Craft beer drinkers tend to be a sentimental bunch, so when a historic brewpub closes, the community takes notice. That's what happened recently when Widmer Brothers Brewing announced a sudden last-call at its North Portland pub after 22 years of pouring beers for thirsty patrons.
Widmer is one of Portland’s oldest craft breweries, founded in 1984 by brothers Kurt and Robert Widmer. The brewery remains in robust operation — since 2008, it’s been a part of the Craft Brew Alliance, a conglomerate of five beer and cider brands with $200 million in sales and distribution handled by beer giant Anheuser-Busch. By some measures, the Widmer Brothers’ Hefe remains Oregon’s No. 1 craft beer. Which has left Portland’s craft brewing public asking the question: why now, Widmer?
"I actually am mystified myself," says Jeff Alworth. He should know: he runs the Beervana blog, has written several books about Portland's craft beer scene and has a new biography of the Widmer Brothers coming out this spring.
He says that maintaining a local public presence is one of the most important tools for a brewery. “There are over 7,000 breweries in the United States,” he says, “so even if you’re a large company, you want to have some local presence because that’s where your credibility is derived.”
With over 115 breweries operating in the Portland area, veteran brands like Widmer are facing a wildly different local market than the one it helped start 35 years ago. Several other iconic breweries have closed in recent years: Lompoc Brewing closed its original location and Alameda brewing folded entirely last year. Alworth acknowledges that if a brewery isn’t keeping up with the trends and refreshing its brand with the latest styles, it’s easy for people to just go next door — because there’s always a new place next door.
Still, he says Widmer hasn’t been stuck in a rut repeating its past hits. In fact, he says Widmer's innovation brewhouse was actually producing cutting-edge beers.
“If you had gone to that taproom you would have found one of the better brewers in the city, Tom Bleigh, releasing really interesting beers, including really hot styles like hazy IPAs, lagers which are coming back, and everything people expect,” says Alworth.
So the question remains: why would Widmer close what, to most observers, appeared to be an innovative, successful pub?
Alworth suspects the answer might lie in Widmer Brothers’ parent company’s relationship with Anheuser-Busch, who owns a 32 percent stake in the company.
When asked about this relationship, Alworth cracked a knowing smile. “There's an interesting back story here,” he said.
In 2016 the Craft Brew Alliance renegotiated a contract with Anheuser-Busch. As part of that, Anheuser-Busch was given the opportunity to buy the company outright by August 2019.
Alworth says the Widmer Brothers haven’t said anything publicly about that relationship, but he adds “every year, the rumor and innuendo surround that sale gets more and more pitched.”
It's too early to know what a change in ownership could mean for Widmer Brothers Brewery. In the meantime, craft brew fans will have to find their favorite Widmer beers at the store, or at another local bar — probably right around the corner.
Use the audio player above to hear the full conversation from OPB’s “Weekend Edition.”