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In Conversation: Garrett Oliver

Brewmaster of Brooklyn Brewery since 1994, Garrett Oliver is one of the biggest names in the craft beer world and author of three books including the seminal The Brewmaster’s Table.

Brewmaster of Brooklyn Brewery since 1994, Garrett Oliver is one of the biggest names in the craft beer world (and yes, Brooklyn is still craft but more on that later). Aside from his day job of international jaunts and brewery-based operations Garrett has also authored three books on beer, including the seminal The Brewmaster’s Table, and won a James Beard Award for his work in the industry. We’ve also heard he’s quite the cinephile, chef and dancer - making this American brewer one helluva overachiever.

I met up with Garrett on the eve of the Brooklyn Beer Mansionwhich popped-up in Dalston last weekend - a labyrinth of bars, beers and street food which attracted thousands of beer lovers across its two days, all eager to grab a taste of their favourite expressions and try some of Garrett’s famous ghost bottles. While he may have attracted a crowd of British beer fans, Garrett looks nothing like you’d expect. This is a man who apparently can put it away with the best of them and yet has decided to leave the beer gut and untamed facial hair at home. He’s loquacious, friendly and has effortless charm, so much so that when I get back to the office I describe Garrett to the DrinkUp team as the Obama of beer – so much cooler than any British brewer I’ve met.

With the festivities of the Beer Mansion looming, and evidently just one small part of what must be a demanding travel schedule for someone who is still expected to have an active role within the brewery, I’m keen to find out just how much time Garrett spends on his global escapades.

“I’m still there 80-85 per cent of the time,” Garrett says, speaking of the physical brewery he helped build and design over 20 years ago.  “I travel in the spring but try not to in the summer and winter when I need to be there. But travel is important and part of what I do – our interest in beer is born from all of our experiences, including my time here.”

Garrett’s ‘time here’ was a stint as a rock band manager in the 1980s (told you he’s cool) where he fell for Britain’s iconic style of real ale – dark, bitter, complex – served in pubs and taprooms as it had been for generations, cask-conditioned. From that discovery it wasn’t long before this rock n’ roll manager was homebrewing on his stove and taking decisive steps that would lead him first to Manhattan Brewing Company and finally to Brooklyn.

As much as Garrett does most of his brewing roles within Brooklyn’s four walls, his travelling means work sometimes happens on the road, as with the winter seasonal Insulated Dark Lager whose recipe was written in a hotel room in Riga.

“I try not to let it come down to that,” Garrett laughs.

There are of course positives to being continually exposed to new cities and beer scenes though and I was keen to find out where is exciting him the most right now.

“Every place can be exciting but it gets more so when places move past the American IPA obsession and ask what are we really about here?” says Garrett. “In Brazil the average person has about 150 fruits they might come across on a daily basis – we have 20 to 30, so there’s these fruits we know nothing about whose flavours and even juices can inspire and direct brewing. The rest of the world is strange and you can’t think about a beer made with a certain flavour if you haven’t tasted it or seen it before – in that way Brazilian breweries might be American or British beer-style inspired but can make incredible indigenous beers.”

Garrett is speaking with plenty of experience in making unusual brews – in fact he was inspired by the flavours in Brazil’s national cocktail, the Caipirinha, to collaborate with Wäls and make their Saison de Caipira.

"Sierra Nevada is many, many times our size, they’re huge but there’s a reason they’re so successful and that’s because Ken Grossman is a great brewer who invented and paved the road a lot of this smaller breweries are now driving their buggies along and now they turn to him and tell him he’s not craft. That’s just not true.”

This instinct for what flavours will work, personified in his cocktail-inspired brews – from his experimental Inspired Old Fashioned (barrel-aged rye ale with botanicals and bitters) to work he did with renowned New York-based bartender Sam Ross and his cocktail The Penicillin – comes from Garrett’s deep respect and love of food.

“I always had an interest in food, my dad was a good cook and I learnt from him. One thing I saw when I was starting out was that people had a lot of respect for food but at the time beer got no respect – I thought if people saw how well they worked together they would respect beer as well. It got to the point where I had to say something and so I wrote The Brewmaster’s Table: Discovering the Pleasures of Real Beer with Real Food in 2003. After 14 years it’s still in print and people use it to study which is pretty amazing for me to have created something which is still useful and relevant,” says Garrett. And no that’s not a humble brag – that book is still the bible for food and beer pairings.

“Maybe beer and food is a small thing but it depends if you think dinner matters,” says Garrett. I for one think dinner matters a lot. So that’s another copy sold.

Garrett tends to focus on his seasonal expressions when he’s doing beer pairings and not the flagship lager itself but recently he had his perspective on this flipped on it’s head when, while visiting Barcelona, a restaurant paired Brooklyn lager to truffled pasta. “Even though I’ve been brewing that beer for years I had no idea it would work. They made me see it in a way I hadn’t before which I thought was a real trick,” he says.

But what of the future of food pairings? It’s been 15 years since The Brewmaster’s Table taught us all a lesson. Well, according to Garrett we still have plenty to learn.

“In the UK it’s quite disappointing to see you have this great food movement inspired by local produce and the idea that the ingredients relate to where they’re from and then the wine is from France – you’ve just given this huge manifesto then brought the drinks from another country. You have beers here that would taste great,” he says, adding “I love wine, but beer can do more.”

Again Garrett is speaking from experience. Joining forces with Thornbridge Brewery from Derbyshire, Garrett and his team journeyed to Oliver’s Cider & Perry in Herefordshire to get their hands on some of those incredible lees, the natural wild yeasts that ferment apples into great traditional ciders. The beer they came up with Garrett described to me as probably the best beer he had ever made, tasting of land and terroir. Brewing a robust Belgian-inspired golden ale, the lees were added and the beer was aged in ex-bourbon barrels for more than a year, before being bottle-conditioned. It’s strong, dry, tart, firm, fine and funky. If you can get your mitts on some, do.

"I would rather pour it for free. I don’t like lines and I’m not going to make anyone stand out in the rain and wait for me.”

In the 30 plus intervening years since Garrett was inspired by British real ale the tables have certainly flipped and now it’s the American craft scene that is without doubt lauded and respected as the best in the world. They still might produce plenty of weak industrial lager but the world knows that’s not the entire story.

“When I was first brewing I would introduce myself as a brewer from America and everyone would laugh. I’ve watched it go from that to a place in the world for creativity and passion – it’s taken years but I’m amazed it happened,” says Garrett.

So what of these naysayers who point the finger at successful craft brewers and say you’re no longer craft?

“Among craft brewers, we all know what craft is – it’s the product of individualistic expression. One person is the leader of where the beer is going, with complete creative control. You can tell non-craft brewing because the ideas come from a marketing team that say we’ve done the research and people want to drink this, so go make that. I’ve heard people say certain breweries aren’t craft and they have no idea what they’re talking about. Sierra Nevada is many, many times our size, they’re huge but there’s a reason they’re so successful and that’s because Ken Grossman is a great brewer who invented and paved the road a lot of these smaller breweries are now driving their buggies along and now they turn to him and tell him he’s not craft. That’s just not true.”

I’ve got one last button-pushing question up my sleeve for Garrett, and this time it’s on rare releases and the breweries who say you can only get one if you journey across the country to the brewery and line up on a rainy Tuesday from 2pm on a specific day in February. Basically why does rare equal great?

“I think it’s bizarre and unfriendly,” he says straight away. “Which is one reason why if we do ghost bottles and only make 50 cases I’m never going to get people to line up for hours and only allow them to buy one bottle. We do something like the Beer Mansion where you can come and drink it, and I’ll tell you about it. I would rather pour it for free. I don’t like lines and I’m not going to make anyone stand out in the rain and wait for me.”

Hero.

But what are these ghost bottles?

With so much exposure to different styles, flavours and techniques Garrett naturally has ideas spilling out of his head and into the bottle, but of course not all of those make it to market. In fact, he estimates it’s a tiny percentage of the experimental beers he goes on to brew that are eventually made commercially. In that way his ghost bottles have become a way to blow off that creative steam and make beers that people might not drink on a marketable basis.

“Like an artist might have 100 songs but there’s only 12 on an album, that’s what my ghost bottles are – the extra 88 songs.”

Some of them do make it to a marketable bottle but many more are experiments that get discarded along the roadside, ideas that seemed incredible but haven’t worked, beers that are delicious but are essentially undrinkable and stuff that is good but just not commercial.

Later that evening I attend one of Garrett’s tastings and get to slug back some of these legendary ghost bottles as well as some of his seasonal or experimental brews that are currently being bottled. There’s not a drop I wouldn’t pay cold hard cash for, because they’re bursting with flavour and that’s one guaranteed way into any booze-lovers heart. Garrett gets what craft is because it’s what he does full-time. He crafts beer and he’s really very good at it. And writing, and cooking and apparently dancing too – but we’ve yet to see that confirmed.