Obsessed: Garrett Oliver on Brewing Better Beer

[Photographs: Vicky Wasik, except where noted]

Editor's Note: Welcome back to Obsessed, the interview series in which we talk to uniquely driven amateurs and professionals from all across the food world. We hope to shed light on the passions that inspire enthusiastic food nerds, from home cooks to chefs on the line to veteran butchers, fishmongers, and farmers. Hopefully we'll also pick up some of their favorite tips, tricks, and food wisdom along the way. Know somebody who you think would be perfect for this interview series? Email us!

For many people now reading this, Garrett Oliver doesn't need an introduction. As the brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery, Oliver has for decades been one of the strongest and most eloquent advocates for the craft beer movement. While his primary passion is beer and its brewing, Oliver has impressively expansive tastes and a seemingly perfect sense of taste memory, a combination that led to the publication of The Brewmaster's Table: Discovering the Pleasures of Real Beer With Real Food in 2003, in which he makes the convincing case that food pairs better with good beer—or "real beer," as he calls it—than with wine.

Oliver went on to edit The Oxford Companion to Beer, a task he undertook in large part to share what he’d learned over the years, although he describes it in more selfish terms. As he put it to me: "I ended up doing the Oxford Companion because you get more out of most things by giving them away than trying to hold on to them."

And, of course, all the while, Oliver and his crew over at Brooklyn Brewery have been busy making a whole bunch of real beer. I spoke with Oliver both over the phone and by email, and, though our (very long) conversation ranged across many subjects, we’ve managed to pare down and isolate all the bits that are about beer.

[Photograph: Matt Furman]

Name: Garrett Oliver

Age: 55

Day job: Brewmaster, Brooklyn Brewery

Instagram: @igarrettoliver

Facebook: facebook.com/GarrettOliver

Twitter: @GarrettOliver

What is your earliest memory involving beer?

Garrett Oliver: My uncle Bill drank beer and favored Miller. I'd constantly ask to taste it, and he'd turn me down. One day, when I was 12, I asked and he handed me the can. I took one swig and spat it out into the lawn. It was pretty awful, in a way that sticks with you. The old cans seem to have had a definite flavor to them, so the beer was grainy in a bad way, and it was metallic at the same time. Not a pleasant combination. I wasn't at all interested in beer for quite a few years.

After my grandfather died, I found out that he'd home-brewed during Prohibition. Unfortunately, he passed before I started home-brewing—it would have been a cool thing to share with him.

I read that you studied filmmaking in college, as opposed to anything related to brewing beer. What was it that drew you to filmmaking?

GO: I'm a very visual person, perhaps something I got from my father, who was an art director working for a top advertising agency. He was an old-school "mad man,” and in those days, storyboards and other visual designs were drawn by hand. I didn't want to be in advertising, but I did want to be involved with design.

Do you think your interest in filmmaking and your interest in design have any connection with what you do now?

GO: Oh, absolutely. In fact, in a certain weird way, I feel they are essentially the same thing. If you think about film, you can be a film director and direct a summer blockbuster. You have good actors, and the actors' teeth are all shiny, and the car chase happens, and the cars look great. It's a film that looks great on the screen—the car chases are executed perfectly—but there's no real heart to the script. Everybody's just phoned it in. It can be technically brilliant, but when you leave the theater, that's two hours of your life that you'll never get back, and you say to yourself, "Why did I think that this was going to be something that I wanted to see?" To me, that's what mass-market brewing is like. There's all the money and all the technology, but the actual aim is so insipid that there’s really nothing there but money, in the end.

On the other hand, when you’re watching student films, you might see flashes of brilliance, real heart, see that someone's poured their soul into a film, but the lighting is no good, and the sound sounds like it was done in somebody's bathroom. The person has something to say, but they don't have the ability to say it.

To me, the balance that a great brewer should have would be to have both—they have to have something to say and the ability to say it. I think there are probably only a few brewers that I know who can really do that, and I'm not claiming myself as one of them.

People will say that Anheuser-Busch can't make beer. Well, that's not true; they can make beer the same way that there's a lot of musicians that can make music. Kenny G can play the saxophone. It's not like he can't play it; it's just that you never in your life want to hear it. He has skills, but there's no soul in it. That's why no one that I know, anyway, is ever going to mention Kenny G as a great artist. Does he have chops, can he play? Of course he can play.

I guess that's kind of, in a way, part of what makes craft beer. I think the spirit of American craft beer is so strong partially because we all had other lives first. We had other intentions, we meant to do something else, and then we basically threw it away for love. And that is what takes this from a job into a movement. Almost everyone gave up their degree, whatever they got their degree in, and had to go back to their parents, probably, and tell them, "Guess what? You paid for me to go to college, et cetera, and that degree in whatever I got—I'm not going to do that. I'm going to go make beer." Believe me, 20 or 30 years ago, that wasn't exactly a cool-sounding thing.

There is an actual, rather stringent definition of craft beer, isn’t there?

GO: To me, there are many definitions of craft beer. Now, the craft beer definition you’re talking about, which is promulgated by the Brewers Association—a lot of craft brewers don't agree with that definition. It's a rather complicated, almost legalistic definition. I think, in certain ways, people are asking the wrong question. The Brewers Association—I don't blame them. In order to defend and promote something, you have to actively define what you're defending and promoting, especially as a nonprofit organization. So they had to basically make this Frankenstein monster of splitting hairs about who was going to be a craft brewer and who wasn't. But craft brewing, to me, is the product of an individual vision, one that's trying to make something beautiful. And that's what really distinguishes craft beer from other beer.

An actual auteur is trying to make something that is going to move you and has a meaning to it. I think that you can be a huge brewery and still be a craft brewery at heart. You can be a tiny brewery and have sold out at the very beginning. It's not necessarily a matter of size. It matters what your intention is, which is a thing that you can't really put down on paper, which is almost impossible to define, but it is one of those things that when you see it, you know it.

I think at your average craft brewery, there are at least some people, whether they're beer geeks or not, who know who the head brewer is. If nobody's ever really heard of the brewer, you can be pretty sure that's not a craft brewery.

Were you a beer drinker in college? What was your preferred brand or style? Was it something that you paid much attention to?

GO: Basically, we drank pretty much anything in college. So-called "cocktails," like Long Island iced teas, screwdrivers, kamikazes, the works. When it came to beer, to tell you the honest truth, when we had a little extra money, we bought Budweiser. Budweiser tasted like water, but the other stuff was genuinely nasty: Knickerbocker, Haffenreffer, Mickey's Big Mouth...awful stuff. Sometimes we'd find a bottle of Guinness and spike three or four Budweisers with it; that was about as good as it got.

In your book, you have a very evocative description of your discovery of "real beer" in London after college. What year was that? You say in the book that you thought, upon your arrival, that it seemed appropriate to mark the occasion with a beer. Do you think you can recall the way you thought of beer before that pivotal first taste of real ale? Was it just a beverage you drank as a matter of course when celebrating?

GO: My first real beer was truly astonishing to me. I wasn't even sure I liked it, but it was definitely one of the most interesting things I'd ever tasted. We drank beer in college any time we went out, which was pretty much every night. But we never truly liked it, or at least I didn't. I didn't actually like beer until I moved to London. That was 1983, and then in '84, I traveled across Europe and discovered that the world of beer was larger still. But I was only slightly geekier about beer than my English friends...everyone I knew there thought that cask-conditioned beer was awesome. I'd never seen a "beer culture" before, but England definitely had one.

When you started home-brewing, you say in your book that it was mostly because that was the only way to taste the flavors and kinds of beer you had experienced abroad. What kind of resources did you have to work with? Where did you turn for instruction and guidance about brewing beer?

GO: My only resources were Charlie Papazian's book The Complete Joy of Homebrewing, and, eventually, my fellow home brewers. It's hard for people to imagine it now, but this was more than a decade before the internet. I bought ingredients from a place called Milan Labs, in what would later be called Noho, at the edges of the East Village and Little Italy. They had sold winemaking supplies to Italian immigrants for generations, but by the ‘80s, their old customers were gone, and they turned to beer. They knew nothing about brewing, and they weren't interested, but they did sell the equipment.

How did you find like-minded home brewers back then?

GO: I'm pretty sure it was a classified ad in a newsletter put out by Peter Kump’s New York Cooking School, which became the Institute for Culinary Education. Somebody bought an ad saying that they were looking for other home brewers. We coalesced around Brewsky’s, a bar on East 7th Street, down the block from McSorley's. In those days, it was one of the very, very few places that carried relatively exotic beers. This was in 1987 or something like that. In order to tell everybody when our meetings were going to be and whatever else, it was all done by mail, which sounds crazy to us now.

What did you all do at these meetings?

GO: What it was was pooling shared experience. You might hear about the American Homebrewers Association, and then you’d say, “Oh, I should join that,” and then you’d start getting their magazine. You might see some old brewing books, but there weren't many home-brewing books around at all at the time. You'd get advice from home brewers, or, occasionally, from a professional brewer, about how to improve your beer. “Clean stuff in this way, rather than in that way,” or “Don't add such huge amounts of sugar.” You might go to a meeting, and you’d learn one thing, one small-seeming thing, but it would kind of change the way that you did everything.

What was the first beer you brewed?

GO: My first home-brewed beer was a pale ale called "Blast.” It was loosely based, at least in my mind, on Samuel Smith's Pale Ale, a favorite for me in London. Unfortunately, I followed the instructions in the home-brewing kit, which called for large amounts of white sugar. The beer had some nice flavors, but was marred by an acrid, cider-like tang. I later learned that the white sugar was the culprit; the instructions were really for making cheap beer, not good beer. The home-brewing kits were all British, and the British could all get good beer at the pub. I got pretty good quickly, though.

Do you think that serious beer aficionados (or beer snobs, as some might say) get a bad rap?

GO: I think pretty much all rabid fans of pretty much anything tend to look and sound ridiculous to other people. My eyes roll when I hear people talking sports stats, for example. People seem threatened, though, by any sort of connoisseurship of anything, and I have little sympathy for that attitude. People are having an awesome time with whatever thing they're into...what does that have to do with you? You can learn to love that thing yourself, or you can roll your eyes, but actually worrying about someone else's fandom is bizarre. No one should care that I think being rabid about corporate sports teams is ridiculous...and I don't care that they think my devotion to craft beer is ridiculous.

I know you got into a bit of a back-and-forth with David Chang in GQ about bad beer. What would you say to someone who insists that all they want out of a beer is that it be light and insipid? Would you try to change their mind? How would you go about doing it?

GO: If someone actually wants something insipid, and they know that it's empty, I'm not trying to talk them out of it. All I can do is tell them, "You're missing a lot of great stuff, and that's a shame for you." If they show any interest, then they don't need to know much to really improve everyday life. I mean, I don't eat mac and cheese out of a box anymore, or white supermarket bread, or standard supermarket cheese. I escaped those things at the very first opportunity, and I'm not even slightly nostalgic for them.

What do you think defines a "good beer"? Is it dependent on styles? Or is there a common rubric you use when judging beers?

GO: Structure, balance, elegance, and deliciousness. That's what I want, each and every time.

I don't think many people think of beer that way. Most people are thinking of beer as a refreshment that rinses down hot dogs and potato chips. You're not looking at the Budweisers of the world and saying, “Hey, that would make a nice food pairing.”

“Balance” really means you don't want one character within the beer to overwhelm everything else—screaming bitterness without any sweetness or malt character, sweetness that doesn’t have any acid or bitterness to play against it. And I think it's possible to overdo almost anything. We see this in food, where somebody might use so much coriander that you can't taste anything else.

That kind of leads to the idea of structure: A beer has to be put together in an interesting way. The experience of drinking a good beer, it's like a short story. It should start off interesting, it should stay interesting through the middle, and it should finish satisfyingly. If it can't hold your attention in some way, shape, or form, it's probably not very good. It’s tricky, and I think it’s true of any kind of food or any kind of drink. That's one reason why I wrote The Brewmaster's Table in a very different kind of form than you often see. It's written as a form of experience that's not static or dead on the page, because the way you actually taste things is not in a millisecond. Flavor happens over time, and it happens in a certain way. So maybe something tastes sweet up front and then dries out. We've all had dishes that, at first, you eat them and they don't seem hot, but then they get spicier and spicier and spicier, and two minutes later, your mouth is on fire. We have also eaten dishes that start off really, really spicy, but then five minutes later, you're fine. They're completely different kinds of chilies or balances or whatever else, and if you're going to talk about that dish, you have to talk about what it did, not just what it is.

What about elegance? What is elegant about a good beer? Seems to me that it might be a maker’s value, or a brewer’s value, and, say, the random beer drinker from off the street wouldn’t taste a beer and say, “Oh, that’s elegantly done.”

GO: For me, elegance is similar to balance. It’s a matter of seeming effortless. Balance, structure, and elegance are different ideas in my mind, but they're certainly interrelated. The random beer drinker might not put it in these terms, but I think people know elegance when they get it. One of the tricky things in making everyday beers is that it's not hard to make a beer that is impressive at the top of the glass. The first sip of an okay beer generally tastes pretty good, especially if you've had a long day. But the question is: What does it taste like when you're three-quarters of the way down the pint? If you can be really impressive there, when the person who's drinking it is already looking forward to their second pint of the same beer, now you've got something. I can't tell you how many dishes of food or how many beers I've had that start well, but by the time you're three-quarters of the way through, you're already tired of it. It just doesn’t come together a certain way.

If it’s a beer at a bar, what you want as a brewer, from a commercial point of view, is, somebody goes and gets a Brooklyn Lager, and what they get next is another Brooklyn Lager. You don't want them to say, “Well, that was fine, but I'm going to have something else,” or “I'm going to have a margarita.” That's a failure.

How do you go about developing new beer flavors?

GO: Ferran Adrià broke this down fascinatingly in his book on culinary creativity. Basically, and this is a great simplification, he said that there are four levels of creativity: (1) Copying. You do what you were taught to do, exactly how you were taught to do it. (2) The "twist.” I take standard pale ale and perhaps add vanilla or orange to it. Different, but not really groundbreaking. (3) You invent a new flavor or use a technique that hasn't been seen before, resulting in a unique beer. (4) You invent a technique or idea so fundamentally powerful that a multitude of new beers can be created from it. On the culinary side, Adrià's invention of stable alginate foams is a good example. Once you know how to make stable foam, you can then make foams out of almost anything. That's the highest level.

We practice all four of these forms, and each has its own validity. And frankly, most people never get to level four, and if you do, you're lucky to get there even once.

Can you talk about the variety of yeast strains you use in the brewing process? What are the most common strains? What are some uncommon ones?

GO: We've used dozens of strains over the years. Various Belgian strains (we were very early to those—we were making saisons in the ‘90s, when very few people had even heard of them), German lager strains, weissbier strains, and "wild" yeast strains, like Brettanomyces.

There are two main families of brewer's yeast: the lager yeast, which is a cold-fermenting yeast, by and large, and ale yeast, which is traditionally a warm-fermenting yeast. From a flavor point of view, lager yeast tends to be very direct and leave you with ingredient flavors. So when you taste a pilsner, for example, you taste malt and you taste hops. You don't taste that much else that the yeast gives you. It's not like the yeast is giving you nothing—there are some subtle things that it does—but an ale yeast might taste like oranges or, in the case of wheat beer, it might taste like bananas, cloves, and bubblegum. For a lot of these warm-fermented beers, the yeast flavor is as important as the original ingredient flavor. With lagers, that doesn't tend to be the case.

So then, when you use wild yeast strains like Brettanomyces, you do it because of the unique flavors that they can give to a beer?

GO: Exactly. In some ways, Brettanomyces explores, in its flavor profile, the funkier side, if you like, of flavors. They run a huge gamut, from smelling and tasting kind of like different dried fruits and cinnamon to, at the bad end, smelling like sewer gas, or smelling like Band-Aids, or any number of other things. The really tricky thing about using these yeast strains effectively is finding the right strains and controlling them to give you the good stuff rather than the bad stuff.

And that's one reason why Brettanomyces was by and large driven out of brewing for many years. The best stuff you could get from Brettanomyces was more interesting than anything that you were going to get from traditional saccharomyces brewer's yeast, but what brewers traditionally were looking for was predictability, and if you could deliver the same thing to the consumer every time, that was a thing that was going to make you a success. That's among the things that brewers like Anheuser-Busch were really able to do and how they outdid their competition.

Is there a beer you’ve come up with that you’re particularly proud of? What about it is important to you?

GO: Not surprisingly, I'm happy about a lot of my beers. Local 1 is a beer that defined a new era for the brewery, and it remains a favorite. Sorachi Ace remains a uniquely compelling beer that people love, despite or because of its oddball character. But the beers I probably connect with most deeply are those based on lees (sediments) collected from wild fermentations of wine and cider. These all take more than a year to produce, but they are among the most complex beers I've ever tasted and definitely the most complex that we've brewed. These beers bring together a lot of my interests and bridge the gap between science and art.

Are you working on any beers right now? Anything that's particularly challenging about them?

GO: Scaling our well-loved sour, Bel Air, from smaller batches up to full-scale production is definitely a challenge, but one we look forward to. We have the latest version of our "modern IPA,” Defender, out now, and it's tasting great, so I'm happy about that. And we're slowly chipping away at some truly fascinating Brett work. I think sours and Brett have a big future in the near-mainstream, or at least in the mainstream of craft brewing. To read beer publications, you'd think we'd arrived there, but we haven't. We will, though.

How would you characterize the state of beer in the United States today? Do you think it compares favorably with other countries?

GO: We remain the most feverishly creative of the beer-producing countries, and that's something to be proud of. Britain, Germany, and Belgium provide the foundation of most of our work, but now we're running the ball. I think a number of other countries will become exciting pretty soon. Would you believe that there are nearly 1,500 breweries in France? And Brazil is using its natural advantages, such as dozens of fruits that the average American has never even heard of. Which is great, because the current focus on IPA is pretty boring. I love IPA, but...

What does the term "ghost bottles" mean at Brooklyn Brewery?

GO: Those are the great many things that we create but don't sell. There are probably about 60 or 70 of them right now. Some lead to commercial releases; most don't. Some pretty much can't. But we'll keep doing them because it keeps our creative wheels spinning, and a lot of them are delicious. They are definitely ways to work out new ideas, check out yeast strains and see what they do, check out new kinds of barrels and see what they do. I don't worry at all whether anything will ever come of them.

There are ways to taste them. Usually, we do tasting-menu dinners at which these will make an appearance. Just because you don't sell them doesn't mean that no one tastes them. We do take them out there, and we make them part of what we do. Ghost bottles are kind of part of the backstory of the brewery. Some of our beers start off as an experiment, and then we actually execute the idea. So we made a kriek, which is a type of beer made with cherries, and we released it: K Is for Kriek. We made a sour, kiwi-based beer, called Kiwi's Playhouse, that we released relatively recently, like six months ago. And both of those were originally ghost bottles.

Recently, at an event in Scotland, in Edinburgh, I served both versions [the released version and an earlier one] of Kiwi's Playhouse. It was actually a mistake—somehow we ended up with both versions there at the same time. They weren't supposed to be there, but I said, “Let's serve both of them; it's going to be even better.” It's almost as if you get to see a drawing for a painting you know, see the artist working it out. So at that event, I had an opportunity to talk about what I liked about this beer when I did it, why I thought it was too simplistic to bring out at $20 a bottle, and the things that I did to try to fix it. The original thing is an inspiration, and I tried to elaborate on it for a commercial version.

What do you think about the current diversity of the American brewing scene? I know the lack of diversity—that the industry generally is dominated by white men—has been written about at length, and you are often pointed to as one of the few exceptions to the rule. Is there something about the industry itself that erects barriers for minority brewers to get involved? Or is it simply an issue of image?

GO: I have to admit that this question, which I've been asked a lot lately, does get under my skin. The lack of diversity in craft beer has nothing to do with craft beer. You might as well ask about the lack of diversity in serious restaurant kitchens, or restaurant server staff, or dining rooms. Or golf, or ice skating, or in boardrooms, or, actually, most things. Americans are segregated, and the craft brewing culture is based in America. It's not that people are actively trying not to hire African-Americans; it's more that they never even think about or consider African-Americans in any particular way. Most people hire people they know, or people who are like people they know. And in America, we generally don't know each other. That's a bad thing, but brewers are not to blame for the ills of society.

Do you think the lack of diversity in the industry is changing?

GO: Not much—a little bit, but not much. I'm not nearly the only African-American brewmaster in the United States. I'm just the only one most people know, because I've been around for nearly 30 years and I've been pretty loud. Things will not really change without active outreach into minority communities. Almost no one tries to sell craft beer to diverse communities, so how are people supposed to know about it? I doubt you see huge participation from the Asian, Latino, or Native American communities either, though Latinos have certainly come along faster.

What are your favorite beers right now to drink? Any beers in particular, either your own or others, that you'd like to highlight as particularly worth trying?

GO: There are genuinely too many to mention. In our area, I'm really enjoying the beers by Hudson Valley, and I had some really nice stuff last night from Folksbier.

Is there one piece of equipment that you cannot make beer without?

GO: One day I want to write or edit a book with a title ripped off wholesale from Julia Child. I'll call it Stand Facing the Kettle. Many things are negotiable, but it's hard to get much done without a kettle.

Do you have any tips for aspiring home brewers? Any resources, like online purveyors or blogs or books, that you think would be helpful?

GO: I can't say I'd know—I haven't home-brewed in years. But there are a lot of very talented fellow home brewers out there, and these days they are all a few clicks away. These kids today don't know how easy they have it! Back in my day....

[Photograph: Matt Furman]

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.