Garrett Oliver, brewmaster of the Brooklyn
Brewery, is on a crusade. His mission: to end beer’s stigma as
a second-class substitute for wine.
To that end he has written his second book, "The Brewmaster’s Table: Discovering the Pleasures of Real Beer with Real Food" (HarperCollins, $29.95). His first, "The Good Beer Book," co-written with Timothy Harper, was published in 1997 (Putnam/Berkley Books).
"The whole point of ["The Brewmaster’s Table"] is that beer has a much wider range of flavors to offer to food than wine does," Oliver told GO Brooklyn in an interview at the brewery.
Surprised? Oliver expects that reaction. "Most people don’t really know what real beer is," he added. "They think of beer as this bland, mass-marketed drink. That’s not the real thing."
In "Brewmaster’s Table" Oliver offers the reader a definitive study of beer and a glimpse into his own life before discovering "real beer" and the "better life" that evolved after his education abroad.
Oliver’s beer research began a few months after graduating from Boston University, in 1983, with a degree in broadcasting and film that, he said, "Qualified me to drive a cab."
Without steady employment tying him to the States, Oliver moved to London where he hoped to find film work for a subsidiary of HBO. The job never materialized, but he stumbled upon what was to become a passionate hobby, and later, his career.
"I got into Victoria Station with a year’s worth of clothes in my backpack. I needed a drink, so I went to a pub and had my first pint of British beer. It was amber-colored, one of those British pints that are huge. The beer was totally different from anything I had before. All these varied layers of flavor. It wasn’t terribly carbonated. It wasn’t very cold. But it was fascinating," Oliver recalled.
During the year Oliver spent in London, he grew to appreciate the variety of beer he encountered and the Brits’ relationship to beer and beer making. "In England, the pub is a very different place than you have here. There, beer is part of their lifestyle," said Oliver. "They don’t consider themselves beer fans, but they’ll say, ’The beer is nice today. Or the beer is not so nice today.’"
A nice beer, he explains, is one that has finished its fermentation at the pub and is served appropriately "aged," unlike commercial beer, which is finished in the brewery.
"Beer-making in England and the other countries I visited [Belgium and Germany] is a real art form," said Oliver.
Back home, Oliver began making "small independent films. The kind you might find a VHS copy of in Kim’s Video in the cult department," he said.
Trying to find the kind of beer he enjoyed in Europe was futile. "When I returned to New York in 1984," said Oliver, "there were basically three beers sold: Bud, Coor’s and Miller. They tasted like seltzer water. That was it. There was nothing! I mean it was like going to the store and instead of having this whole aisle of different bread - pita bread, and flat bread and this and that - there was only Wonder Bread. I couldn’t deal with it."
An understanding friend bought Oliver a home beer-making kit. In his kitchen brewery he experimented with different techniques and managed to prepare beer that reminded him of the richly flavored pub offerings he savored abroad. To share his enthusiasm, Oliver became one of the founding members of the New York City Homebrewers Guild, a group that is still in existence.
In 1989, Oliver turned his hobby into a career.
"One day I was at the Manhattan Brewing Company, in Soho, borrowing some yeast, or equipment or something," he said, "and an English brewmaster, Mark Witty, was there. When he mentioned that his assistant was leaving I virtually grabbed him by the lapels and shouted, ’Give me the job!’
Two weeks later, Oliver quit his day job to became Witty’s apprentice. Although he questioned his sanity - "I was making half as much money to work in a room full of boiling liquid in the middle of July" - he had found his calling.
"The challenges involved in beer making were, and still are, endlessly fascinating," said Oliver. He joined Brooklyn Brewery in 1994, as brewmaster, a title he defines as, "The person in charge of beer production. You’re responsible for the recipes, all the procedures, the staff, ordering the materials, quality control - everything."
"The Brewmaster’s Table" attempts nothing less than to give the reader a full understanding of beer - what ingredients go into it, how it is brewed, and who produces what.
Oliver writes vividly about his encounters with certain beers. "There had to be something wrong here - the beer tasted like cloves and bananas. I wasn’t at all sure I liked this beer, but Germany was clearly going to be more interesting than I’d imagined," he writes of a Bavarian wheat beer.
In a tiny cafe in Belgium, Oliver notes: "The barkeep poured a drink with a startlingly pinkish hue and handed it to the fellow next to me. ’What is that?’ I asked, assuming that it was some sort of soft drink. ’It is kriek,’ he answered, ’a beer made with cherries.’ I stood there like an idiot, dumfounded and staring. ’Welcome to Belgium,’ he said."
Food pairing, or the combination of real beer with real food, is discussed at length. In his section on the Belgian Ale Tradition, Oliver describes Belgian pale ale as possessing "a delicate fruitiness often met by light notes of licorice, aniseed, fennel, orange peel or cinnamon."
Oliver suggests matching the pale ale with roasted chicken. "A good Belgian pale ale can turn a simple roasted chicken from an ordinary meal into a culinary event," he writes. "Herbs are the key. Some sage, thyme, or rosemary on the skin, under the skin, or in the stuffing will link up with the herbal flavors in the beer and really light up the meal."
"I love wine," said Oliver. "I’ve sat on wine panels for the New York Times. I can discuss the vintages of Barolo for an hour. But at the end of the day, beer just has this wonderful peacock display of flavors to work with and to pair food to."
If you’re not interested in which producer brews weissbier (wheat beer) or what brewery is known for its barley wine (strong, dark, bittersweet, malty) then flip to the "crib sheet" at the end of the book for a listing of food and beer pairings: Au gratin potatoes (Doppelbock, dunkel, Oktoberfest marzen); tiramisu (sweet fruit beer, cream stout, Baltic porter). Trying to find a match for wild boar? Oliver suggests strong Scotch ale.
Oliver described the similarities between his early filmmaking and his work in the brewery. "If you know how to handle a camera and lighting, then you know how the equipment works," he told GO Brooklyn. "But, if you have nothing in your heart to express then you’ll put something on the screen that’s technically proficient but empty. If you have lots of passion but you don’t know how to use the camera, then you won’t be able to express your vision. Brewing is the same way. You need to blend art and science in order to run off your vision."
Oliver’s passion and technical expertise have contributed to the making of world-class beers that have won numerous honors including the Russell Schehrer Award for Innovation and Excellence in Brewing, the highest award given within the United States brewing profession.
"If you learn a little bit about beers’ flavors, then you’ll spend two or three dollars on beer that does wonders for your food," said Oliver. "As far as I’m concerned, you’re just going to have a better life."
"The Brewmaster’s Table: Discovering the Pleasures of Real Beer with Real Food" is available through most major booksellers and at the Brooklyn Brewery (79 N. 11th St. at Wythe Avenue in Williamsburg) during tasting hours - Fridays, 6 pm-10 pm, and Saturdays, noon-5 pm).