If you want good beer, sometimes you just have to brew it yourself. That’s just what Garrett Oliver does as the brewing chief of one of the most renowned microbrewery firms in America.
The brewmaster of The Brooklyn Brewery, Oliver is known for his unique approach to creating flavorful beer, and is sought out as a lecturer on the subject. Also known as the world’s leading beer scholar, his book, The Brewmaster’s Table: Discovering the Pleasures of Real Beer with Real Food, can help eager beer enthusiasts learn more about his area of expertise from the comfort of home.
To get a taste of his wisdom right away, read on as Garrett Oliver spills his secrets and tells us all we ever wanted to know about beer, but were afraid to ask.
Garrett, let’s start at the beginning: You are a graduate of Boston University, where you received a degree in Broadcasting and Film. How did you become a brewmaster? That must have been an interesting path.
In my senior year at Boston University I ran all student entertainment for the school, including clubs and some pretty big concerts. After I graduated, I moved to London, where I ran the concert hall for the University of London. At the same time, of course, I was going to the pub with friends. I fell in love with pubs, but the big surprise was the beer. It wasn’t very strong, but it was dark, rich, complex and flavorful. After a year in London I traveled around Europe and tasted all sorts of beer I’d never heard of before. And then I arrived back to the United States and discovered something awful – we didn’t really have any beer. All we had was a sort of “beer facsimile” that bore the same relationship to beer that “American cheese” slices bear to real cheese. So I started brewing beer at home, not because I was interested in making beer, but in order to HAVE some beer.
Eventually I went to work in 1989 at a pioneering brewpub called Manhattan Brewing Company, which was in Soho. I apprenticed to a British brewmaster and learned the professional side of brewing. From there I went to Brooklyn Brewery in 1994, and in 1996 we opened the brewery in its current site.
Please explain the duties of a brewmaster for the uninitiated. What are your days like?
It’s best to think of the brewmaster as the “chef” of the brewery. He or she is the person in charge of beer, from conception until it lands in your glass. So that responsibility starts with the equipment, the physical brewing plant, the recipe, the procedure, the brewing itself, finishing and cellaring, packaging, quality control and anything else that impacts the beer. Assuming that there’s more than one brewer, the brewmaster is also in charge of all the brewing personnel, whether it be one person or dozens of people.
My day includes those things, but I am also the public face of the brewery, though many people also know our founder and president Steve Hindy. Many people will know me as an author, critic, and commentator as well as a brewer. So my typical day might include all the things above, but also some writing, beer reviewing, interactions with customers, etc. I travel frequently and host dozens of events a year in several countries.
What are some of the biggest misconceptions about beer?
There are almost too many to get into, and what’s interesting is that most of have them have no basis in fact at all. For example, many people think that darker beers are stronger (or are usually stronger) than pale beers. Not true at all (draft Guinness, for example, is one of the lightest beers you can find). Many people think that lagers are pale and ales are dark. Or that lagers are weaker than ales. Neither is true – lagers undergo a long, cold fermentation, while ales have a faster, warmer fermentation. Ales are more complex and fruity as a result.
The vast majority of people seem to believe that beer is more fattening than wine or spirits. That’s not true either – the so-called “beer belly” is from the fries and other bar snacks that some people consume to excess along with their beer. Servings of wine, beer and spirits have similar calorie counts, and beer is not packed with carbohydrates – those have already fermented.
The most important thing, however, is that beer has a far wider range of flavor than wine does. I’m a committed wine geek, but wine doesn’t even come close. The reason is pretty simple – brewing is much more like cooking than it is like winemaking. Wine has (or should have) one ingredient – grapes. Not only can I use all sorts of ingredients, from chocolate to chilies, from pumpkins to ginger, but I can also caramelize my malts or roast them until they taste like espresso beans. Beer can taste like almost anything.