Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked


May 26, 2009

Brew-mastering in Brooklyn

Garrett Oliver, Brooklyn Brewery brewmaster, celebrates the end of the beer-industrial complex.

Michael Gluckstadt

Around the world, Brooklyn has a varied reputation. Its iconic bridge is an instantly recognizable symbol of a thriving urban hub, while the films of Spike Lee and music of Jay-Z showcase the borough's dark side. Immigrants from around the world see it as a welcoming and diverse home. And Garrett Oliver and Brooklyn Brewery have given Brooklyn a worldwide reputation for something else—high-quality beer.

Oliver has been the brewmaster of Brooklyn Brewery since 1994, and he has since brought Brooklyn-made malted goodness to the country and the world. As his product's popularity expands every year, he sees it as a rediscovery of the greatness of true beer. The "food facsimiles" are on their way out, and being replaced with quality products. "It's actually a return to normality," he tells Gelf. "People don't realize how weird it was to have one kind of cheese, one kind of beer, one kind of bread. We're getting over it now."

Garrett Oliver. Courtesy of the Brooklyn Brewery
"Today, if you opened a bar with three taps, it wouldn't stay open very long."

Garrett Oliver. Courtesy of the Brooklyn Brewery

In the interview below, which was conducted over the phone and has been edited for clarity, Oliver, age 46, discusses his cherished Brewmaster's Reserve beers, plans for the brewery's expansion, and what it's like to be an ambassador for beer.

Gelf Magazine: Brewmaster is probably the coolest title I can think of. How long have you been one?

Garrett Oliver: As far as I'm concerned, the list of title names to pull out at a party goes: quarterback, astronaut, brewmaster. The brewmaster is essentially the chef of the brewery. So I'm the guy in charge of making the beer from start to finish. I've been a brewer since '89. I became a brewmaster at another brewery in '92, and have been at Brooklyn Brewery since '94.

Gelf Magazine: Is there any formal training required?

Garrett Oliver: It's like becoming a chef. You can do formal training; there are brewing schools in both the United States and Europe. Or you can do it the old-fashioned away, with an apprenticeship. Both are good ways to get into the business. My feeling is that you can always pick up the book stuff later, but the stuff you learn in the brew house is particularly valuable.

Gelf Magazine: So what did you do?

Garrett Oliver: In 1989, I apprenticed to a guy who had been the brewmaster for Samuel Smith in England at the Manhattan brewing company in SoHo.

Gelf Magazine: In your books and media appearances, you're often presented as something of an ambassador for beer. What kind of message would you like to get across at these appearances?

Garrett Oliver: The message I'm trying to get across is the idea that beer is food, which is something we've lost track of for a long time. We've gotten into an era of industrial food and industrial beer. As our food system becomes more real again, and people are more concerned with quality than quantity, craft brewing will become a part of that movement. We're very involved with chefs, with bakers, with coffee roasters, with farmers. We consider ourselves very much a part of the food community, and we want people to understand that the nice beers that are available to them now can really make their culinary life a lot better.

Gelf Magazine: Why do you think Americans drink so much shitty beer?

Garrett Oliver: I think they don't know any better. Many of them have never actually had real beer, the way many people have never had real cheese. If you grew up with Kraft slices, when you first taste real cheese, you might be really surprised. Same thing with Wonder Bread. Most people think that "beer" is beer, but it isn't. It's what I'd call a food facsimile—an industrial product made to vaguely resemble the original.

Gelf Magazine: Why is it so hard for people to get past the knockoff imitations?

Garrett Oliver: I don't think it is so hard. The more people are exposed to good beer, the more they come to like it. It's becoming a new affordable luxury. It might cost a dollar for a bottle of Budweiser and $1.50 for a Brooklyn Lager, and it's a completely different experience. In the same way that people are willing to pay more for better coffee and better chocolate, we're starting to see that people are willing to pay a little bit more for better beer as well. We're up about 20 percent this year to date, which isn't bad for a 20-year-old company. There is a movement for quality food and beverage in this country, and we're a part of it.

Gelf Magazine: Do you think we're on the verge of a beer awakening?

Garrett Oliver: We're not just on the verge; it's already happening. Twenty years ago it was common for a bar to have three taps that mostly tasted the same. Today, if you opened a bar like that, it wouldn't stay open very long. The industrial age of beer is coming to an end. That kind of beer, like that kind of cheese, will always be around, but it's been in decline for more than 10 years. Every year they go down, and we go up. It's actually a return to normality. People don't realize how weird it was to have one kind of cheese, one kind of beer, one kind of bread. We're getting over it now.

Gelf Magazine: Backing up a second, you mentioned $1.50 for a Brooklyn Lager. What bar can I find that in? Because it's definitely not in Manhattan.

Garrett Oliver: I meant at the supermarket. If I found a bar that served Brooklyn at that price, I'd go get some myself.

Gelf Magazine: How well does Brooklyn travel throughout the country? Does it do well beyond New York and the Northeast?

Garrett Oliver: It does do well, but we have to constantly keep an eye on it. That's why we only sell in 22 states. There's a lot of interest in the rest of the country, but we want to keep an eye on it so we don't overstretch ourselves and send beer where it won't be fresh. Now we do sell beer in 12 foreign countries, but we actually go there. I leave the country five or six times a year to go do events and check on things to make sure everything is in order. That's very much a part of our company culture.

Gelf Magazine: Have you found anything surprising about how Brooklyn has done in certain countries?

Garrett Oliver: We're sending a container of Local One, which is a beer made with a champagne method, over to Finland. We don't know why the Finns particularly love that beer, but we're doing great in Scandinavia. I just got back from Italy, where there are now 250 breweries. A few years ago, there were only 20 or 30. They're on the verge of an explosion of beer culture, and we're a part of that. It's a great thing to experience that explosion over and over again in different countries.

Gelf Magazine: It's interesting that Brooklyn has taken off in so many different places, because it has such a distinctly local feel. You have your Brooklyn-themed beer like Pennant Ale, the prominent Williamsburg brewery, even the name of the product itself—how important is the local environment to Brooklyn Brewery?

Garrett Oliver: We think it's very important. We've been looking for a place to expand for the last few years, and we think we're going to be able to just grow where we are. When Brooklyn Brewery started, Brooklyn was not a good name. You know the Spike Lee film Crooklyn? That was the image people had of Brooklyn in the mid-nineties. If you were walking around Williamsburg late at night, you better watch your back. It was a rough neighborhood. There were lots of exciting things happening here at the time, but it was not what it is now. We've evolved together with this neighborhood and that's important to us. The image of Brooklyn in the world has certainly improved a lot, and I think we're a small part of that. Overseas, people know what Brooklyn is and they like the image that Brooklyn has.

Gelf Magazine: In your view, what is the new image of Brooklyn around the world?

Garrett Oliver: Now people think of Brooklyn in terms of great music, interesting food, and all kinds of other positive things. Some people have referred to Williamsburg as the hippest neighborhood in the US. I don't know if that's good or bad, but it's at least interesting. Also, many people around the world have relatives who have moved to Brooklyn. So there are connections to Brooklyn everywhere.

Gelf Magazine: I have a few beer-nerd questions for you. I love double bocks, and once had the excellent Brooklynator at an East Village bar, but now I can't find it anywhere. Where can I find it, and why haven't I seen it anywhere?

Garrett Oliver: The reason you can't find it is because we don't make it anymore. It was a part of a program called Brewmaster's Reserve, where we make a new beer every two months. It's only available on tap and for two months at a time. The last one we did was a Coffee Stout, and just now we're releasing Cuvee De Cardoz—a strong wheat beer infused with 12 spices selected and prepared by the chef of the Indian restaurant Tabla.

Gelf Magazine: Where are these Brewmaster's Reserve beers available?

Garrett Oliver: Pretty widely. You can get them at beer bars like Blind Tiger and Gramercy Tavern. And beyond New York, they're available in most of the states we sell in. Sometimes we'll put some on a plane and send it to festivals and tastings overseas. I was pouring the Coffee Stout and the Cuvee in Copenhagen this past weekend.

"The image of Brooklyn in the world has certainly improved a lot, and I think we're a small part of that."
Gelf Magazine: Another beer-nerd question. When you announced a collaboration with Schneider Brewery in 2007, to me it was like Jay-Z and Kanye or two other all-stars collaborating at the top of their games. What brought that about?

Garrett Oliver: I'd been friends with Hans-Peter Drexler for over 10 years. Brooklyn also used to be a distributor, and we distributed Schneider Weisse, among other things. We invited Hans to come and get out into the market here. When he visited, he really liked the hoppy beers. A few years ago, he came to me and said "We want to do a beer with you," since we had done a few collaborations before. Schneider brews Weisse beer, so they never really get a chance to get their hops juices flowing. The idea for Hopfen-Weisse was to come up with two versions of the same beer, one with German hops, and one with ours. Essentially I made his beer, and he made mine.

Gelf Magazine: Has it been a success?

Garrett Oliver: Well, we don't have the room or the time to make too much of it, but for Schneider it's been a pretty big thing. I had their version of Hopfen-Weisse in Rome and Copenhagen.

Gelf Magazine: Are you near the limit of the number of beers you can produce right now?

Garrett Oliver: There's going to be a lot more when we expand. We're hoping to double the size of the brewery in the next year or so. But right now we also have deals with restaurants and Citi Field to produce beer for them in addition to our beers, so we're really maxed out.

Gelf Magazine: At the risk of asking you to pick a favorite child, which is your preferred beer that Brooklyn produces?

Garrett Oliver: It really is the favorite-child question. It depends when you ask, what the weather's like, what the situation is—it's very variable for me. I'm excited about the Brewmaster's Reserve beers, just as any chef is excited about the specials. We're pretty proud of Local 1 and Local 2 since we have the only full-scale bottle refermentation in the United States—they're bottled flat, which is the old way, compared to more modern methods.

Gelf Magazine: And do you have any favorites from other breweries?

Garrett Oliver: Well, if you look at my book, The Brewmaster's Table, there are over 350 of my favorite beers. There are literally too many to mention.

Gelf Magazine: What's next for Brooklyn Brewery?

Garrett Oliver: There are new things all the time. I'll be in England in August looking for malts by hand, and we'll make a beer out of that. We'll be bringing out our bourbon-barrel aged stout Black Ops, which we only do a thousand cases of. We've got collaborations with farmers and all sorts of people, so there's a lot coming down the pipe.

Gelf Magazine: And what's next for you?

Garrett Oliver: I am working as the editor-in-chief for the Oxford Companion to Beer from Oxford Press. It's a mind-bogglingly huge project.

Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

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Article by Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

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