1996, Widmer opened a small pilot brewery in the Portland Trailblazers new home, the Rose Quarter. In tight, cramped quarters, brewers toiled on collabs and one-offs on display to sporting fans, concertgoers, and tourists before the out-of-date brewery was decomissioned. In 2014, Widmer briefly closed the Gasthaus taproom for a revamp that included upgrading to twenty-four taps and making way for even more innovation in beer. In July of 2016 Widmer opened up the new 10 barrel JVNW pilot brewery at the Gasthaus, now on display through windows to the left of the bar. The brewery also assigned a team of experienced brewers to specialize in those experimental and test batch brews, and the cuffs were off.
The state-of-the-art pilot brewery may be small-ish, but, is capable of producing world-class beers, and already is, like the recently released PDX Pils. A beer that was once a one-off designed and perfected at the pub, it won the gold medal in its category at the 2016 Oregon Beer Awards, and has now been scaled up to be available in 12oz bottles and 6-packs. At the pub there is also a house IPA that isn’t seen anywhere else called Russell St. It’s a more modern take on the style to reflect the extra fruity, citrusy beers of today. It’s one of only seven taps dedicated to core brands at the Widmer pub; the other seventeen showcase collabs, pilot batches, one-offs, and other experiments.
The pilot brewery is headed up by newish innovation Brewmaster Tom Bleigh who joined the Craft Brew Alliance in 2016 after a number of years as Hopworks Urban Brewery’s brewmaster. Tom is joined by veteran acclaimed brewer Corey Blodgett as head of Widmer Innovation, formerly head brewer at Seattle’s Maritime Pacific and one of McMenamins most award-winning brewers when he headed up Cornelius Pass Roadhouse. Dan Munch, previously head brewer at Walking Man in Stevenson, Washington, rounds out the all-star three man team at the pilot brewhouse.
“The team gets to craft new possibilities for the future” says Corey Blodgett on how the pilot program works. “Being associated with a larger craft brewery such as CBa we are able to do some R&D on new malts, yeasts, and hops.”
Tom Bleigh gets the chance to travel around to the Craft Brew Alliance’s multiple brewhouses and brands (Widmer, Kona, Red Hook, Square Mile Cider, Omission, etc.) and develop new recipes and beers to be scaled up. Some of these beers, like the Widmer PDX Pils, are very current, like Tom’s recent explorations of the hazy NE-style IPA in Thing #1 and #2. As the continuing hottest style on the market, there were half a dozen different IPAs on tap at the pub on my recent visit. In addition to the ones previously mentioned, you may find something like “Basho,” a collaboration with Japanese brewers that was fermented with a sake yeast; it was unique and refreshing. IPA geeks and hop heads will want to stop into the pub right now to try “BRUtylicious” IPA while it’s still on. This collab with Los Angeles area brewer Alex Nowell of Three Weavers Brewing is everything you want in those tropical hopped, light bodied hop forward IPAs of today. BRUtylicious is actually a double IPA with dextrose sugar added to lighten the body while flavors of ripe pineapple, peaches, and melon dominate from the Azacca, El Dorado, and BRU-1 hops.
Yeast might be the most important factor in determining a beers flavor, and there are countless varieties and mutations available. Like the previously-mentioned sake yeast fermented IPA, Corey Blodgett has already brewed with over thirteen different yeasts just this year. There is a tremendous variety on the way from hoppy beers, to nitro, sour, Belgian-style and increasingly, lagers.
“We have been crushing lagers lately. At one point in February we had 11 on tap,” says Corey Blodgett, when asked about what some of his favorite beers are that have come out of the pilot brewhouse. Let’s not forget lagers are not all light and crisp like the PDX Pils, but beers like the recent “The How and The Rye” a dark rye lager is rich, spicy and complex. Dan Munch has a Dark Czech Lager fermented with Budvar yeast in planning and has made one of the finest US-made rauch beers to date.
The recently released “Tall Paul Lager” is another good example of a historic-style, and Widmer brothers not forgetting their community. To help cleanup and restore Oregon’s iconic Paul Bunyan statue, Widmer brewed a collaboration beer with the Paint Paul Project, a hopped-up California Common beer. You could say the California Commons is one of the few US born lager-styles, a hybrid of sorts. Tall Paul Lager is also one of the few pilot brewery beers you can find outside the pub; kegs are available at Parkside Pub, Kenton Club, Swift & Union, and Kenton Station, and Widmer Brothers is matching a $.50 donation of each pint sold to the Paint Paul Project.
Brewing malts are one of the areas of innovation with new and old techniques for malting and micro maltsters introducing new varieties, while the bigger companies try to keep up. Widmer has 4-5 brand new malts to them in-house to play with, and approximately ten different hop varietals.
Widmer’s dedication to innovation is one of the reasons it–and the Oregon brewing community as a whole–stays on the cutting edge of the beer scene. The advantages of a big brewery and having all these ingredients and toys to play with are often available to the local industry as a whole. From testing bottled beers of other brewers beers for infection and CO2 levels to regularly bartering hard to find hop varieties or cultured yeasts. It’s the reason you won’t hear local brewers refer to Widmer in anything less than kind words; the brewery is not the big beer competition, more like the older wiser brother who will give you some life tips and maybe even bail you out of jail.
Being a large brewery affords flexibility, Tom Bleigh says. “We get to try new processed and play with malt and hops that are new to us on an ongoing basis, but ultimately it allows us to ideate and gauge interest in new beers without creating a lot of risk. It allows provides flexibility for us to make more small batch beers for specific festivals, collaborations and community based projects.”
The beers that come out of the pilot brewer are often one-off beers, a reason for people to keep coming down to the Gasthaus to see what’s new. Beers are evaluated through feedback from the entire Widmer staff and regulars while also looking at sales, a hit beer may get brewed a few times and tweaked while one that gets drafted to be scaled up may go through 2-4 variations before doing so.
Though new beers like “So Quatcha Want,” a hit citrus-influenced kumquat IPA, are welcome additions to fruited IPA lovers, the Widmer team has not forgotten the brewery is German-influenced at heart. Tom admits, ” I think we’re most excited to brew solid lagers, but we have some kettle sours coming out that I’m excited about. Some of the barrel, Beer & Tea projects and a beer we made in collaboration with Vasilios (Vasili Gletsos, former Laurelwood brewer, now at Hill Farmstead Brewing) have me pretty excited, too.” One beer that hasn’t disappeared in over thirty years is Widmer’s first, the Alt bier.
“It always makes me happy to brew Alt. It was Kurt and Rob’s first brew. Dan and I are very fortunate to be able to brew that once every 4 to 6 weeks,” says Corey Blodgett. Despite all the change, the brewery has not forgotten its heritage, and Rob Widmer still oversees the company.
future Widmer innovation tasting room
Widmer Brothers next expansion project is lead by innovation, already under light construction. “The innovation tasting room will allow for more beer-centric focused events to occur while simultaneously showcasing innovation beers,” says Tom Bleigh. This small separate room behind the Widmer restaurant will be its own pilot batch tasting room with a direct look into the brewery and even more special brews. Tom says it will “expand the portfolio to consistently represent a wide breadth of styles and unique beers. Expect to see something Belgian Style, something on Nitro, some sort of sour, something fruity, something malty, something hoppy, some sort of lager, and some Barrel Aging represented at all times.” Rumor has it that the brewers themselves may even cover pouring shifts in the innovation taproom! No word yet though on when this tasting room will be complete.
In the meantime, though, Corey says to look out for “our single hop French Pale ale brewed with Citrus yeast and Comets.” It’s the Gasthaus showcase beer for the month of April. “We are also doing a Cafe con Leche-style coffee Blond Stout for the month of May. We have some saison and some Quad in barrels I am anxious to get out. All our collabos past and future are worth it. I am working on a collabo with an international brewer, which for me is extremely exciting.”
Founder of The New School and most frequent contributor Ezra Johnson-Greenough has worked in the craft beer industry for almost 10 years, doing everything from illustrating beer labels to bartending at renowned beer bars and breweries like Belmont Station, Apex, Laurelwood and Upright Brewing. He has also had a hand in creating events like the Portland Fruit Beer Festival, Portland Beer Week, and the Brewing up Cocktails series. He is available for freelance consultation in marketing, events, graphic design and branding.