Brooklyn Brewery’s Garrett Oliver (CGS’81, COM’83) is a leader in the beer world| From Alumni Notes | By Amy Laskowski | Video by Devin Hahn and Joseph Chan
Garrett Oliver leads a tour of Brooklyn Brewery and tastes Brooklyn Local 1. Photos by Nathaniel Boyle and Joseph Chan
For Garrett Oliver, brewmaster and one-time aspiring filmmaker, the mental processes behind creating beer and making films are not all that different.
“Both require half-technical and half-artistic inspiration,” says Oliver. “If you have lots of inspiration but not enough technical ability, you end up with something like a first student film—filled with passion, but you look at the screen and there’s not a whole lot there. It’s about having both sides of your brain working.”
The two sides of Oliver’s brain currently work overtime at Brooklyn Brewery, in Brooklyn, N.Y., one of about 1,500 craft breweries that over the past 20 years have reengineered American expectations of what beer should taste like. Oliver is both brewmaster and vice president of production, and his taste buds and opinions make him a sought-after judge for events like the Great American Beer Festival, the Great British Beer Festival, and the Brewing Industry International Awards. He is a recipient of the highest award given within the U.S. brewing profession, the Brewers Association’s Russell Schehrer Award for Innovation in Brewing, and in 2007 he was named by Forbes as one of the top 10 tastemakers in the country for wine, beer, and spirits.
At BU, Oliver (CGS’81, COM’83) studied film at the College of Communication. Later, he moved to London and worked as a stage manager at the University of London student union. It was there he experienced his first beer epiphany: it was better in Europe. “The beer in Europe was very different,” he says. “I really fell in love with British beer. When I got back about a year later, I just couldn’t drink American beer anymore.”
He worked for HBO when he returned to the States and took his first steps toward correcting the great American beer problem: he started brewing his own. “I called my first beer Blast after an early 20th-century literary journal,” he recalls. “It wasn’t very good because the instructions that were given at the time told you how to make a cheap beer, not a good beer.”
In 1987, Oliver cofounded the New York City Homebrewers Guild. Two years later he signed on as an apprentice at the now-defunct Manhattan Brewing Company, where he would move up the ladder to brewmaster.
American Beer: Something for Everyone
Brooklyn Local 1 appeals to many people who like beer but who don’t think of themselves as “beer people,” says Garrett Oliver.
Brooklyn Brewery appeared on the scene in 1988, a hopeful venture of Steve Hindy, a former Associated Press correspondent, and banker Tom Potter. Oliver joined the team in 1994, a year the brewery produced 12,100 barrels of beer, roughly a tenth of the 108,000 barrels sold last year in 25 states and 17 countries.
“I am essentially the chef,” says Oliver. “All the beers, recipes, procedures, everything that has to do with the liquid, is my responsibility.”
Oliver takes great pleasure in introducing Brooklyn Brewery’s unusual beers to people who are used to more popular American beer. He has found that his Brooklyn Local 1 appeals to many people who like beer but who don’t think of themselves as “beer people.”
“Local 1 is something that is very complex if you feel like paying attention,” he says. “But if you don’t, it’s just bright, spritzy, and refreshing.”
For those who do think of themselves as beer people, Oliver says, there are specialty brews like Cuvée de Cardoz, a wheat ale spiced with, among other things, ginger and chilies and infused with toasted coconut.
When he isn’t making beer, Oliver is either talking about it or writing about it. He is editor of The Oxford Companion to Beer, scheduled for publication in October 2011. His 2003 book, The Brewmaster’s Table, about the art of pairing beer with food, is in its fifth printing.
Oliver recalls that 20 years ago American beer was “essentially a joke everywhere you went.” Now, he says, with more than a thousand new microbreweries, “American beer is clearly the place where people look for inspiration when it comes to brewing. You see a range of brewers and a range of creativity that’s not equaled anywhere else.”