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A Pint With: Garrett Oliver, Brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery

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[Photographs: Brooklyn Brewery]

Garrett Oliver has been brewing at the Brooklyn Brewery since 1994. He's known not only for his flavorful beers, but also for his eloquent writing on craft beer and his genius for finding delicious food and beer pairings. We're big fans of his book, The Brewmaster's Table, and were thrilled that he was willing to answer a few of our burning questions.

Name: Garrett Oliver
Location: Brooklyn, New York
Occupation: Brewmaster, Brooklyn Brewery

How did you come to be so knowledgeable about beer? I suppose you could say that it happened by accident. When I fell in love with beer while living in England in the early 80s, I had no idea that it would lead to a hobby and then a career. Eventually I became fascinated by every aspect of beer, and I've learned slowly over time. And I think I still learn something new nearly every day.

How would you describe your brewing style? Is there a common thread between your beers? Someone who was visiting the brewery once said that she thought of our beers as "bold, but smooth." In a way, I think she really captured our style—big flavors presented in a balanced well-structured frame. Our brewing style is, I think, very chef-like. Sometimes we're classical, and sometimes we're way out in left field, but I think our overall sense of balance and structure is very consistent. Again, you can think of food; you build flavors from the ground up, and then you look to bring your elements into harmony.

What do you look for in beers that you like? It depends. I'd say that I always want beers to be "balanced within themselves." What that means is that the beer tastes as it should—if it's massively hoppy, then it needs other elements to support that and make it work. I want a beer to play out like a good story—it should have a beginning, a middle and an end, and it should hold your interest throughout. That can apply to a 12% barley wine as much as it might apply to a German-style pilsner.

How do you get inspired to create new beers? I'm inspired by all sorts of things. Over the past couple of years we've made beers inspired by chefs, by other beers, by coffee roasters, by classic cocktails, and most recently by oatmeal cookies. Most things that make us happy can provide some inspiration—that can be anything from bacon, to a beer I tasted 15 years ago, to the aroma of a summer day.

When you're picturing a new beer you want to brew, how closely can you predict the final product? Do you make adjustments as you go? I can usually predict the final character of the beer very closely. I have a very strong memory for aroma and flavor and can remember things that I ate and drank many years ago as if I'd had them yesterday. That "memory bank" of flavors helps me figure out what direction we need to go in to achieve what we're looking for. But the further out there you go, the harder it is. For example, right now we're using vanilla bean pods. I've never used them before, so by adding them post-fermentation, we can play a little with our technique and intensity.

20100118garrettoliverbrooklyntall.jpgWhat are you working on right now for the Brewmaster's Reserve series? Brooklyn Cookie Jar Porter is next—it's a beer inspired by oatmeal raisin cookies. We used toasted oats, raisin puree, brown sugar, cinnamon, and those vanilla beans. I think it's going to be very tasty!

What are we going to see next in big bottles? We're looking at doing a small run of a version of one of our Brewmaster's Reserve beers from this past summer, called Brooklyn Sorachi Ace. Sorachi Ace is a rare hop variety originally developed in Japan, but now grown only in Oregon. It's very unusual—it smells like lemongrass and lemon verbena. We made a very pale, very dry Belgian-style farmhouse ale using lots of Sorachi Ace, and we really loved that beer. I think it's the fastest selling Brewmaster's Reserve beer we've ever made. I'm looking forward to having more of it myself!

What's the craziest beer you've ever brewed? We did an experimental beer that was infused with bacon—we only made about 20 cases, but it was very labor-intensive. Fun stuff, though! On a commercial basis, it's probably Brooklyn Manhattan Project, the collaboration with David Wondrich, who is probably the top mixologist in the country. It was a rye beer aged in Rittenhouse Rye barrels and then infused with the botanicals that flavor vermouth and bitters...it was literally made to taste like a classic Manhattan. And it did, which was pretty cool.

You wrote a book full of great beer and food pairings—do you continue to discover new pairings that you love? Absolutely. I find new pairings every week, and so do other people. A couple of weeks ago, Gramercy Tavern served me a sweetbread dish paired up with our Monster barley wine. It was a killer pairing, and frankly it never would have occurred to me—it was their idea. Which is a great thing to see. When we did a beer dinner in September at Per Se, they did all the pairings, and they were excellent. I now use some of those pairings in other food matching venues.

There's a really impressive index of beer and food pairings in the book. How did you go about testing all of those pairings? I had help from sommeliers and chefs who let me come into their restaurants, order lots of small dishes, haul in crates of beer, and then spend all day tasting. That was invaluable, and I learned a lot in the process. Lidia Bastianich's restaurant Felidia was pretty key, then under beverage director Richard Luftig. Also La Palapa down in the East Village—I spent many hours there.

Is there a beer you think all beer lovers should try? There are many. From us, I like to pour Brooklyn Local 1. From Belgium, I might pour Saison Dupont; from Japan I'd pour Hitachino Red Rice Ale; from England I'd pour Thornbridge Jaipur IPA; from Germany I'd pour Schneider Weisse; from Sweden, Nils Oscar; from Denmark, Per Kolster's great farmhouse ales. And from Italy, believe it or not, so many great new beers that it's hard to single any out. It really is a brave new world out there.

So what does 2010 look like for you? Where do you think Brooklyn Brewery will be in a year? Personally I'll be finishing work on The Oxford Companion to Beer for Oxford University Press; I'm the editor-in-chief. And the brewery will be transformed—we'll have a new brewhouse and cellar area, with the ability to produce about eight times as much beer in Brooklyn as we do now.

Brooklyn Brewery received a huge grant from the Downstate Revitalization Fund—how will that effect your work next year? We're grateful for the grant—every bit helps—but I wouldn't describe it as huge, given the size of the project. The grant is a fraction of the budget, but it definitely gives everything a boost. We're working on 13,000 square feet, and there's an awful lot of work to do.

Which beers will you be brewing in the expanded space? Quite a few—everything we're making now and more. Local 1, Local 2, East India Pale Ale, Pennant Pale Ale, Brooklyner Weisse, BLAST!, Black Ops, all the Brewmaster's Reserve beers—yes, we'll be very busy!

Is your distribution going to expand? There's no plan to expand our American distribution in 2010; we're going to concentrate on serving the areas where we already are, which is about half the States in the country. We are also in 14 other countries, and we'll be making some small forays there. Our focus has always been international; we've sold beer in Japan since 1990. Next stop is Brazil, and I'm not complaining. In February I'll be brewing in Italy—I'm not complaining about that, either.

Is there a limit to how much expansion is possible before you sacrifice the quality of your beer? If so, I don't feel that we can see that level from here. Breweries like Sam Adams are more than a dozen times our size, and the guys who make Budweiser are hundreds of times their size. People have started to have a tendency to think we're huge, which is pretty odd, given that we have about 35 employees. We're a small company. We're just really loud!

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