Garrett Oliver, Brewmaster for Brooklyn Brewery

Brooklyn Brewery

That one of the venerated virtuousos in American beer toils right under our noses at North 11th Street and Wythe Avenue—the Williamsburg corner that belongs to Brooklyn Brewery—might be a surprise even to drinkers who follow small-batch, better-tasting, artisanally made craft brews. But 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.”

But despite the ever-growing gastronomic standing of American craft beer, Oliver is something of an industry anomaly. Indeed the man sticks out in the country’s beer scene—populated largely by bearded, ball-capped brewers with bumper stickers that read “fizzy yellow beer is for wussies” or “I brew therefore I am”—like foie gras at a 7-11.

For starters, he’s African-American, an even rarer thing for brewers than it is for chefs. Next comes his cliché-busting background: He grew up in the ’60s and ’70s in eastern Queens with a family that, for entertainment, “bred, trained and hunted with German short-haired pointers,” says Oliver, tracking, on horseback, Long Island pheasant and quail his dad would later prepare with herbs and white wine. (Oliver says his father, a Manhattan ad man, could cook: “I grew up around good food.”) 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.”)

And last but not least, there’s his penchant for impeccable dress, which, in summer, features pastel trousers, a Filipino-style shirt and a straw boater. “He’s an iconoclast,” says Steve Hindy, the former Associated Press war correspondent and homebrewer who cofounded Brooklyn Brewery in 1988 with his Park Slope neighbor, banker Tom Potter. “He always stands out in a crowd.”

While studying filmmaking at Boston College, Oliver was innocent of “real beer;” he and his friends “bought what we could afford,” he says. But in the early 1980s, while stage-managing bands, a year in London would forever change the way he drank. On his very first day in England, he recalls, “for the first time I drank beer and I really loved it. Even though it was a cask ale, warm and flat. (When it’s done correctly,” he says of those beers, left at room temperature in kegs and pumped into pints totally by hand rather than by carbon dioxide lines, “it’s a beautiful thing.”)

Upon returning to New York in 1983, he says, with the exception of a few semi-decent brewpubs that have since folded, “as far as I’m concerned, there was nothing to drink. I made beer in order to have something to drink other than Wonder Bread.” A friend bought him a beer-making kit and pretty soon, recalls Oliver, “beer was taking over my life.”

Hindy recalls the first time they were introduced, a good seven years before Oliver came on board to brew his first Brooklyn beer, the award-winningly luscious, drink-it-in-a-snifter Black Chocolate Stout. It was at a 1987 meeting of the New York City Homebrewers Guild at a bar in Manhattan, where Hindy was set to discuss the soon-to-open brewery. By this time Oliver, who was running back-office operations for one of the city’s bigger law firms by day, was known as one of the best homebrewers in the city—he’d even helped found the guild and designed its logo.

Hindy recalled the auspicious evening in his business-minded memoir Beer School, published in 2005.

I was surprised to see a tall, handsome African-American man wearing a cape and knee-high, buckled black boots. (Garrett has since corrected me: It was not a cape. It was a 19th-century French lieutenant’s greatcoat which he had draped over his shoulders.) I was very impressed by his singular style. Garrett clearly stood out, and he was very comfortable with that…He presented me with a bottle of his Christmas home brew. As I recall, it was a raspberry stout [in] a 12-ounce bottle with a parchment label depicting the baroque New York City Homebrewers Guild logo. Across the cap was a scarlet ribbon affixed to the bottle by a wax seal. I had never seen a more elegant bottle of beer.

Soon after, Oliver quit the law firm to work for the now-defunct Manhattan Brewing Company in SoHo, and his work caught the attention of renowned beer writer Michael Jackson. Jackson sponsored Oliver as a judge at the Great British Beer Festival, where he befriended many of the world’s best brewers early in his career.

Despite its reputation for solid beers, however, the Manhattan Brewing Company foundered, and Brooklyn Brewery persuaded Oliver to join their team as a brewmaster and partner. With Oliver on board, they moved to their existing headquarters in 1995, a nowheresville warehouse in an industrial sector where nobody would ever dream a Beacon’s Closet would one day draw crowds. Now, 15 years later, the place is the beating heart of hipster Williamsburg; Brooklyn Brewery is the 27th-largest brewery in the country; and Garrett Oliver is one of the brightest stars in the business.

“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 encyclopedic tome due out 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.”

Those are not boring recitations of beery arcana like “bitterness units.” Take his description of the flavor layers a secondary fermentation adds to the Brewery’s latest line of quaffs, which use a technique called “bottle conditioning.” The brews are allowed to fully ferment with a little yeast in their beautiful 750-milliliter containers, creating their own natural bubbles. Most other brewers using that term, Oliver notes, add some carbonation the modern way.

“This method takes months,” he explains, “but it gives us the complexity we’re looking for. It’s sort of like slow-rise proofing of some types of bread—you simply can’t replace it and get the same results…We were determined to dedicate ourselves to an ancient art, something that no one anywhere teaches anymore.” (These and other specialty beers, by the way, are made by Oliver and his team right in the ivy-covered brick warehouse at North 11th Street, while the larger-batch lager and pilsner are produced by a contract brewer in Utica.)

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.” He may muse on how a memory for meals enriches his approach as a brewer—”some people have it for faces; I have it for flavor and aroma”—or the story of how he stumbled upon the profile for their newest saison, the stellar Sorachi Ace, after tasting a long-lost varietal of Japanese hops grown by a farmer in the Pacific Northwest that summons up lemongrass and citrus and Southeast Asian summers in a glass.

“That beer is awesome,” marvels Hindy. “Have you tasted it?”

He almost sounds surprised.

Superlatives delivered with a whiff of wonder are common when those in the know discuss Garrett—especially when it comes to his role in promoting the concept of craft beer to consumers nationwide or helping other small brewers around the world succeed by sharing his slideshow on true bottle conditioning. (“My first PowerPoint,” says Oliver proudly, meaning he’s lucky to have a job that let him avoid the software until 2010).

“I don’t know of any brewers that are doing what he’s doing,” says Vinnie Cilurzo, brewmaster at Russian River in Guerneville, California, widely revered as one of the best craft breweries in the country. (Demand for their beers, like Pliny the Elder, so outstrips supply, you can’t buy them in New York.) “I can’t think of any person that can represent craft beer as well as Garrett does: speaking, writing, brewing,” says Cilurzo. “And he’s not just promoting Brooklyn [Brewery]. If he needs to use an example of another beer, he’ll talk about them. I know he’s done events where he’s used our beers, and it’s not just us.”

“It’s honor,” says Oliver of sharing the spotlight with other brewers. “It’s what we do.”

Or at least, it’s what Oliver does: “I think Garrett is the greatest ambassador for craft beer in this country for the past 10 years,” says Eric Asimov, the esteemed wine and occasional beer critic for the Times. “He’s dignified, he’s intellectual about it,” he adds of Oliver’s ability to talk beer to consumers, “and it’s incredibly productive and powerful.”

“The unique nature of Garrett is that’s he’s a cultural ambassador,” adds Allen Katz, director of mixology and spirits education for the massive distribution company Southern Wine & Spirits.  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. Today the now-16,000-member-strong domestic group includes a print magazine, an annual conference led by Waters and increasingly accomplished local chapters across the country.

“Garrett gave Slow Food USA credibility in a local and national sense,” says Katz, who is now joining forces with Potter to launch the New York Distilling Company. “He connects beer to food culture, to the broader umbrella of gastronomy.” And he doesn’t just know beer, notes Katz. Oliver can also hold court with the best minds in wine, in cocktails, in cheese and in cooking.

Not for nothing did Carlsberg, the massive Danish brewery, grant Oliver the Semper Ardens award—it’s Latin for “Always Burning”—for beer culture at a dinner in Copenhagen in 2003. “I think for Garrett, says Russian River’s Cilurzo of Oliver, “it doesn’t just end at 5 o’clock.

Part of what fuels his fire, says Asimov, “is that craft beer has always suffered in this country.” There’s been an overwhelming tendency, he says, “to treat beer-drinkers as idiots, to create this image of beer as a completely lowbrow beverage. Garrett sees this and he wants to bring beer back to its rightful place as one of the great beverages of history.”

All this might make Oliver sound pretentious or obsessed, but he’s neither. He champions real beer “without being pompous or exclusive,” says Asimov. (On the Brooklyn Brewery blog, for example, he recently suggested the perfect beer pairing for KFC’s Double Down: Colt 45 and a dissolved Pepcid AC.) Indeed when Oliver talks about hanging with Hans-Peter or meals he had while traveling Europe post-college—”I can still remember a cold cherry soup I had in Budapest with a dollop of crème fraîche”—for some reason you’re not thinking “dude, get over yourself,” you’re thinking, “dude, I want to hang out with THIS guy.”

And apparently you should: “The man,” says Katz, who like Oliver can occasionally be spotted at 3 a.m. industry after-parties, “knows how to have a good time.” In fact, Brooklyn Brewery has just launched a new line of brewmaster tasting parties—the most recent featuring goat tacos from the Meat Hook—packed with a hipster crowd of besotted foodies comparing the cool citrus kick of Sorachi Ace to the hoppy hum from Buzz Bomb.

Those shindigs might seem of the moment for the borough, but they’re in keeping with the Brewery’s original goals, which were about making great craft beers in a country with few of them, yes, but also restoring the great pre-Prohibition brewing tradition in Brooklyn, says Hindy. “Our original plan was to become a Brooklyn institution, to become important in this community.”

And that it has: Stop in at nearly any event in the borough today and you’ll surely spot the company’s catchy, cursive green B. (Like the Brewery itself, that B possesses an under-the-radar pedigree: It was created by Milton Glaser, the legendary designer of the “I Heart NY” logo who agreed to do the job for a small stake in the company because it sounded “like fun.”)

But Brooklyn Brewery’s distribution and reputation reach far beyond our little borough. That iconic logo graces the number two of the three most commonly found tap handles in the city and is stocked on supermarket shelves in 26 states, while exports to places like Brazil and Scandinavia make up 10 percent of their business, which makes them the 17th-largest craft brewer in the country by volume.

But, perhaps more importantly, Brooklyn Brewery—thanks to Garrett Oliver—is changing the way Americans regard the mix of grain and hops. “The idea of what beer is has changed totally. [In the early years] people would almost spit [Brooklyn Lager] out,” says Hindy. “They would say, ‘oh my God, this is so bitter,’ and what they were really saying is ‘oh my God, this beer has flavor.’ Today Brooklyn Lager is considered a pretty mainstream craft beer,” admits Hindy of their split-personality portfolio of older brews like Pennent Ale compared to Oliver’s newer 750-milliliter bottles. “It’s like an entry-level craft beer.”

He recalls a recent party held by the Brewery’s architectural firm at the Century Association, an upper-crust private club in Times Square. “They drank a lot of Local One and Local Two,” says Hindy, calling out Oliver’s elegant bottles of golden, lightly fruity Belgian strong pale ale and the complexly spicy, honey-kicked Belgian strong dark ale, “and these were not hipsters.”

Flavors aren’t the only things expanding in the operation. The Brewery is in the midst of adding 15,000 square feet of clean, green space for making more of Oliver’s liquid gold—he’s searching for local farms to provide grain and to take the spent stuff as animal feed—including a total renovation of the brewery space into a real tasting room with a special apartment upstairs where the brewers will take turns cooking for a select few.

Those seats will surely be coveted. “If Garrett should ever invite you to dinner,” says Hindy, “do not turn it down, and do not drive or ride a bicycle.”

Test Your Brew IQ
We know it’s late notice, but on July 8, Edible Brooklyn is taking over Garrett Oliver’s fine Brooklyn Brewery tasting room for the food-centric trivia nights we like to call Edible Pursuits. This time the topic is alcohol, naturally, with questions on potables provided by a panel of Brooklyn’s own liquid assets, Oliver included. You can compete for prizes like limited-edition beers, cookbooks, restaurant gift certificates and other Edible desirables. It’s just $20 to play, and that buys you two Brooklyn Brewery brews made right on the premises, your own pint glass and a sausage sandwich grilled up by the butchers from the Meat Hook on the sidewalk outside. Buy tickets at ediblebrooklyn.com.

Rachel Wharton is Edible Brooklyn’s Deputy Editor. The very first beer she ever bought legally — on Christmas Eve, 1993 — was a can of Private Stock.

Suds Style: Ever since he stepped into the city’s brewing scene in the early 1980s, Brooklyn Brewery’s Garrett Oliver has stood out in a crowd. So does their label, created by the famous designer Milton Glaser.

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Rachel Wharton is the former deputy editor of Edible Brooklyn and Edible Manhattan. She won a 2010 James Beard food journalism award, holds a master’s degree in Food Studies from New York University, and has more than 15 years of experience as a writer, editor and reporter. A North Carolina native and a former features food reporter for the New York Daily News, she edited the Edible Brooklyn cookbook and was the co-author of both Handheld Pies and DiPalo's Guide to the Essential Foods of Italy. Her work also appears in publications such as The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and Saveur.