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Heady Stuff: Garrett Oliver & Brooklyn Brewery

Heady Stuff: Garrett Oliver & Brooklyn Brewery

Step inside Brooklyn Brewery, and you can immediately spot the telltale signs of dedicated craftsmanship. It’s not the award plaques, which are tucked away in the office upstairs. Rather, it’s the sacks of malted barley stacked everywhere, which fill the room with a toasty Grape Nuts-like scent. There’s malt from Scotland, England, the United States, Canada, Belgium, Germany. To the casual eye, it looks like a grain salesroom. But to brewmaster Garrett Oliver, it’s a well-stocked kitchen. “Rather than having a silo full of one type of grain, we have these varietals, and they have different flavors,” says the native New Yorker and Boerum Hill resident. “Imagine if you were a winemaker and said, ‘I’d like to make Riesling, Chardonnay, and Tocai, but we only have one grape. We’ll tweak it and label it differently.’ A lot of breweries do.”

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Not this one. Housed inside a former steel foundry on a back street of Williamburg, Brooklyn Brewery has revived some old traditions worth keeping. As New York City’s only stand-alone brewery, founded in 1988 by Steve Hindy and Tom Potter, it harks back to a time when over four dozen breweries lined the streets of Williamsburg, Bushwick, and Flatbush. Like those 19th century operations, whose Old World lagers satisfied the thirst of legions of German immigrants, Brooklyn Brewery marries traditional recipes from Europe and pre-Prohibition America with quality ingredients to produce a roster of full-flavored beers.

 “We build a beer from the base up,” says Oliver. “It’s important to me that each of our beers has a distinctly different personality.” Indeed there can be no mistaking Black Chocolate Stout, with its hedonistic notes of roasted coffee and dark chocolate, for East India Pale Ale, with its bitter hops, or Blanche de Brooklyn, a white beer spiced with orange peel and coriander.

Since joining the company in 1994, Oliver has become one of America’s top brewmasters, regularly racking up awards, invitations to sit on international beer juries (he was the first Yankee to judge the Great British Beer Festival), and kudos from prominent beer critics. Author Michael Jackson has lauded Oliver as a “tireless activist” for crafted beer and repeatedly issues three-star ratings and mouth-watering blurbs (he describes Black Chocolate Stout, for instance, as “the beer world’s answer to a warming malted milk with a shot of bourbon”), while Food & Wine’s David Lynch has called Oliver’s Weisse beer “arguably the best Bavarian-style wheat beer in America.” 

Twenty years ago, Oliver set out to be a great director, not a great brewmaster. In his student days at Boston University, beer was merely a social lubricant. “We drank ghastly stuff,” he recalls. “Haffenreffer, also known as the Green Death; Mickey’s Big Mouth; Knickerbocker. The thing is, we didn’t actually like beer. We drank it because it was there.”

Oliver’s awakening came in England, where he lived for a year as an exchange student and worked as a stage manager for rock bands. “Beer was a serious part of life, like talking to French people about cheese,” he says. “I really fell in love with the beer there. Then I did the classic travel-around-Europe-for-a-month-with-a-backpack. I went to Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands and tasted all these wonderful beers.” Once he’d sampled authentic pale ales, brown ales, stouts, porters, and Trappist beers, he would never crack open a cheap malt liquor again.

 The brewery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a 19th century brewery hotspot.

The brewery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a 19th century brewery hotspot.

After resettling in New York, Oliver got a home-brewing kit for Christmas. “I was off and running,” he says. “Even from the beginning, I made labels for my beers and gave them names. I had a lot of fun with it.” The hobby grew more serious, and Oliver founded the NYC Home Brewers’ Guild. That brought him into contact with people like Mark Witty, a former Samuel Smith brewmaster who was crafting authentic ales at Manhattan Brewing Company on Broome Street – the first brewpub east of the Mississippi since Prohibition. When Witty’s assistant left in 1989, Oliver pleaded for the apprentice post there. Two weeks later, he left his job at the law firm Rodders & Wells – a temp position in the managing attorney’s office that had morphed into a long-term assignment – and he began his new career. “I go from a suit and tie in a nice, cool, comfy law office to an un-air-conditioned room full of boiling liquid,” he recalls with a laugh. “I’m getting wet, I’m getting burned, I’m getting shocked. At first I was not at all sure this had been a good decision. But then I fell in love with the rhythms of what I was doing.”

Today, Oliver presides over the production of 44,000 barrels at Brooklyn Brewery’s headquarters in Williamsburg and its adjunct facility in Utica, New York. The line-up includes seven year-round beers, four seasonals, plus a handful of single-batch Brewmaster Reserves per year. Tradition, not trends, guides the house style. “You won’t find any raspberry ale here,” says Oliver. When creating East India Pale Ale, Oliver turned to a British manual from 1842 to emulate the original IPA. When formulating the weisse beer, he and Hindy visited countless breweries in Germany to research flavor profiles and ingredients. Their sole garden beer – Post Road Pumpkin Ale – is a revival of an ale brewed by the early American colonists, who discovered that pumpkins blended nicely with barley malt.

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Of all his brews, Oliver takes greatest pride in his rendition of saison, a rustic Belgian farmhouse ale. In his recent book, The Brewmaster’s Table, he sings the praises of Saison Dupont Vieille Provision, its most famous exemplar: “The cork invariably lets go with a mighty pop, and Saison Dupont leaps forth like a force of nature, a bright golden orange with a magnificent pillowy white head,” he writes. “The nose is astonishing – lemon zest, apple peels, black pepper, anise, coriander, damp earth, peaches, and earthy-fruity East Kent Golding hops.”

The brewmaster shakes his head in wonder. “To me, Saison Dupont is like God in a bottle. It’s unbelievable. Every time I open I bottle, I go, ‘Damn! How do they do this?’ ” Oliver first attempted his own version two winters ago. Last year Saison de Brooklyn won a Gold Medal at the Great American Beer Festival. Citric, dry, and refreshing, this billowing beer conjures up summertime in the Flemish countryside. “I was really happy with it,” Oliver says, “because it really tasted much as I had in mind.”

That Platonic ideal is all-important in this occupation. “Brewing is more like cooking than winemaking, because brewing is very intentional,” Oliver notes. “It’s all about what you have in your head as the profile of the beer – what it looks like, smells like, tastes like. Then you try to make that happen.” For Oliver, the process is endless, a matter of continually refining the recipes and expanding his pantry with newly available yeasts and boutique malts. “Perfection is something you never actually reach,” he says. “You strain for it, but you never get there, which is what makes it interesting.”

Published in the Summer 2004 issue of BKLYN magazine.

Vanity Fair

Vanity Fair

Frescobaldi and the Wine Bars of Florence

Frescobaldi and the Wine Bars of Florence