For American Craft Beer Fest, Rob Widmer Lets the Beer Speak for Itself

Rob Widmer, over lunch at Jacob Wirth on Friday, discusses how he and his brother Kurt built Widmer Brothers Brewing starting out as home brewers. Widmer is in Boston this weekend to promote a new line of IPAs at the American Craft Beer Fest.

Back when it all started in 1984, Rob Widmer and his brother, Kurt, promoted their beer the only way they knew how — by dropping into bars and getting bartenders to sample their home brew.

“We call it wet sampling,” he explained. “It simply is pouring glasses of beer for people who might buy our beer. I am not a very good sales person. I let the beer do that.”

In 1980s, there were some bartenders questioning whether beer made by a couple of guys was even safe.

“No one heard of micro brewing,” he recalled with a laugh. “Some thought it was illegal. Some thought ‘This beer is going to kill my customers.’”

To win them over, Rob and Kurt kept telling their story — and coming around with the samples.

Now 27 years later, with national distribution and widespread popularity, it’s a sales method that really hasn’t changed. Beer geeks and fans will be able to partake of their own wet sampling of the Widmer brothers’ latest wares this weekend during the American Craft Beer Fest starting today at the Seaport World Trade Center.

And yes, Rob Widmer will be there pouring, telling people about his beer.

Widmer, plainspoken and affable, sat down for an hour-long interview with Fredo and I answering questions and putting up with our nonsense during lunch at Jacob Wirth on Friday. The three of us sipped on a round of Pitch Black IPA. Fredo gave me the nod during our sit down, indicating it’s likely to remain on his short list of what to order for a while.

The selection of beers Rob Widmer will be promoting in Boston this weekend is a new line of IPAs called the Rotator series. One of the beers, called Rotator IPA X-114, sounds like an early George Lucas movie, but takes its name from the number ascribed to the hops grown for the beer.

Widmer, 54, is clearly a Portland-centric kind of guy. He has stories about how beer drinkers of the city supported his and his brother’s early efforts in the 1980s to build their brewing business, which sold exclusively kegs for several years before offering it in bottles.

He can remember when he first got a glimpse of the explosion of interest in craft beer, once Widmer became a mainstay in Oregon, before the age of beer reviewers and people considering their beer menu as seriously as a wine list.

“First bartenders were using brewers jargon. Now beer drinkers are using brewers jargon and now you have people talking about the variety of hops that are being used,” Widmer said. Asked if a more knowledgeable — albeit picky — consumer bases poses a challenge for him, he said, “It’s not really a challenge. It’s kind of exciting that people are noticing…”

So, what’s Rob Widmer drinking these days? “Some of the most interesting beer is home brewing,” he said.

He doesn’t maintain a home brew operation of his own anymore, but stays close to his business’s roots. He and Kurt have been members of the Oregon Brew Crew. Widmer takes part in a club competition where the winner gets selected for a 10-barrel pilot program, which is sold around Portland, a city where about half of the beer sold on tap is of the craft variety.

Coming to the city of Boston — a place that has its own storied past as the home of Sam Adams and Harpoon and a batch of smaller, emerging breweries — makes for a perfect locale to promote a new line of beers not seen before in New England.

If you don’t recognize Rob Widmer walking down the street, or even pouring you a sample this weekend, there’s a reason behind that. He makes a point to keep his face off of television, dodging the limelight taken in by contemporaries such as Jim Koch, the founder of Sam Adams.

“Nobody knows who I am,” he said. “There are definitely guys who like to be out there, but I let my beer do the talking. My beer is a lot more interesting than I am.”

The festival runs from Friday from 6 to 9:30 p.m. and Saturday during two sessions; 1 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. (which is sold out) to 6 to 9:30 p.m.

Other Widmer beers being offered at the beer fest include: Widmer Hefeweizen, Drifter Pale Ale, Citra Blonde, Rotator IPA X-114, Pitch Black IPA, Nelson Imperial IPA, Galaxy Hopped Barley Wine and Nelson O’Reilly IPA.

The Beer Drinker and Fredo, a budding physicist working on his triple threat status, report on all things beer around Boston for the Beer Drinking Report.