Q&A with Brooklyn Brewery’s Garrett Oliver

Posted by Paulon November 11, 2008 |
Q&A with Brooklyn Brewery’s Garrett Oliver

1. Did you ever imagine that Brooklyn Brewery would be as large as it is today?

I suppose I never thought too hard about it. When we built the current brewery we only had three small fermentation vessels, but we built a room for about twelve large tanks. We certainly hoped to grow robustly every year, and we’ve done quite well. Last year we grew 26%, which is pretty good for a 20 yr. old brewery. I see a very bright future for us, and it’s wonderful to see people enjoying what we’re bringing them.

Watch Episode 17 - Brooklyn Local 1

Episode 17 - Brooklyn Local 1

2. Why do you think the American Craft brew segment is growing year after year?

I think it’s because our beer is truly the wave of the future. Americans are looking for more variation of flavor in all areas of food, and beer is no different. What people often don’t perceive is that the craft brewing movement is not a modern fad, but a return to normality. We once had 4,000 breweries in this country, brewing most types of beer made in the world. The fact that we ended up with only 40 breweries and one type of beer – that’s the weird part. The same thing happened to food, but it’s also reversing itself. People want food that is real, and that’s exactly what we’re giving them.

3. You shot a video discussing Local 1, why did you shoot that, and how important is video on the web when talking about beer?

The funny thing about that video is that I’d gotten the impression that it was going to be an audio piece. So I didn’t even shave or anything for the session. Then when I saw the camera, I said to myself “well, it’s only streaming online video, so I won’t look too bad.” Then I saw it and it was in hi-def, and I thought “yeesh, I look like I just got out of bed!” We were in the middle of a bottling run, so it was a hectic day. We wanted people to see what were doing and what it looked and sounded like. They certainly got the real thing…. maybe a bit too real. I also wanted to explain the concept of 100% bottle re-fermentation, since it’s a real point of difference for Brooklyn Local 1.

4. There seems to be plenty of TV shows that focus on wine, so are you surprised that we don’t see television shows focused on beer?

Actually, you have me at a disadvantage about that; I don’t know of any shows about wine. You have Andrea Immer’s “Simply Wine”, but I don’t know if that’s still playing, and it’s over on Fine Living where there are very few viewers. I have tried to launch shows about beer, but the answer has always been the same – the television people are terrified of the anti-alcohol lobby, who are much bigger and better-funded than you think. Why do you think that not even Food Network has a wine show? It’s tough going for traditional television; any such show will probably need a web-based model to get made.

5. You began brewing professionally in 1989 at the Manhatten Brewing Company, what did you do before that and what drew you to the beer business, especially when American Craft beer wasn’t what it is today?

I originally brewed beer at home, not because I was interested in beer but in order to have some beer. I’d lived in London for a year, then traveled around Europe, and it was a shock to arrive home and find nothing waiting for me but Budweiser and Miller. My degree is in broadcasting and film, and when I worked in London I was stage managing rock bands at University of London’s concert hall. When I got back, I worked for HBO for e few years, then made a detour into a law firm. I had a very cushy job running some computer systems that told all our lawyers what their deadlines were. When I went into brewing, my income dropped by about 65% and I landed in a room full of boiling liquid in mid-July. It was a rough transition, but I’ve never looked back.

6. With the holidays coming up, what are your recommendations for pairing beer with traditional Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners – like turkey?

I’m a big fan of French-style farmhouse ales for holiday food. They’ve generally got deep nutty malt flavors and a certain earthiness that really works well with turkey and all the trimmings. Here at Brooklyn Brewery, we produce Brooklyn Winter Ale, which is based on Scottish beers which have a similar maltiness. You want something round, soft and malty, with some caramelized notes and perhaps a bit of roast.

7. On New Years Eve, it’s traditional to pop the cork on some expensive (or not) champagne or sparkling wine, what beer would you recommend to replace that with this year?

Well, most people don’t realize that the so-called “Champagne bottle” is actually a beer bottle. The entire innovation of Champagne was to make a wine that was sparkling like beer. Here we make Brooklyn Local 1, which, as I mentioned earlier, goes through a process similar to the méthode Champagnoise. We call it the “méthode Brooklynaise.” I’ll be popping a cork on that beer New Year ‘s Eve, but many breweries make farmhouse ales and Belgian-style tripels which are also perfect for holiday salutations.

8. I was recently at a brewfest and tasted the Local 1 for the first time and was blown away by it, what’s special and unique about that beer?

Thanks, we’re glad you enjoyed it. Aside from the re-fermentation method, we also use first-pressing raw sugar from Mauritius and Malawi in the kettle. This gives us some honey and tobacco flavors that add nice undercurrents to the beer’s flavors. The secondary yeast also makes a contribution; the original yeast is filtered out before the re-fermentation. The beer takes about two months to make, and a lot of hand work goes into it. We’re proud of our baby. We also make a beer called Blue Apron, which is brewed exclusively for Thomas Keller (The French Laundry, Per Se). He is often referred to as the top chef in the country, so we are particularly pleased to be associated with him and his remarkable cooking.

9. What’s different or unique about American Craft beers compared to beer brewed everywhere else around the world?

American brewing is like American cooking – it’s rooted in tradition, but endlessly creative. We don’t have to stick with a script or a style – we can go off on whatever tangent our imaginations take us to. What’s interesting to see is that America was the laughing stock of the beer world 20 years ago, but now it’s the undisputed leader in craft brewing. I just got back from Italy, which now has 200 craft breweries. The American influence is unmistakable.

10. Did you ever come up with a beer idea that just didn’t work out as well as it did in theory?

Not yet, but we’ve certainly sometimes been over-enthusiastic about some things. When we first started brewing Blanche de Brooklyn, our Belgian-style witbier, we added a bit too much orange peel and coriander. As it turns out, when these things are overused, your beer can turn out smelling like hot dogs. We got much better and that beer became among our most award-winning beers, but it didn’t start off that way. We’ve taken some pretty big chances. The Brooklyner-Schneider Hopfen-Weisse, a beer we brewed in collaboration with the Schneider weissbier brewery in Germany, is an 8% weissbock heavily dry-hopped with Amarillo and Palisade. I thought it would turn out well and it did, but let’s face it – it could have been awful. You’ve got totake some chances, or you’ll never grow as a brewer.

11. If you have an iPod, what’s on it, who do you listen to?

My tastes are very broad. Right now I’m grooving on Slim Harpo, The Raconteurs, Radiohead, “Roots of Chicha” (Psychedelic Cumbias from Peru), Amadou and Mariam, some old-school Jamaican ska music, the incredible album “Ella In Hollywood”, Jay-Z…. so much different stuff.

12. What’s your favorite movie?

For a film guy, that’s an almost impossible question. But the two front-runners are Kurosawa’s “The Seven Samurai” and, of course, “The Godfather, Part II.” Better films have never been made.

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2 Responses

  • Killian Jack Said,

    Garrett — Great call on the Godfather II — by far one of the best films ever!

    Posted on November 11th, 2008 at 9:15 am

  • Dwight Said,

    Hooray for America’s many home brewers and entrepreneurs! Great interview. To find your favorite local craft brews check out BeerMenus.com.

    Posted on November 11th, 2008 at 9:42 pm

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