Pop a cork, people, we’ve got a big Brooklyn win to celebrate: Garrett Oliver, longtime brewmaster of Brooklyn Brewery, was honored last night with a James Beard Award, crowning him the country’s “Outstanding Wine, Beer, or Spirits Professional.” At the black-tie ceremony at Lincoln Center (no wonder the Beards are called the Academy Awards of the food and drink world) Oliver beat out his friends in the field, including Sam Calagione (Dogfish Head Craft Brewery) and writer-cocktail-wizard David Wondrich.
Around the world, people in the alcohol industry know Garrett’s gold medal is long overdue, but here in Brooklyn, the world-famous trailblazing brewer is surprisingly undersung. Edible’s profile of the legendary man is one of the most fun stories I’ve ever edited, and if you missed it, you’re in for a treat. So pour a glass of your favorite Brooklyn Brewery beer (my hands-down favorite in college was Chocolate Stout, but now I’m partial to the locavore Greenmarket Wheat), raise a glass to Garrett, and settle down to read his remarkable story. I’ll paste a few of my favorite lines here:
If you only think of Brooklyn Brewery as the maker of a decent six-pack of lager, or a fratted-out Friday night hangout for plastic cups of good suds and a pizza party, a place where you can buy a “B”-logoed ballcap or thong, then you need to meet Garrett Oliver.
Oliver — the company’s brewmaster since 1994 — might be surprisingly unsung in our borough, but across the country and around the world, he’s nothing less than a suds superstar. The man was tapped by Italy’s top microbrewery to help create a beer whose bottle was designed by Federico Fellini’s cinematographer; picked by the perfectionist chef Thomas Keller to custom create his in-house pints; and partnered with Hans-Peter Drexler, the world-famous brewmaster of the world-famous German G. Schneider and Sohn Brewery to craft two specialty weisse beers, one for Bavarians and one for Brooklynites. He’s the author of two beloved books on beer, one, The Brewmaster’s Table, the de facto bible on beer-and-food pairings-and has a reputation as one of the greatest educators and boosters for good beer in America. Friends and colleagues, when asked to describe Oliver in just a few words, invariably reach for the term “ambassador.”
There’s his perfect poise and a smooth-as-silk, radio-ready voice, in which he delivers tasting notes at pairing dinners-for beers like Dark Matter, Black Ops or the Manhattan Project, that last one a rye beer brewed to channel the classic cocktail with help from David Wondrich, the country’s foremost drinks historian-or poetic musings on the near-magical properties of yeast. (“Does it control me or do I control it,” he wonders aloud, “I still don’t know.”)
“He’s the ultimate authority on beer,” says Grace Labatt, who serves as Oliver’s editor at the ultra-prestigious Oxford University Press, which tapped him to compile the first-ever Oxford Companion to Beer, an encylopedic tome [that printed in] September 2011. “Few people in the world know every aspect of beer,” she says, noting that Oliver must curate a whopping 1,140 entries from dozens of writers on topics like technology, science, history, philosophy, traditional styles, flavors and food pairings: “He’s a renaissance man,” she says, “when we have meetings, he just spouts off facts.”
Oliver’s knowledge goes well beyond beer: In the span of a few minutes, he might touch on Brazilian beaches, Manhattan dive bars or ironwork on the building where his brews age: “I researched the history of this block,” says Oliver, “it’s one of the only facades of this type in Brooklyn.”
Working alongside a handful of other American food luminaries, including Alice Waters, Katz and Oliver helped form Slow Food USA in 2000, bringing the Italian real-food movement founded by Carlo Petrini in 1989 to our shores.
All this might make Oliver sound pretentious or obsessed, but he’s neither. He champions real beer “without being pompous or exclusive,” says the Times’ Eric Asimov.
“It’s honor,” says Oliver of sharing the spotlight with other brewers. “It’s what we do.”