From strong foundations

In the second part of his interview with Garrett Oliver, Richard Croasdale asks about the Brooklyn legend’s chairmanship of the Michael Jackson Foundation


Those of you who read last month’s interview will already have realised I’m a huge fan of Brooklyn Brewery’s master brewer Garrett Oliver. Professionally and personally, I make no apology for this. So when it was announced just a few days before our interview that he would be leading the newly-established Michael Jackson Foundation, it’s fair to say I was very excited. So much so, that the first 40 of our allotted 60 minutes was taken up by discussing this, rather than the beers he’d brewed for Beer52 members. Again, I make no apology.

For anyone who hasn’t been knocking around beer for the past 20 years, Michael Jackson was (and remains) without doubt one of the most respected and beloved figures that the booze world has ever known. A writer, when alcohol writing was (to put it mildly) a niche pursuit, an expert when expertise was under-valued, and an advocate for quality at a time when ABV per dollar was the only formula that mattered, Michael was an inspiration for a generation of brewers and distillers. His death in 2007 was a massive loss to us all, but particularly to his many friends, including Garrett, to whom he was a mentor and champion.

So Garrett taking the helm of a foundation established to help aspiring BIPOC brewers enter an industry in which they remain shamefully under-represented felt to many of us like the legacies of two brewing titans had finally come together for a truly worthy cause. I started by asking what the reaction had been like from the industry and further afield.

“They’ve been very good, very positive. As I expected, there’s an enormous amount of work to do, just getting the basics of the organisational structure and everything else. I’ve obviously been thinking about this for a long time, but the trick has been getting it someplace where people can read it and access it, rather than inside my own head!

“I do have a few people working on it with me, and a lot of other people who have offered to work on it. Everything’s ended up moving very quickly, and it takes more than 10 days to build out the entirety of something, but it’s fundamentally pretty simple. I was one of the founders of Slow Food USA, so this sort of work is certainly not alien to me. In a nutshell, what we’re doing is directly funding people’s educational courses within the brewing and distilling industry.

“I think everybody knows that craft brewing has been somewhat monochromatic over the past 20 years, but fortunately that’s changing. And I think that we can provide people with a boost in their careers, at least within the United States, through courses that are well known and respected by brewers; the course out of which we’ve hired a great many brewers at Brooklyn Brewery.”

As much as I agree with this aim, I’m curious to understand to what extent to foundation’s aims are in immediate response to the anti-racist movement in the US.

“I think things have been accelerated, and this is the right moment for the foundation to really start its work, but it’s absolutely in keeping with Michael’s beliefs. Those who knew him knew him to be fiercely anti-racist, to actually also stand people down when they were espousing those sorts of views. So Michael’s family and his other friends are thrilled that this is happening.

The original fund was actually established about 20 years ago, by a group called the American Institute of Wine and Food (AWF), which used to raise money and award scholarships in Michael’s name. Sadly, the AWS ran out of money and momentum, and eventually became moribund, with around $30,000 dollars still in its accounts.  

“I was asked by the last president of the AWF, Tom Potter, who is one of the founders of Brooklyn Brewery, of course, to help them administrate the funds, and give out the 30,000 or so dollars that that were in it. I agreed, but told Tom that I’d would prefer to aim this in the direction of people of colour who are looking to get into or boost their careers, because I’m seeing an inequity here that does not need to exist, and which I’m sure nobody means or wants to exist.”

I’m seeing an inequity here that does not need to exist, and which I’m sure nobody means or wants to exist

With lockdown having slowed work at Brooklyn, Garrett has finally had the opportunity he needed to put some real focus on the foundation, and begin building the infrastructure it will need to be sustainable and effective. He’s already appointed the first few board members, whose values and skill-sets are appropriate to the foundation’s aims, and together they will continue building until the board is completely robust.

“It feels a bit like that section of any heist movie, where the hero is putting his crew together. There’ll be a guy who can drive cars real fast, and a computer genius, and a smooth-talker; it’s pretty exciting.”

Candidates will be required to complete courses as a condition of the scholarship, at selected institutions including the American Brewers Guild, UC Davis, the Siebel Institute and others. Even as he sets out on this journey though, Garrett is focused on building something that will last, and continue to use the money it raises to achieve the maximum impact.

“We’ll start off very simply,” he says. “Given the funds that are already there, we could send a few people on courses right now, but I want to have the organisation build out over the next couple of months, to see that it’s done right. We want to start taking applicants by the middle of the autumn, and depending on what happens with Covid, start getting people into courses at the start of next year.

“There are many paths to, you know, a brewing career as we all know, yes. But you know, we were no longer living in the world that I came up in where you could you know teach yourself everything over 30 or 40 years. Ironically, I never actually went to brewing school, so I can give some good advice, but that’s not going to be quite as relevant as the advice a young person of colour can get from someone who just got into the industry four or five years ago. So when we put someone through the programme, we will expect them to be willing to go on and act as mentors themselves ; that’s a very important part of the the set-up.”

Similarly, Garrett has set up the foundation so that his own chairmanship – and those of his successors – can only last a maximum of five years.

“You too often see in organisations like this, where people have come in and they like it, and they want to stay in the chair. They get a little too wrapped up. If it turns out that in five years, we have not created an organisation that is sustainable without me, then obviously I’ve been a failure and I should go. So, regardless of how you look at it there should be a fixed term and then it will be handed over. My job is to make sure it’s in a good state for the next chair.

This feels like a sentiment of which Michael – who spent his career encouraging, nurturing and shining a light on talents who he felt deserved a larger audience – would no doubt approve. Ferment still receives emails from those who believe the glaring racial imbalance in the brewing industry is just one of those inexplicable quirks we should just accept. It is not, and Garrett’s determination to put his influence to good use is precisely the kind of direct intervention we need. I for one can’t express my admiration and gratitude strongly enough.

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