Whether dabbling in wine lees, cask ageing or natural yeasts, there’s always something buzzing away in the famously restless brain of Brooklyn Brewery’s Garrett Oliver. Susanna Forbes meets the man who helped kick start the IPA boom
‘When we were kids – when we were old enough to make our own breakfasts – I would throw something together quickly, bounce into the living room and flop in front of the TV like any American kid. Gary would be in the kitchen tinkering, making an omelette with my mom’s chilli from the day before.’
That’s Roger Oliver speaking, brother of Garrett, famed brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery. We’re in 40ft Brewery’s Bootyard premises in Dalston, during the London leg of Garrett’s Ghost Bottles & Co tour. Garrett is sharing some special beers from Brooklyn’s barrel-ageing programme and tonight’s flavour safari is about exploring co-fermentation, wine lees and barley wines.
But how did we get from chilli-omelette experimentation to some of the world’s most complex beers?
Ale of a journey Garrett Oliver left college with media and music on his mind, landing in London in the early 1980s, thinking he was going to be working with HBO. When he arrived in Victoria, the pub beckoned, as did his very first pint of cask ale.
Garrett Oliver left college with media and music on his mind, landing in London in the early 1980s, thinking he was going to be working with HBO. When he arrived in Victoria, the pub beckoned, as did his very first pint of cask ale.
It was a lightbulb moment. He’d never tasted anything like it before. As he recounted in The Brewmaster’s Table 20 years later, there was a welcome bitterness, a light prickle from gentle carbonation, and layers of flavour that evolved with every sip.
HBO didn’t materialise, but a gig as concert stage manager at University of London Union did. (Favourite bookings? Billy Bragg and the Cocteau Twins.) And, of course, there were more than a few subsequent visits to the pubs.
‘I’ve had some of the best times of my life in the pub,’ Oliver tells me when we catch up later. ‘It’s the whole feel. The beer is just a part of it.’
If London looked after the liquid learnings, European travels added context and culture. Oliver explains how he fell in love with the marriage of beer and cuisine in ‘beautiful Bruges’ and was ‘almost overwhelmed’ by the magical interplay between a grilled-salmon-and-gouda open sandwich and a witbier in Amsterdam.
Perhaps inevitably, flavours back in the US seemed beige by comparison on his return, so Oliver took up homebrewing. Before too long, he was chair of the New York City Homebrewers Guild and his beers began to get him noticed. It was here he first met Steve Hindy, future co-founder of Brooklyn Brewery, himself an avid homebrewer.
Another person to spot the spark was the Beer Hunter himself, the late Michael Jackson, with whom Oliver formed a strong friendship. London visits continued; Mark Dorber’s former pub The White Horse in Parsons Green, Fulham, became a favoured haunt.
‘We had some brilliant times,’ says Oliver. ‘They range from memorable to infamous!’
In 1989, Oliver joined Manhattan Brewery as an apprentice brewer, and in the mid-1990s he moved across the river to the Brooklyn Brewery, then six years old. Oliver took a flavour-fuelled 10% imperial stout as his interview piece. He was in.
And his first release for Brooklyn? That same black chocolate stout.
Innovation and a bold confidence with flavours are the hallmarks of Oliver’s approach – that and an intrepid curiosity, a love of old recipe books and a naturally gregarious nature. His old pal Dorber calls him a polymath, noting his skill at helping to forge trends. Take the IPA revival. While still at Manhattan, he was one of the US brewers invited to the game-changing 1994 IPA conference organised by Dorber, leading beer writer Roger Protz, and The British Guild of Beer Writers.
‘All the great and the good of the brewing world were there and they tasted my beer and said, “Well that’s very funny, but no one’s ever going to drink anything like that,”’ says Oliver.
‘That was a pretty classic IPA, but to them, at that time, IPA was a 3.5% bitter with no hop character.’ Within five years, the fruits of the IPA revival were emerging.
In the noughties, Oliver was among the first to turn his attention to bottle conditioning in earnest. The result? The much admired Local 1 – Dorber calls it ‘beautiful’. BeerAdvocate rated it A+.
Age before beauty
This was followed by Brooklyn’s barrel-ageing programme. ‘It started in 2006. Maybe we had eight barrels,’ says Oliver. ‘Five years ago, we opened the barrel house at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, which can hold more than 2,000 barrels.’ Innovation came from tying the project in with its bottle-conditioning programme.
The first co-fermentation with wine lees was a collaboration with Red Hook Winery, eight or nine years ago. When the winery first offered him some lees, he asked what he was supposed to do with them. They replied that the lees were magical.
‘I’m well versed enough in wine to know what lees can do there, but hadn’t thought what they could do with beer,’ Oliver says.
He returned with a bucket of lees and, six months later, Brooklyn had ‘one of the most fascinating beers we’d ever seen’.
‘The natural yeast set is like a band that have been playing together for a long time,’ Oliver explains. ‘They already play well together and they are going to play well together in your music too.
On the Ghost Bottles tour, we tasted an inspiring Aglovale, a 10% Belgian golden ale aged for one year on lees from Hermann Wiemer’s Finger Lakes Riesling. There were flavours of light apricots and tart peaches, or ‘natural funk’ as Oliver puts it.
Finding the match Oliver is big on food and beer matching, and notched up his thousandth food-pairing event in 2017. ‘I don’t know why he’s not the size of a house!’ quips Dorber.
Oliver is big on food and beer matching, and notched up his thousandth food-pairing event in 2017. ‘I don’t know why he’s not the size of a house!’ quips Dorber.
‘We’re doing such cool stuff,’ says Oliver. ‘We’re working with Thomas Keller at The French Laundry [in Yountville, California], and my good friends at 11 Madison Park [in New York] have become the number one restaurant in the world. We have a small brewery in the Culinary Institute of America,’ he continues. ‘We’re not teaching professional brewing, but it really does give people a grounding if they are going into food service, or if they are going to work in a restaurant with a good beer programme.’
Back in the UK, Brooklyn’s distribution sits with Carlsberg. Together the pair bought London Fields Brewery in 2017, after its founders faced tax-fraud charges.
‘For me personally it’s an exciting return, from a spiritual point of view, to where my career started,’ says Oliver.
The east London brewery has a new brewhouse on the cards and Talfryn Provis-Evans, whose CV includes Crate and Beavertown, has been appointed as the new masterbrewer. Oliver says he’s looking forward to working with him.
Garrett Oliver's CV
First taste of real ale, London
Apprentice and then brewmaster at Manhattan Brewing Company
Brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery
Kicked off trend for brewing collaborations with Brakspears Brewery, Henley-on-Thames
The Oxford Companion to Beer wins the Gourmand Award for Best Book in the World, beer category
Established New Carnegie Brewery with Carlsberg in Sweden, the first of global network of partnerships
‘The barrel programme is a big part of our personality and I hope it will be part of what goes on at London Fields,’ he says, adding that he is gunning for the development of a natural theme. ‘There is such a great history in the UK of fermentation with things besides regular Saccharomyces yeast, whether that’s wild fermentation of cider or fermentation with Brett – named after Britain, after all.’
Oliver considers the UK brewing scene ‘as exciting as in any place in the world’ right now, with a real flowering of talent, interest and creativity. Thornbridge remains a favourite brewery, but Cloudwater also impresses him.
‘I like that its focus isn’t just on modern IPA variations,’ he says, and he also has a soft spot for a lot of the older breweries, such as Adnams in Suffolk.
While we may not see all the Brooklyn beers over here in the UK, Oliver is glad that Bel Air Sour will be over in the Autumn. ‘I’ve never seen people take to a sour beer – or almost any beer – like they’ve taken to Bel Air,’ he says.
The brewery’s most recent recruit is Naranjito, developed because Oliver wanted a beer to go with tacos. Freshly zested orange notes balanced with a medium malt body should see to that.
Look out for new formats too. ‘We’re definitely putting more of those speciality beers, particularly the barrel-aged ones, into small kegs. I had some of our Cloaking Device Brett-fermented porter at a pub in London back in November, which was really great to see,’ he says, before musing that he feels acidity is poised for a return.
‘Sessionability is fashionable – younger drinkers are going lighter on food and drink,’ he says. ‘And wild yeast strains are a bridge between the rebirth of cheese, bread, coffee and porter. It’s all about fermentation.’
And, I’d wager, flavour.