Oregon beer has been trickling into California for quite a while. Older beer drinkers might remember Henry Weinhard's Private Reserve years before anyone knew what “craft” beer was. That trickle has become a steady flow as the 1980s generation of Oregon craft brewers, like Widmer Brothers, Full Sail, Deschutes and Rogue, and more recently next-gen brewers Ninkasi and Upright Brewing, among others, have become commonplace in California beer stores.
Oregon--particularly the “beervana” of Portland--produces a lot of beer. Portland alone, with a population of 584,000, is home to 53 breweries and brewpubs, or a brewery for every 11,000 residents. According to the Oregon Brewers Guild, Oregon ranks second nationally to Vermont in per capita beer consumption, with a brewery for every 31,662 Oregonians (California has nearly twice as many breweries, but a lot more people). Even though 40% of the beer brewed in Oregon is consumed in the state, Oregon is clearly brewing more beer than even its 3.8 million thirsty inhabitants can swallow.
Craft brewing has come a long way since 1984, when Kurt and Rob Widmer opened their brewery in Portland, and the craft beer stakes have gone up considerably. More and more people want more flavorful beer. To keep up, first-generation craft brewers have had to expand their range of beers to appeal to more adventurous drinkers. Think about Sierra Nevada, which in addition to its iconic pale ale produces several of the more exotic brews much in favor among today's connoisseurs, like porter, stout, barleywine, extra and imperial IPA, and dubbel and saison.
For years, Widmer's trademark beer has been its hefeweizen, but as the brewery demonstrated last week at a beer/food-pairing party at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco, Widmer makes a lot more than just hefeweizen. For the event, “Explore Your Craft,” co-sponsored by Draft Magazine, the Portland brewery brought along its Drifter Pale Ale, Nelson Imperial IPA, Rotator IPA: X-114, Pitch Black IPA, Citra Blond Summer Brew, Galaxy Hopped Barleywine, W'11: KGB Imperial Stout and Brrr Seasonal Winter Warmer. San Francisco was the second stop on the “Explore Your Craft” tour, after Boston (in July) and before Orlando and Seattle, in October and November, respectively.
Widmer Brothers is 40% owned by Anheuser Busch/InBev and through the Craft Brewers Alliance has stakes in Oregon brewer Redhook and Kona Brewing of Hawaii, which brews, cans and distributes its beers on the mainland (AnheuserBusch holds a 32.25% stake in CBA). Thanks to the Anheuser Busch/InBev distribution chain, Widmer has the clout to place its beer on shelves nationwide. The question is, will people drink it?
Widmer Brothers seems to be aiming for a middle ground with its beer: sufficiently flavorful to appeal to serious beer drinkers but not too extreme for relative newbies. Kurt Widmer said the Bay Area is an important market for his brewery not only because of our healthy thirst for beer, but also because of our vibrant food scene. Food/beer stations at the event showed off some interesting pairings, several of which were very good, including the imperial stout with pork ribs, ceveche with the black IPA and the Brrr winter warmer with chocolate brownies and chocolate-covered strawberries (pictured above).
Although Widmer Brothers might not appeal to the most rabid beer enthusiasts, it nonetheless makes respectable beer, and not just for newbies. If you happen to see Rotator, KGB or Brrr on the shelves of your local grocery story, give them a try. After all, Oregon can't possibly drink all of that beer.