Brew-Monkey's Brewer Interview
Rob Widmer and Joe Casey
Widmer Brothers Brewing Company
What is better than a cold, crisp, wheat beer on a hot day? It is one of my favorites that is for sure. Today, I got to speak with one of the pioneers of American Wheat Beer, Rob Widmer and Joe Casey of Widmer Brothers Brewing Company. Thank you guys for taking some time for some tag team answering action with the Brew-Monkey... so let's crack a cold one and get started shall we?
How did the Widmer Brothers Brewing Company come to be?
My brother and I started home brewing in the late 70's. It was through our love of beer and home brewing that we became aware of people starting small breweries in the northwest. We were both in a position to take a bit of a risk with our careers. And, the possibility of turning our hobby into a vocation and making a living brewing beer sounded pretty good so that's what we did. We began building our first brewery in 1984 from equipment that we scavenged from salvage yards. It was our good fortune to be natives of the City of Portland. We really couldn't have chosen a better city to start Widmer Brothers Brewing Co.
Rob... do you do much in the brew house these days or do you stick with administrative duties? What about your brother?
When Kurt and I started the brewery we did everything. That means not only the brewing but maintenance, sales, delivery, accounting, marketing, cleaning - everything. But we've been fortunate to grow and as we grew we were able to hire extremely talented people to help us with all of these functions. As with all of our departments, brewing is operated by a group of professionals who do an incredible job. Kurt and I still chart the course for our brewery but we have a great team of people helping us.
How long does it take to settle on a recipe for commercial production?
There is no set time, but it's not uncommon for it to take over one year. Before sending a beer to market it is thoroughly tested. Some tests are as simple as gauging the reaction of beer drinkers at the Widmer Gasthaus and at festivals. For more sophisticated analysis we've also used the professional taste panel and also large scale consumer panels at Oregon State University to assist our in-house taste panel with sensory analysis as a part of recipe development. The bottom line is that we use whatever method necessary to make sure that any beer that goes to market is spot on.
How much trial and error went into the recipe?
Again, there is no set time.
How did you decide on the beer styles you make?
We approach this in two ways. First, we are always exploring new styles and pushing the envelope of existing styles. We have a 10 barrel brew house where we brew all of our "X" beers. We typically send these beers to festivals or serve them at the Widmer Gasthaus. Second, we pay attention to what beer drinkers are drinking and brew accordingly. Kurt and I learned early on that, while its fun to challenge beer drinkers with esoteric styles of beer it is also important to brew beer that people will buy.
How far removed from the initial idea is the final product we all now commonly drink?
Not far. We always know what we want to make and how we want it to taste and smell. The trick is sorting through the potentially numerous ways to get there, as well as the complete dead ends. The destination is important, but the route isn't necessarily. It's pretty clear once you've arrived.
What settings do you use for crushing grain?
We have a six roll mill that allows us to alter the particle distribution. Generally speaking our grist is mostly small-large and mid-sized particles to facilitate good extraction rates while not impeding lautering progress.
Do you perform the legendary "20 minute" mashes? If not, how long do you mash?
We have different mash profiles and techniques for different beers. Some are lengthy and utilize a quasi-traditional glucan rest and some other profiles are only slightly longer than 20 minutes.
What kind of efficiency do you normally get? How much fluctuation do you get from batch to batch?
Brewhouse efficiencies are typical of a medium grind and a shallow lautering bed. Mid/low 90's. We don't get to caught up in extract targets, but they're important in their own right. Batch to batch variation is to be expected, but is minimal. Our brewing recipes allow for this, and we adjust each brew at boil end so that there's consistency entering fermentation.
You mentioned adjusting each brew at boil end for consistency... what kind of things do you do?
We target all brews to finish boiling at about 0.5 Plato above targeted OG, and then add the appropriate amount of water back to the kettle to adjust the brew to the exact target OG. This procedure is pretty common and allows for any extract variances, evaporation differences, etc... that invariably occur on a day to day basis, and then offers an elementary means to correct them. For every brew we track extract and evaporation using the Lincoln equation, which is the same equation we use to determine post boil water addition to the brew.
How long does a typical brew session take? What is a typical brew day like?
It varies, but from grain to pitched wort in the fermenter it's about 8 hours. We're about 2 1/2 - 3 hours between brews, and we do 3 or six a day lately six days a week. We can go around the clock in certain, rare, circumstances but only for one or two days before we outpace cellar operations and fermentation capacity. Brewers are responsible for everything from materials acquistion to yeast management.
At what temperature do you do your mashes?
Mash temperatures and times vary by product. Anywhere between 120°F and 150°F for anywhere between 1-30 minutes. The mash profile for any particular product is build around the raw materials used, the desired final gravity, and any other incidentals along the way like wort/beer pH. We prefer short, hot mashes but acknowledge that not all Widmer products can be made with this profile.
What type of mashes do you do?
Mostly temperature programmed types. Some profiles border on traditional infusion parameters.
How long does your boil commonly last?
All boils are 75 minutes and see between 8-12% total evaporation depending on a few brewery secrets.
Do you adjust the water (use water modifiers) for the different styles or just go with the local water source?
It's (filtered) local water coming into the brewhouse. Each brew has its own mineral salt cocktail added at various times in brew process.
You mentioned the salt cocktails that are added at various points in the brewing process. The various points part... Can you explain a bit about why something would be added at one point and not another?
At the end of the day the important thing is that the wort/beer has the appropriate mineral content and desired taste. To get there it is possible to add minerals exclusively to the mash, or I suppose one could do it in the kettle as well. Because minerals, primarily calcium, do exhert an influence on mashing we make sure to add some to that process to keep things in check. However, much of the mineral content added to the mash is lost (about 60%) in the spent grains. In order to acheive the proper total wort mineral content one must then aggressively add them to the mash to account for the loss, or add a modest amount to the mash and then a bit more to the wort kettle. We utilize the latter concept. Generally speaking we target about 100 ppm of calcium in our worts, through usage of either calcium chloride or calcium sulphate, depending on whether we want a juicy, full mouthfeel or a more dry, astringent finish respectively. Other products contain a bit of sodium chloride as well which provides flavor enhancement and sweetness.
Your Hefeweizen doesn't have the signature German hefe clove and banana notes. It seems to fit an American style wheat. Is the yeast strain you use in the Hefeweizen the same strain as any strains sold by WY or WL? If so, can you confirm that your Hefeweizen strain is sold as Wyeast 1010, which is supposedly the same strain as WLP320? Also, is this strain also used by Zum Uerige, as some people report?
Kurt and I unknowingly pioneered American Hefeweizen in 1986. We set out to brew our interpretation of German Hefe but rather than use a traditional yeast strain we used our Altbier yeast. The resulting beer lacked the clove phenolic prevalent in German Hefe but people loved it so we went with it. What I've found is that the clove character of German Hefe is a "love/hate" flavor. Either you like it or you don't like it at all.
Not knowing the sources of the Wyeast or White Labs yeast strains that you mention I can't really comment on them.
What about hops... do you use whole or pellet hops? Why?
The brewery was initially designed for pellet use. We've since added a hop seperator to the brewhouse and used it briefly in production brews (that have since been discontinued.) We have an overwhelming appreciation for hop pellets for a number of reasons relating to hop stability/quality/consistency, flavor, handling ease, storage, etc. We have nothing against whole hops per se.
Do you use a Whirlpool or Filter method? If neither, which do you use?
What finings or clarifiers do you use if any?
Irish moss to the wort kettle.
What temps are most ales fermented at on this level?
We mainain 2 or 3 ale styles of yeast for a variety of different products, all of which ferment at 68.
Do you pasteurize or add preservatives?
Which award are you most proud of and why?
A silver ribbon in the 50 yard dash when I was in 5th grade. Just kidding. Kurt and I received a lifetime membership award from the Oregon Brew Crew, one of our local home brewing clubs. Many of the members of the OBC are extremely talented brewers with incredible knowledge about brewing and beer styles. It is nice to be recognized by this group.
Do you have any techniques or processes that are unique to your brewing/brewery?
Can you tell us about them?
What do you see in the future for you and your company?
Kurt and I hope that the demand for craft beer continues to grow and that we are able to continue brewing and selling our beer throughout the country.
How long has the brewery been around?
What is the yearly production?
We should do around 220,000 barrels this year.
How many different beers are made and how many are bottled? Where do the rest go?
We always have four beer styles that are offered in bottles. The "X" beers are sold at festivals and at Widmer Gasthaus.
What is the current distribution?
We are in 46 states.
What are your thoughts on the "hop revolution" - the ever increasing number of hoppy beers and the quantity of hops used?
Its fun to taste the hop monsters but when it comes to drinking I just like a clean, well-balanced beer. We are fortunate enough to live in a region where hops are grown locally. We have been brewing a fresh hop beer that is incredible. The hop character is at a level that you'd associate with a real tongue scraper but this beer has very mild bitterness.
The Oregon Brew Crew... I believe the Snowplow recipe comes from them, correct? Is there some association between Widmer and OBC? How would others go about getting a recipe into Widmer production?
RW: Kurt was a member of the OBC before we started our brewery. We are both currently members but that is the only association we have with the club. Collaborator is just a project that we work on with the OBC. We don't have any relationships like this with any other brewing club so the best way for someone to get their recipe into the Collaborator project is to join the OBC.
JC: Snow Plow is a Collaborator recipe and we don't control the recipe directly. The OBC is paid a royalty per volume sold in acknowledgement of their contribution to the product's success. More information on the Collaborator program can be found at http://www.oregonbrewcrew.com Basically the club holds an internal competition for a particular style. The winning brews are rejudged by the OBC and someone from Widmer. The winning version is than slated for production at our 10 bbls brewhouse, and the creator gets to come in and shovel grains for us. The beer is sold only in the Portland market and is draught only. Proceeds go back to the non-profit OBC and also to a scholarship fund to the Fermentation Science program at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon. The OSU program is headed by Dr. Tom Shellhammer.
1. Brewer Profile:
Name: Rob Widmer
Date Of Birth: 1956
Current Brewery: Widmer Brothers
What kind of education do you have? Graduated from Oregon State U.
Did you attend a Brewing School? No
How long have you been at your current job? Since 1984
What did you do previous to this job?
Nothing of any consequence.
How did you get into brewing in the first place?
I was inspired to start homebrewing by our uncle Walter who was a prolific home brewer, wine maker, sausage maker and consummate host.
What is your favorite beer style and why?
I prefer beer styles where hop character is pronounced.
What is your Favorite beer?
I am asked this all of the time. I find that it is hard to beat a nice, fresh Widmer Hefe with a little fresh lemon rubbed on the rim of the glass.
Personal notes/outside interests:
Skiing, backpacking, camping. Beer is an essential part of all of these activities.
2. Brewer Profile
Name: Joe Casey
Date Of Birth: Aries
Current Brewery: Widmer Brothers Brewing Co.
What is your position/title?
My official job title is Assistant Brewmaster. I'm responsible for raw materials, brewhouse and fermentation operations, a bit of yeast management, and product development and research.
What kind of education do you have? BS Biology, Dipl. Brew IGB
Did you attend a Brewing School? Yes, several, and all post hire. The Brothers are very generous sponsors of employee education.
How long have you been brewing? 10 yrs
How long have you been at your current job? 10 yrs
Did you brew before Widmer? Did you start in the position you have now or work your way up?
I did not brew extensively before Widmer. I was first exposed to it early in my college years when some dorm mates homebrewed in our kitchen, brews that were later confiscated by campus security. Some time later I dabbled a bit in extract home brewing myself, and by the time of my employment here had a small handful of batches under my belt. Some were good, most weren't: Homebrew is a tough process. My initial position here at Widmer was in the cellars and on the keg line. Not long after I started there was an opening in the brewhouse which I interviewed for and received. Since then I've worked my way into my current position, which I've held for the last several years.
What did you do previous to this job?
Student, pizza cook
Every brewer has high and low points... what are yours?
High points center around breaking assumptions, identifying and solving brewing problems, and positive consumer feedback. Low points center around inconsistency and product unknowns.
What is your favorite beer style and why?
I tend to prefer smooth and/or lighter styles of beer that allow me to consume several without lingering flavor buildup or ensuing dizziness.
What is your Favorite beer?
Fresh, cold, and in my hand.
Which beer do you enjoy brewing the most? Why?
The experimentals/festival brews, which allow us to flex our brewing muscles a bit and trial new, often exotic ingredients and other materials.
Do you still brew at home? What do you like to brew if you do?
Except for coffee and trouble, there's no brewing at my house.
Personal notes/outside interests:
I don't do it as often as I should or once did, but in general I enjoy outdoorsy types of activities. Also simply lounging w/ friends and family.
Well again, thank you so much for taking the time and providing us with your brewing knowledge and wisdom. A round of applause for Rob and Joe of Widmer Brothers Brewing Company. Cheers!