He is articulate, thoughtful, and passionately dedicated to the craft and art of brewing. As the brewmaster for The Brooklyn Brewery in New York, he brews a flavorful, yet traditional line of beers. At festivals and events, he is easy to pick out: look for the well-groomed gentleman in the nicely appointed suit, sometimes sporting an unconventional Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout t-shirt underneath his sport coat.
As a celebrity in the beer world, Oliver's cachet is growing quickly. He recently penned the well-received Brewmaster's Table, a book dedicated to his love of beer and food, and he is often seen on television and heard in radio interviews talking about the values and benefits of craft brewed beer.
It is perhaps Oliver's dedication to improving the reputation of beer among serious foodies that will be his most lasting contribution to the industry. Looking far beyond the brewing of outrageously big beers, or screaming into the wind about big brewers, Oliver focuses his efforts on improving beer's lot with those who should know better - culinary and wine devotees. I recently spent some time discussing food, contract brewing and the state of the craft brewing industry with Garrett Oliver.
ANDY CROUCH How did you get involved in brewing?
GARRETT OLIVER When I left college, my degree was in broadcasting and film. I moved to England and was stage-managing rock bands. But at the same time I was there, I really started to fall in love with traditional British beer. When I was in school, I drank beer like everyone else, but I didn't particularly like it. It was just sort of there. It was standard, mass-market beer, and there wasn't a lot of flavor to it. And like most college students, you drank it anyway.
After my year in London, and then traveling around Europe for a couple of months, I got back home and as far as I was concerned, there really wasn't anything here interesting to drink. That was 1984 - so that's pre-Samuel Adams even. Especially, on the East Coast, there was no burgeoning micro-brewing movement yet, nor much to be found in the way of imports. So I started brewing at home, not because I was interested in brewing, but just so that I would have some good beer to drink. Then it became more and more of a big hobby for me until I ended up working for Manhattan Brewing Company.
AC How did you become involved with the Brooklyn Brewery?
GO I've know the guys at Brooklyn Brewery since before there was a Brooklyn Brewery. We were all homebrewers together back in the mid-eighties. So I knew Steve Hindy - Brooklyn's CEO- and Tom Potter (Brooklyn's President) back in those days. They had always come to me saying, "You should come work for us." But there wasn't really a good opportunity until 1994 when they said they wanted to build a new brewery in Brooklyn and they wanted me to work with them. At that point, I had had my fill of Manhattan Brewing Company, so I made the jump over here in 1994.
AC When you made the jump, what involvement did you have in formulating the recipes for Brooklyn's line of beers?
GO The line of beers that existed when I got there was just Brooklyn Lager and Brooklyn Brown Ale. At that point, even though they were well-regarded beers, it was felt that they had drifted somewhat and needed to be reformulated. Aside from that, they wanted to bring out new beers. The first new beer I formulated for them was Black Chocolate Stout, which is still the big winter seasonal for us.
AC How did you decide to release an imperial stout next?
GO That was basically Steve's decision. He said to me that he wanted to produce a strong stout and wanted it to be a beer that once people had it, they would never forget it. We had the wholesaling operation here - we are also a distributor - and we looked at all the stouts that we sold from other companies in the course of a year. We then noted that we were planning to brew 500 barrels of imperial stout, which was more stout than we sold of any of the other brands we carried. We couldn't really figure out any reason to believe we could sell it, and this was in 1994. But we said, "Let's just go ahead and do it anyways," and it was gone in about ten days. We actually had to go out to the market and buy some back so we would have some samples for people. It just sold so fast that no one said, "Let's make sure we hold onto a pallet."
AC As a contract brewer using facilities at F.X. Matt Brewing in Utica, New York, how do you balance the contract operation with your own in-house production?
GO It gets kind of confusing, because there are some things that are produced only here, and there are some that are produced in both places - here for draft and at Matt's for bottles. We produce about 1400 kegs a month from here, and we are draft only here. We produce both of our wheat beers here - Blanche de Brooklyn and Brooklyner Weisse, East India Pale Ale, Brooklyn Pale Ale, Brooklyn Brown Ale, all of our smaller specialties such as the Brewmaster's Reserve line, our saison, tripel, abbey ale and irish stout, all the cask beers, and the Brooklyn Light Ale. On a day-to-day basis, we are producing five beers here.
AC How much control or influence do you have over the brewing of your beers at the contract facility?
GO Quite a bit. I go up there frequently. I get samples frequently. I am constantly on the phone with them and get reports from them everyday on the progress of various parts of production. Any changes I need made to the recipes or the procedures, or even physical changes to the plant - I have a very good opportunity to do what needs to be done.
AC What is the breakdown of your production between the contract facility and your brewery in Brooklyn?
GO It's about 25 percent down here. If we were to brew our flagship brand, Brooklyn Lager, and just produce that at our brewery, it would probably be five times the size of this brewery if only for the long aging time. We would have to build a much more extensive facility. I think we have a very good partnership with the Matt Brewery. Every year our production has increased up there, as it has down here. I think we've made great strides and improvements across the board over the years. Frankly, for me as a brewer, I love having two facilities to work in. It keeps things very interesting, believe me.
AC Many brewers are beginning to herald the last year or so as a new era for craft brewers. After some tough years and downturns, many breweries are stepping up production and trying new things. Would you agree things seem to be on the upswing?
GO I would. I also think the shake-out, if you like, was over-hyped. People said, "This craft beer thing is a fad and now that there aren't a hundred breweries opening every week that it's over." People seem to forget that we went, in a very short space of time, from having 40 breweries in the entire country in 1974, to twenty years later having more than 2,000 breweries. Why it should be expected that all of these businesses should survive is kind of beyond me. There isn't any business where you can have such meteoric growth and not have any number of failures along the way. Some people won't know how to make a good product, and some people won't know parts of the business. It's just like any other business. If you do it well, hopefully your hard work and the quality of your product will pay off. Even then, not always. I mean, how many great restaurants close everyday?
When people saw something going up that fast, they almost took a little bit of glee in watching it come to some extent back down to Earth. Behind that is the truth that the craft brewing segment is stronger now than it has ever been. The culture has changed in a considerable fashion. It's not really possible in a major city to open up a bar and just put on three or four draft lines that pretty much all taste the same. If you want to have a successful bar, at least in New York City, or Boston, or Philadelphia, you have to put some craft brewed beer on. You just have to. Ten years ago, you really didn't have to. You could have a couple of premium brands and a Heineken line and people would accept that. Now they won't.
AC How can craft brewers do to continue to improve upon their successes and take their products to the next level in terms of consumer perception?
GO I think that there are a number of things. Paying the utmost attention to the quality of their own beers, which is one reason that people who are doing well, have done so well, whether it be ourselves, or New Belgium, Sierra Nevada, or Samuel Adams. The second thing, as far as I'm concerned, and this is why I wrote my book, The Brewmaster's Table, is to really tie our beer into people's food life. I think that there are a lot of beers which really do wonderful things with dinner that people are not entirely familiar with. So the beers are available, and people are eating more and more interesting food, but a lot of people haven't thought of how you can pair the beer and the food to create wonderful combinations and enliven your culinary life on a day-to-day basis.
AC Tell me a little about the way beer, in the past and now in the present, fits into the culinary scene.
GO There wasn't really much to fit into the culinary scene from right after prohibition until the dawn of the craft beer movement in the United States. You had something where the goal of the average mass-market brewer is to deliver as little flavor as possible. This is true across the board in American food. We've had frozen vegetables, and Wonder Bread and Kraft American Cheese. Everything is blandified to a certain extent. Now what you have is in areas like Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where only a few years ago you would have been scared to go down the street at night, you have a serious cheese shop like five blocks from the brewery. I mean, raw milk cheeses, small creameries in Ireland, France, Germany, and Switzerland, and it's going like gangbusters.
Five or ten years ago, any cup of coffee basically cost 50 cents. Now people are spending four dollars for a cup of latte at Starbucks. People are willing to spend a little more money for affordable luxuries. To me, that's really what craft beer is - and affordable luxury. You can have some of the best beer in the world tonight for three dollars. It's really amazing that this is true. Now that these beers, whether they are American beers or craft beers from other countries, are so widely available, I feel like food is a new frontier. In Belgium, people have always enjoyed the great beers with great food. They never went through the same level of commodification that beer went through in this country, where beer for a long time was basically treated like milk - it's all the same. Now that we've re-differentiated our beer culture, which was thoroughly differentiated before prohibition - I mean every style known to mankind was being brewed in the United States. If you look back at old brewing books right up to the end of the nineteenth century, it's incredible how many weiss beer breweries there were in the country.
It's strange to me that people would look at craft brewed beer as a fad, because in fact, it's quite the opposite way around. Traditionally, over a period of time, it is the mass-market beer that is the blip on the beer culture. It is the new thing, and I think it will in the future be as dominant as it is now. It's not going to last the same way it hasn't lasted for coffee or cheese or bread or anything else. It's a really different culture now.
AC Why did you decide to write The Brewmaster's Table?
GO Because I think I've seen, too many times, someone walk into some wonderfully stocked deli, not some special place but an ordinary corner deli that might carry one hundred to two hundred beers, and saw the look on their face. And then they would say to their friend, "I'd really like to try some of this stuff but I don't know what anyone of it tastes like or where it comes from, and I don't really know what to do with it, so I'll just have the Heineken. Then they would reach for what is familiar because there wasn't enough information out there for them to know what to do with this bounty that was put in front of them. I thought that was a real shame.
This stuff is so wonderful, and to have people bypassing it even though they have an interest just because there is not enough information available, I wanted to put that information out there for them. I think it's a matter of just opening the door for people. Some people might still decide that a mass-market beer is what they want, but many people who say they don't like beer will only say that they've had mass-market beer. To me, that's sort of like saying, only having had Kraft American slices, "I've tried cheese but I really don't like it." It's not that the mass-market beers aren't good. When it comes to quality, nobody pursues quality with more zeal than the mass-market brewers. My quarrel with it is that it is flavorless and meant to be flavorless. In a day and age where people are eating spicier and more interesting foods, and where salsa is now the top condiment in this country rather than ketchup, that is the wrong direction to be going in.
People have a much more interesting culinary life than they used to. An American might have Chinese food one night, Indian food the next night, then make some shish kebabs at home or have some Thai food. This is not a meat and potatoes country the way it used to be. Even when it comes to that, the mass-market beers don't have anything to offer the food. I'm very much into cooking, very much into great food and eating, and I know that there are beers out there that will do at least as well as wine, and in many cases, quite a bit better.
AC One of the big trends recently, or fads if you listen to the popular press, is that of so-called "extreme beer". What are your thoughts on brewers going bigger and hoppier with their beers?
GO This is very much my personal opinion, I mean we produce some big beers, Black Chocolate Stout and Monster (a barleywine). And we produce a wide-range of beers. I certainly wouldn't want to tell any brewer, "Don't go out and have fun doing what you do." I think it is fun. The problem I have with the concept of extreme beers is I don't like the idea of what is essentially a craft or an art form turning into some sort of a stunt show. As far as I'm concerned, there are some great beers that are referred to as extreme beers that I think are really tasty. However, if you're basically getting into a competition with someone to see how many hops you can put in the kettle, well, I don't really care. My basic feeling is, would I like to drink that? Would I enjoy it, would a customer enjoy it? We're not engaged here in an exercise where we're only trying to make ourselves happy and trying to have fun. We have customers and we want them to be happy every time they open a bottle or have a pint of our beer. That takes us across the full range of what beer has to offer.
When you start to push the envelope in some direction just to push it, to me, that becomes counter-productive. I think it takes away from the general message that beer can be amazingly subtle, it can be very complex, it can be fascinating. Extreme beers strike me like a beer version of the television show 'Jackass'. Just because you could do it, doesn't mean that there is some reason that you should do it.
But now, you know the old phrase, "If it's too loud, you're too old." Maybe that's the case for me, but I do love hops and I do love very strong beers. But the idea of trying to produce the stronger beer in the world or the most bitter beer in the world strikes me as counter-productive. It's not something you would ever see in the wine world or in the serious food world. You will never see a serious chef saying, "I can put more chilis into my dish than anyone ever could." Well, sure, go ahead. I'm not coming to your restaurant. But go ahead if that's really what you want to do.