Meet the brewer: Garrett Oliver, Brooklyn Brewery

Sharing a pint with the king of New York brewing

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There aren’t many brewers who are truly household names, but then there aren’t many brewers like Garrett Oliver. Having joined the nascent Brooklyn Brewery back in 1994, when New York was pretty much a craft beer desert, he has been instrumental in transforming it into a global brand. But that’s only part of his legacy and, at 57, he continues to be one of the most restlessly ambitious figures in US beer, championing education, diversity and innovation across the scene.

He’s also a genuinely nice guy, which is just as well, as I’m trying to dial into our Zoom call from a little house in the Scottish Highlands, and it isn’t going so well. When I finally manage to get through (using a land line, like some sort of Neanderthal) I’m obviously keen to hear about the changes Garrett has seen over his long career.

Like many of the great brewers of his generation, Garrett didn’t start out with a formal brewing education. Instead, his professional journey arguably started on 9 November, 1984, when he attended the launch of Mark Witty’s Manhattan Brewing Company. Garrett had just moved back from London, where he had spent a year quietly falling in love with cask ale, and was astonished to find this new American brewery pouring traditional English styles from traditional English hand pumps (Witty himself was English).

“At that time in New York City, you couldn’t find anything that I considered to be real beer,” says Garrett. “Maybe Guinness or something, but other than that you had pretty much a desert. So this was a godsend and for years the Manhattan Brewing Company was the only game in town. I went to work for them in 1989 as an apprentice, and then eventually became head brewer.”

Somewhere in the middle of all this, Garrett received a call from David Bruce, the founder of Bruce’s Breweries in England, who is often credited with having kickstarted the global brewpub movement in the late ‘70s. After discussing ways in which they could work together, Garrett was eventually able to bring David and his investors with him to Brooklyn Brewery. While Brooklyn was originally founded by Steve Hindy and Tom Potter in 1988, it had never brewed within the city; with the involvement of Garrett and David though, it was able in 1996 to open a brand new brewery in Brooklyn itself, the borough’s first since 1976.

“At one time, Brooklyn had 48 breweries and making more than 10% of all the beer in the United States, so it was one of the great brewing capitals of the world. So part of the goal there was to restore this brewing heritage. For a long time, we were the only brewery operating in Brooklyn, and for a while the only one in New York City.”

But the ‘90s were tough for small brewers selling in New York, where the big guys held all the cards in terms of taps and distribution. This was why – in perhaps its smartest commercial move of the time – Brooklyn decided to set up its own distribution arm, granting other small American and artisanal international breweries access to the lucrative New York market. 



Garrett continues: “It was a weird idea, really. Like, you’re carrying our competitors. But you need to actually make a profit when you stop the truck, and if you’re only dropping off two to six packs of beer, you’re definitely not making any profit. So we eventually took on more than 200 beers, and for many years, we were the only place you could get craft beer. So in that way the craft beer scene in New York City was established entirely by Brooklyn Brewery.”

By 2004 though, Garrett could see Brooklyn had reached a stage where it needed to grow its reach, and recognised that the self-distribution model was becoming a constraint, so that side of the business was sold, and the funds used for expansion. The rest is a story of continued growth across the world, including major deals with Kirin and Carlsberg, but it’s clear that Garrett’s heart is still in the beer and in New York City.

“We’ve been around long enough that we’ve seen many, many waves redefining what craft beer is and can be,” he says. “We’ve seen so many other breweries open in New York City; I’ve personally lost count, but I can tell you that from my front door in Brooklyn, going 20 minutes in any direction, I could reach seven breweries. And these guys are all our friends and our colleagues – we’re a community and we all help each other out.

“In this area, you have some great breweries really specialising in that modern IPA style, like Other Half and Grimm, and those guys are really good friends. You have some beautiful simple sours being done by breweries like Folksbier and great saisons by Transmitter. A lot of these new breweries have Brooklyn Brewery alumni in key positions; if you’re around long enough, you find yourself turned into a university!”

While we’re on the subject of “new style” IPAs, I’m keen to hear Garrett’s views on the continuing dominance of the NEIPA on the US east coast (and in the UK, for that matter). He’s been critical of the trend itself in the past, but I’m intrigued that scepticism doesn’t seem to extend to those actually brewing these hazy beasts.

“The way I see it is like this,” he explains. “There was a point 10 years ago where in New York City, in most bars, people would go in and say ‘can I have a glass of Chardonnay’ like Chardonnay was the only white wine and Merlot was the only red. Now people know a bit more about wine and those styles are looked down upon, perhaps unfairly. So I think we’ve reached a Chardonnay moment here: Hazy IPA is the Chardonnay of craft beer.

To many people that [craft beer] means something hazy, and they’re missing out on all this other wonderful stuff

“That doesn’t mean the style itself is no good, just that its days as the dominant form are over. It’s reached that stage where if you order a craft beer, to many people that means something hazy, and they’re missing out on all this other wonderful stuff. It’s sort of like if you said to me ‘Oh, I only listen to jazz’. I’d be like, ‘wow, jazz is awesome and I can listen to it all day, but I still feel bad for you’.”

There’s little doubt that Brooklyn’s initial goal of re-establishing New York as a globally respected centre of brewing has been met, thanks to the collective efforts of the many amazing breweries that have been drawn to the city. I ask Garrett whether his home town has some special “secret sauce” for creativity, and whether it still leads the nation.

“I think the great thing now is that once you might have talked about the scene in San California, New York or Colorado, but now that’s really spread throughout the United States. The days when you didn’t have any great breweries in, say, Florida or in the middle of the country are long gone. It’s great to see it spread geographically and different parts of the country having different ideas about what are their favourite styles. So why do these south-eastern states really seem to like darker beers? You’d think it’d be the light, super cool ales in the Carolinas, but no! Then you go out west, and there’s lots of fresh hop beers made at the end of the summer. Sure, there are trends, but you can go anywhere and find people striking out in their own direction.

“And the same is happening all over the world. You go to Brazil and they’re making sour beers and fruited beers with fruit that you simply can’t get in the United States. Stuff you’ve never even heard of. You go to Italy, and there’s a lot of kind of wine/beer hybrids, and infusing beer with chestnuts is really popular. New York has some amazing breweries, but they’re doing what great breweries do all over the world: putting cultural expression into their beer.”

Next issue, Richard catches up with Garrett about his championing of the Michael Jackson Foundation, established to help more people of colour gain access to the brewing industry.


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SUMMER ALE

“Here on Long Island, we have many, many miles of beautiful beaches, and these beach towns that are roaring in the summertime. Originally, Summer Ale was something our people in long Island were asking for to suit that specific market. We had a beer that was called light dinner ale, which was a throwback to the early days of Pale Ale in England, where a dinner ale or family ale would have been a very light, easy-drinking pale ale. Kind of a table beer. 

“So that’s what we went for – something that packs a lot of flavour, but is well balanced, refreshing without too much alcohol. It uses British two-row barley, for a lovely round, bready quality, and a mix of German and American hops, for refreshing bitterness plus fruity aromas. It’s not showy, just a really moreish, well balanced beer, and it’s now the second best selling beer we brew, despite being a seasonal.”

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BEL AIR SOUR

“We realised several years ago that sour beer was going to move out of the geek world of serious beer fans and become something more broadly popular... In most alcoholic drinks, you have either a bitter structure or a sour structure as the backbone. So that’s red wine or white wine, and in cocktails you broadly have citrus juice or bitters. When it comes to popularity for most of the world population, acidity is much more popular; I mean, who doesn’t like white wine, champagne, Margarita, lemonade? We drink acidic liquids our whole life! The beer world used to be similar, but for some reason we wiped away the whole lactic side. And I can easily remember when Gale’s Prize Old Ale was available widely in England and had a real lactic tang.

“The problem we had for a while though is that sour beers were often so mouth-wateringly acidic that they were considered undrinkable by people who weren’t already part of the craft beer scene. You also had a lot of people within the scene making what was almost a moral distinction between what they thought of as traditional sours and the hot-side or kettle sours. I think that, like a lot of things, people were valuing the degree of difficulty. But hot-side sours have been part of beer for at least a couple of hundred years, so I felt we had to get past that.”

“So with Bel Air we set out to make a beer that paired the hop characteristics that a lot of people already love in craft beer – those tropical notes of citrus and grapefruit – but instead of being balanced with bitterness, it has a gently tart, lactic finish to get your mouth watering. It’s one of our most demanded beers now, because it really hits that balance and drinkability, without the sourness dominating.”


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