All About Beer Magazine - Volume 29, Issue 2
May 1, 2008 By

Who brewed these 25 beers over the last 10 years: Hallucinator, Snow Plow Milk Stout, English Brown, Belgian Dubbel, Belgian Wit, La Vie, Bermuda Schwartz, Pre-Prohibition Lager, Steel Bridge Porter, HB25, Hop Nation, Fearless Scotch Ale, Sled Crasher, Moore Fearless Maibock, Saul’s Stout, Saison Christophe, Alpenhorn Vienna Lager, Hopnosis, Zephyr, Lagerhead Pilsner, Big C Stout, Ember Ale, Continuum Brown, Rawkin Bock and Cascadian Dark Ale?

Give up? These are all “Collaborator” commercial beers, designed by Oregon Brew Crew homebrew club members here in Portland, OR. All were part of a 10-year program by Widmer Brewing Co. The Collaborator Project was started in the spring of 1997 by Widmer brothers Kurt and Rob, both Oregon Brew Crew members long before they formed their very successful craft brewing company in 1984. Now theirs is the 18th largest U.S. brewery, and one of America’s top five craft breweries.

The Oregon Brew Crew (the largest homebrew club in the Northwest) was formed in 1979, shortly before homebrewing was legalized that year under President Jimmy Carter, against strong Republican opposition.

In 1979, there were only 87 brewing establishments in all of our country and industry predictions were that by 1990, only 40 breweries would remain operating in the United States. The craft brewing industry was in its infancy. Only six tiny brewing enterprises called themselves “micro” brewers. The Federal beer tax had been reduced for those producing less than 10,000 barrels (310,000 gallons) annually.

Widmer was the 28th of these fledgling microbreweries to be established across the country (only 12 of that group are still in business today). Seventeen of those first 28 were founded by homebrewers! Homebrewers have been, and remain, a strong force in American brewing. We need only look to what the “macro” brewers were about to see how homebrewers saved them from their folly, and rescued the traditional European brewing countries from following in the footsteps of America’s brewing giants. We put taste back into beer and they’ve never even had the courtesy to thank us.

A Touch of History

At that time—the 1980s and 90s—the Bud-Coors-Millers group was busy dumbing down their products by brewing beers with ever lower taste-color profiles. The innovative beer of that era was so-called “light” beer: colorless and nearly tasteless, marketed to weight watchers to make them feel good about their drinking and help them lose weight, it never even came close to that noble aspiration. What it did do was remove taste, as well as calories, from the beer. One could drink several bottles of this stuff, and never take note of its impact on sobriety.

For the true drinking classes of that period, there was malt liquor with over five percent in alcohol content. That stuff was basically light beer on steroids. There was never enough taste to warn the drinker about the effect of this relatively strong alcohol content. One could get pretty drunk in a relatively short time, and never notice until it was too late and the drinker was face-down in the gutter; but he could take comfort in the fact that he hadn’t had to actually taste the stuff. (Yes, it was usually a “he,” since women were generally more careful of their intake, even of tasteless alcohol beverages. Their mothers had warned them, but of course, men seldom actually listened to their mothers’ warnings.)

Homebrew to the Rescue!

To recruit participants for the Collaborator program, the Oregon Brew Crew held regular competitions to select good beers of interesting styles for Widmer to brew commercially on a small scale. A style would be selected and Widmer would furnish ingredients to those interested in brewing that style. In return, each was to deliver three bottles to be judged.

The winning beers were to be brewed in the company’s 10-barrel pilot brewery at the nearby Rose Garden Arena, here in Portland. Widmer’s pilot brewer, Ike Manchester, would then work with the brewers to formulate their beer as a commercial brew for a small production run of 10 barrels (310 gallons), which in turn would be marketed at selected local venues. Winning brewers each received a Widmer Brewer’s jacket, much like a high school letterman’s jacket. It was a satisfying venture for all concerned.

Widmer and brew-crew-member designers Jeff Brinlee, Jeff Langley and Ken Bietschek were shocked when their first product, Snow Plow Milk Stout (1998), went on to win gold medals at not one, but two, Great American Beer Festivals: 2002 and 2004. Widmer has since taken this beer into its regular seasonal production schedule as a winter beer. This award-winning brew featured dark chocolate malt and coffee along with lactose (milk sugar), plus the other malts usually found in this beer style.

Oregon Brew Crew member Noel Blake has been a leader in the Collaborator project right from the beginning. He has participated in no less than four of these brews.

Not since the days of Hammurabi has homebrewing been so highly regarded. It hasn’t always been that way, as many of us remember. The real reason homebrewers are so successful today is that there is so much information out there, along with a wide range of high quality commercial brewing ingredients on the market. If folks had had access to this much information in 1919, Prohibition would have been totally impossible. Pity that! The Prohibition era is where homebrew earned its old, bad, reputation: in the absence of commercial alcohol production, homebrew and home distillation became the major source of booze for the entire population.

Americans of that era only took to homebrewing because alcohol possession was illegal. Quality was not a requirement, nor an expectation. Brew quick, and drink it as fast as possible, to avoid getting caught in possession.

Today’s homebrewer is not of that ilk. The modern homebrewer brews his (usually he’s a he) beer to the highest standards of even the industrials. Quality is the key word here.

That’s not the end of it either. Craft brewers are producing many strange beers these days; and often a homebrewer will have done it first, before entering it in a competition. Homebrewers are still the cutting edge in much of today’s brewing accomplishments.

Ode to Michael Jackson

It was the legendary Michael Jackson (homebrewers were his favorite fans) in a speech at one homebrew conference, who called into question the sanity of non-homebrewers when he told us, “We are the sane people! The people out there are crazy.”

“We,” of course, are the homebrewers, and the rest of you are the great un-washed “them”—the crazies. I’m not sure I like that distinction. I have always been a bit leery of sanity. It’s not something I partake of, sans duress. I’ve often thought crazy people are the ones having fun—like me. They’re the ones who are fun to have around, like my friend Michael Jackson was. It was philosopher Alan Watts who defined sanity as a convention, something we agree upon. If the crazies are the fun people, then obviously sanity is a joke: and if that’s so, then the world is actually crazy and we are the only sane ones!