4 Questions for Brooklyn Brewery’s Garrett Oliver

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4 Questions for Brooklyn Brewery’s Garrett Oliver

Since 1987, Brooklyn Brewery has seen the beer scene turn over. As it evolves, brewmaster Garrett Oliver watches and makes the beer that interests him. Whether influenced by the low gravity of UK bitters, the growing beer culture in Scandinavia, or the continually changing American palate, Oliver finds something to pique his interest in both the history and future of beer.

For the most part, Brooklyn has been ahead of the curve. They introduced Scorcher, a session IPA, in 2004, and confused the world with its lesser alcohol content. Similarly, Oliver recalls the 1990s, when beers such as IPAs required their full name (India Pale Ale) to relay their message. Today, with 4,000 breweries open, he’s watching a new development in the IPA world and the potential boom or bust of sour beers. And he’s opinionated on those topics, as well as what Brooklyn’s role should be as modern brewers carve a new niche in the marketplace after years of being blanketed by louder, larger macro brands.

Paste: With a sister brewery in Sweden (Nya Carnegiebryggeriet), how do you view the growth of American style beers in Europe?

Garrett Oliver: We’ve gone from a situation where, as a younger brewer, I would go overseas and say, “Hey I’m Garrett, and I’m a brewer in the United States,” and they would say, “Oh yes, so sorry.” Their outlook was basically, “Your beers are dismal and nobody has any interest in them at all.” They didn’t know what was going on in American craft beer. Now everybody knows.

What’s fascinating is, take IPA: now the number one craft beer style. When I started brewing professionally in 1989, IPA was a historical British style that almost nobody brewed. At that time, IPA really wasn’t anything in the United States. Today, IPA is not a historical British style, it’s a modern American style. The place where you are least likely to taste a British style IPA is in Britain. What you have, by and large in the British brewing scene, is a super American outlook. And you see that being replicated all over the world.

We’re proud that we’ve made an impact, but eventually it gets a bit boring because everywhere you go people are brewing American IPA. We have 10,000 of those in the United States, so I’m not so interested in the foreign versions. What’s great is to see other countries move past that and discover themselves. Look at all the beer coming out of Brazil with distinct flavors that we can’t do in the United States because we don’t have those ingredients. That’s something that really excites me.

Paste: How do you view that evolution of the IPA in the bigger picture? Is that evolution a natural process?

Oliver: What we see right now, I would call it part of a recovery process. People often don’t realize that in a place like New York in the 1880s-1890s, you would have seen the most diverse beer culture in the world. We had everything: massive imports from Germany and the UK. We had New York breweries that specialized in weissbier or porter or IPAs. There was so much Guinness being drunk in New York City that they built a Guinness brewery on Long Island.

We forgot that history. We had everything already. When it comes back, we act like it’s new. What we have going on now—sour beers, IPAs, they do come back in slightly different forms with new ingredients. People might have a bigger cross pollination of ideas, with the way that people and ideas can travel these days. But I think that understanding the traditions is super important to knowing who you are and where you are in this flow of history, and that makes this whole thing so much deeper.

One of my concerns, and I’m not sure there’s anything I can do about it, is I feel that we’re giving our history away. IPA is a good example: black IPA, white IPA, wheat IPA, this IPA, that IPA. Anything with hops in it is now an IPA. India Pale Ale is an amazing story and it was super specific in its heyday. We’re throwing that out the window to the extent that you have new beer drinkers coming in saying, “I don’t really understand what IPA is.” We’re throwing away our nomenclature, and nomenclature is power. The French understand this really well. There’s champagne and there’s rose champagne. There’s no such thing as red champagne, there will never be red champagne. If you say to any chef anywhere in the world, “Make me a hollandaise sauce,” he makes you essentially the same sauce. If you add tarragon, it’s a different sauce. It gets a different name and you leave the style name of that food alone. When you invent something, it gets a different name.

To me that’s really important because we’re going to end up with eight style names and nobody will know what they mean because they won’t mean anything. Look at the way wine is respected in the restaurant world. Part of that is because people can grasp on and understand it. It can be explained. The fact that we now have the Cicerone program is really important. Programs like that will help hold the line so we can have a nomenclature. I think that has no negative effects at all on creativity. People will keep doing exactly what they’re doing, only they’ll be able to describe it to people.

At Brooklyn Brewery we’ve never been super traditional—we are in our overall brewing methods—but Brooklyn Lager is our main beer. What style is Brooklyn Lager? It’s closest to a Vienna lager but it’s very much its own thing. Most of the things we’ve made don’t necessarily fit into styles. Sorachi Ace is definitely within the saison style, but it has a twist.

We don’t really think about the beer culture as a static thing. As you see these things flourish in the United States, I look at an arc of history, like a big flowing river, and we are 10,000 years down the river and we get to throw our own rock in. You might be creative and you might be a good brewer but you’re part of a flow of thousands and thousands of people who have been making this wonderful drink. And that should be good enough.

Paste: What do you think when you see beer styles you’ve made earlier now catching on as the next big thing?

Oliver: These things come in waves, and I guess it’s just like being a musician. The early punk bands, they said there were only 25 people at each show but each person who went those shows then went and started a band. I think that should be an effect you hope to have. It’s a serious form of flattery if people are doing something you came up with. We didn’t get our stuff out of thin air either. There was somebody there before you and hopefully you learn something from it.

Paste: Are you ever surprised at what catches on?

Oliver: The rise of IPA is really interesting to me because Americans are famous throughout the world for hating bitterness and for having a sweet tooth. So you would have thought IPA would be the last thing to take off here, but instead, it becomes the main style.

There’s a big debate now among brewers as to whether sour is “the next IPA.” Some brewers who were pioneers in sours say absolutely not, and some people are saying definitely. It’s one of those things where there can be a fine line between where something can be just for geeks and where a wider range of people can enjoy it. I think there will be a sweet spot for sour beers and that brewers will put out gateway beers into the range of sours.

And there’s a new aspect that I’ve never seen before, I would say that right now sour beers have maybe one-quarter of one-percent of the craft beer market. However, these same beers are about 85% of the talk. If you go to a rare beer festival, 85% of the beer will either be sour or funky. It’s the biggest discrepancy between reality and aspiration that I’ve ever seen. Does this aspiration turn into reality…or stay where it started? I think it will take off, certainly in pockets. But how fast it goes and where it goes, that will be an interesting thing to watch.

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