When Amy from the specialist beer people Fourcorners got in touch to say they had the brewmaster from Brooklyn Brewery in town and would we like to have a chat with him we jumped at the chance.
Beer geeks we are not and we made it pretty clear that we wouldn’t be talking about rare hops for an hour but we really wanted to meet the creative director of a company we have the height of respect for and find out what makes both him and the company tick.
So on a Tuesday in late May John sat down with Garrett Oliver who was fresh from three days at Ballymaloe Lit Fest and about to host a special dinner in The Fumbally Stables with chef Katie Sanderson, and asked him about his Brooklyn brews.
Big Thanks to Dave Sexton for taking the photos for this article
John: My introduction to craft beer was coincidentally Brooklyn Beer when I went to New York for the first time back in 2000. Just off the plane with my bag still over my shoulder, I went to the first bar I found and asked for the most New York beer they had. What was your introduction to the world of beer?
Garrett: My first experience with what I would call ‘real beer’ was actually a lot like you. In 1983, my best friend moved to London on an exchange programme. He suggested I move to England and I was down for an adventure.
I had a degree in film and thought I had a job with HBO there but I actually ended up putting on gigs and managing bands.
When I got to London, I got off the plane with my life in my bag and nowhere to live. I went from Gatwick Airport to Victoria Station, then straight outside and into a pub. It was a long trip and I needed a drink. They handed me this fish bowl full of amber liquid. It didn’t taste or look like any beer I knew. It had all these tastes and smells of fruit, hay, sea air and then I looked up and it was gone!
I thought; “Hmm, I’m not sure I liked that, I better have another one”. And then a third to be sure. First serious pint of beer I ever had.
J: And what was it?
G: It was Bitter, possibly Tetley’s and it was the first time I realised that beer could be something different.
When I was in college in Boston I drank beer, we all did, but I didn’t actually like it. It was a means to an end. It tasted like water at best and Budweiser was the stuff we drank if we had extra money. When I got to England I discovered that beer was something that could be drank for flavour.
J: A pretty pivotal moment then?
G: Absolutely. And it wasn’t just that, it was the way people talked about beer too. They weren’t beer geeks like you have now, they were just regular people in what felt like the pub on every corner. At home in the US all the bars at home were the same, with beer that tasted the same. Each beer tasted like a version of the same thing.
When you would got to the pub in London, the first thing you talked about was what the beer is like. The beer is on, the beer is off, the beer is spot-on and when it was spot-on it meant almost no matter how bad the place was you would probably stay all night.
It's like when you go to Italy…if you try to explain to an Italian what a ‘foodie' is, they don’t understand because they are all ‘foodies’ by default. They just care.
J: Your biography tells us that you made your way back to the US, became president of the New York Homebrewers Guild, brewmaster at the now-defunct Manhattan Brewing Company and ultimately were invited by Brooklyn Brewery co-founder Steve Hindy to be their brewmaster in 1994.
The Brooklyn Brewery has grown hugely since then as one of the main protagonists in the development of craft beer culture and a major player internationally. How do you stay on top of your game?
G: Well, developing a community and making connections with people is very important for starters.
For example, we were first brewery to do beer collaborations. I started doing them in 1996 and years later a journalist pointed out that I was actually the first to do them! As a young and naive brewer I thought this was a great way to meet some cool people and learn something new.
Coming out of music production background, where you would meet people and just jam, I thought this could work really well. Before that all you had was competitors and the idea of doing something together was a very odd concept. Everybody would stake out their territory and they would puff themselves up instead of saying hey I like your stuff, let's go play and do some stuff. It's super important to us to keep that spirt up.
It's also important to us that everybody on the team, across the departments feels like they’re part of the process. For example we have a programme where a member of the team gets to put forward an idea for a small batch brew of 40 kegs available only in the Brooklyn Brewery. Recently, Saidou Ceesay, who came to us as a forklift driver, but has developed into a highly skilled packaging (bottling and kegging) operator brewed a beer called "Sai Kanifing" named after his own nickname ("Sai") and Kanifing, his hometown in Gambia. It's full of things like smoked malt and habanero and it's delicious.
We designed labels and threw a release party, he had his friends and family there and it was a really proud moment.
J: So experimentation and one offs are still a big part of the brewery ethos. How do you fit this into, and indeed justify it in a busy production schedule?
G: There are three natural creation engines in the brewery if you like. Firstly there’s the barrel aged casks which produce three beers a year plus our Black Ops project. Secondly there’s the Brewmasters Reserves on draft for 3 months only and they don’t repeat. Finally, just this morning, I sent off recipes for two new beers; a new winter beer that we are going to brew and test. So even when I am on the road there is constant innovation, we don’t stand still.
And then there’s things that I will do that don’t have a purpose yet. Every so often I'll go brew something, not tell anybody, see how it works. The challenge then is to make sure that beer doesn’t become an orphan because it isn’t scheduled, doesn't have marketing etc.
These Ghost Bottles as we call them, are a way for me to explore new avenues and keep adventuring without the pressure to make sales.
J: This sounds like the sort of thing you would find in a start up brewery yet the Brooklyn Brewery is one of the biggest breweries in the US by volume. Are you guys still a craft brewery and if so how do you define ‘craft’?
G: Yes. Infact I think we are even more craft now than we were when we were one fifth of our size.
To me craft is when you have something that is defined by individual vision, when you have a dream and you are following it. If you are doing that, then no matter how big or small you are, then you are craft in my opinion.
I look at what we are doing now. We have a huge barrel aging program, doing true bottle refermentation. Things that we would have no idea how to do in 2006 even. We have beers that take over a year and a half from concept to going public, with ridiculous amounts of hand work.
Right now, we have a project in the UK with some really close pals of mine in The Thornbridge Brewery. It's been a year and a half and we have spent a lot of money on it so far. It involves wild yeast from a cider orchard in Herefordshire. I sent barrels over from our brewery, brewed at their place, my recipe…all these things coming together…,it's taken a long time for the wild yeast to work, it will spend at least a year in the barrel and for all the time and expense, we could still come out with…nothing. The great thing about having arrived at where I am after 20 years is that I know I have permission to fail. I prefer not but it's inevitable. We dump beer that doesn't work out.
J: Brooklyn Lager clearly has a strong aesthetic and Milton Glaser, the designer of the world famous I ♥ NY logo, famously designed the Brooklyn Brewery logo in return for some shares in the fledgling company. How Important was Milton Glaser’s influence on the brand's ethos?
G: Really important. I went to film school, my dad was an art director so Milton Glaser’s books were coffee table books in my house growing up, so it mattered hugely to me.
Milton’s logo and his association put Brooklyn Brewery on the map to a certain extent, back when the borough of Brooklyn was far from cool.
J: Speaking of Brooklyn, how did being based in Brooklyn influence you guys in the early days?
G: People forget that 20 years ago naming anything after Brooklyn would make you a laughing stock but Brooklyn was always a melting pot for so much.
At one point, in the 1800’s, Brooklyn had probably the most diverse food culture in the whole world. I mean we had Norwegian neighbourhoods, Mexican neighbourhoods, Swedish neighbourhoods, Carribean neighbourhoods, everybody piled in on top of each other in a fairly small area.
I think that Brooklyn from a cultural point of view always had so much going on but when it went through the rough years, when it was down at heel compared to Manhattan, people didn't respect Brooklyn but I always felt it was worthy. So, when we came along and put some pride in, flew the flag and said ‘hey were from Brooklyn, smile when you say that’ then people really enjoyed that. Even if you still couldn’t get a cab to take you there!
J: So how do you see the craft beer culture developing and any opinions or observations about the irish craft beer scene?
G: In the US we have 3200 brewers now and another 1000 that have filed and paid for their license. We had over 11,000 people at our recent craft brewers conference. So it's a really big part of the culture now.
In Portland, Oregon craft beer now accounts for over 40% of all beer sales and there are other cities in the US that are close to that. We used to be a laughing stock of the beer world and now in a way we are from the future with regards to beer.
I visited Latvia recently and it feels like 1986 did at home but due to social media, people discover whats happening so much faster. Now everybody is making pale ales and IPAs because they know of the American success. I believe Belgian styles are next, a farmhouse saison style for example.
Another evolution I am hoping for is that people will do a local thing, an Irish thing for example. You might have a creative like Katie Sanderson, who is cooking for us tonight, and what she is doing in the kitchen, translating her surroundings, her countryside and her culture into food and drink. She might bring in a technique that is asian, i.e. something with an asian umami influence and combine it with some local seaweed and create something that has a real sense of place.
So, as much as it's flattering to see the US influence, what excites me even more is to travel somewhere and find something confidently inspired by the local food and drink culture. I think that's the next thing coming but you do have to gather in the influences and experiences in order to do your own thing really well.
J: Lastly, what are the 3 best things to have passed your lips this year?!
Beef Carpaccio with Uni (sea urchin) in New York and ridiculous sushi in another NY place called One Or Eight (which is a Japanese gambling term, All or Nothing basically!)
Black Salmon in Ballymaloe when I was at Lit Fest, and the house made Mayonnaise was incredible.
Mole sauces in January in Oaxaca in Mexico. I smuggled loads back which was pretty risky because it looked like a big lump of black hash wrapped in plastic!
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