Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Widmer Gasthaus

We have an embarrassment of riches in Portland. There's so much excellent beer here, that we get to look down our nose a little bit at any brewery that gets too big, like Widmer, the 11th largest brewery in the U.S. by sales last year. Widmer Hefeweizen is ubiquitous, available in every convenience store, pizza joint and tavern in town. Well, not the Green Dragon -- case in point! -- though Widmer will be featured at this Tuesday's Meet the Brewer.

There are many reasons to rise above our beer snobbishness and open our hearts to Widmer -- not least of which is the fact that the beer they sell in such vast quantities is actually good beer. Furthermore, the Widmer brothers were there at the beginning of the craft brew revolution in Oregon, long before hangers-on such as myself, and they still support the grassroots by offering homebrewers access to their brewing facility through the Collaborator project. Finally, there's the Gasthaus: the restaurant attached to the brewery, where Widmer serves a number of interesting beers that are unavailable anywhere else. Good food, too.

I dropped into the Gasthaus a couple days ago as part of my Alt quest. Turns out that a Dusseldorf Alt was one of the first beers the Widmers brewed, and it is apparently always on tap at the Gasthaus, but nowhere else. The Widmer Alt is a well-done beer, and matches the style guidelines very well: a dark, dry beer, with a bitter edge but almost a nutty flavor to the malt underneath. Compared to other local Alts I've had recently, it's more polished and flavorful than the Collaborator Alt I had at Belmont Station; it's less fruity and more bitter than Corey's Evolution Amber; and it's not a wacky hop-bomb like the Lucky Lab's Crazy Ludwig's Alt. It's not a style I love enough to have every day, but I'll certainly revisit it on future trips to the Gasthaus. I still need to track down a real Dusseldorf Alt to compare these all to.

Of course the restaurant has taps that represent Widmer's bottled-beer lines, but in addition to the Alt they had eight more taps that you can only get there. The Belgian Golden didn't impress me much at the Cheers to Belgian Beers festival, and I wasn't in the mood for a lager or barleywine, but I was happy to see that they had the NW Red on tap. This was the "W '06" special yearly bottling from a couple years ago, a tasty brew indeed. The W '08 Crimson Wheat, while drinkable, is nowhere near as interesting as the previous W's.

Speaking of W's, the first one -- the W '05 IPA -- was so good, that it became a regular offering: Broken Halo. This is what I'm talking about when I say that Widmer's mass quantities of consumables are still really good. Broken Halo's renown has spread across the country, to the point where it was a favorite of my buddy Lee before he even visited Portland. Just last month, another less-beer-obsessed friend in Austin told me -- without being able to remember the brewery name -- that it's the only beer he buys these days. And here's an excellent stunt from the blogosphere: a blind-tasting "tournament" of 32 IPAs, seeded by their ratebeer ranking. Broken Halo won, even though it was ranked 24th by the master beer-raters.

Other delights that the Gasthaus has offered in the past are the KGB Imperial Stout, aged in bourbon barrels; and Noggin Grog, Widmer's entry in last year's Oregon Brewer's Festival. A lot of beer snobs dissed Noggin Grog -- a so-called Imperial Wit -- but I loved it. Sure there's no such thing as an Imperial Wit, but it was a big, tasty beer.

The Gasthaus location, with a nice view of the Fremont Bridge, is right on the edge of a gritty industrial area, though its near neighbors are the trendy 820/Mint and the retro-chic McMenamins' White Eagle. Despite the fact that it's walled in by massive freeway overpasses, a trip to the Gasthaus makes a nice little bike excursion -- the Interstate bike lane connects with the Eastbank Esplanade right by the Steel bridge. You probably wouldn't bicycle the kids there, though -- the car traffic moves fast on Interstate, and the other route along Russell Street is kid-friendly enough on the way down, but will have them cursing you on the way back up the hill, if you're not already cursing yourself.


  1. I wonder if the hop shortage will affect either the price or taste of Widmer's IPA.

  2. Lee, prices of every beer -- OK everything -- are going up.

    Even small breweries are covered by hop contracts; I doubt an operation like Widmer will have to tinker with recipes.