Garrett Oliver, the brewmaster behind the popular craft brand Brooklyn Brewery, did not set out to become one of the nation’s foremost authorities on beer. He simply followed his thirst.
“I got into brewing in order to have beer,” Oliver confesses. After returning to the US from a year in England during the early 1980s, where he’d fallen in love with European beers, “I was like, ‘Oh no.’ There was only this thin yellow liquid to drink” – what Oliver terms “industrial beer.” Lacking Old World beer, he applied a New World solution: “I started making beer at home.”
And did he ever.
After home-brewing and learning his craft at other brewers, Oliver joined Brooklyn Brewery as brewmaster -- its ‘chef’ -- in 1994. Since then, he’s been one of a group of young American craft brewers who have led a vital and thriving American craft brewing industry.
Oliver says the growth of American craft brewing was “absolutely exponential. When I started professionally in 1989…craft beer was pretty much unknown to most people, and now it’s sort of become completely mainstream.” There are now over two thousand craft breweries in the US.
Oliver has also seen a change in the perception of American beer among foreign brewers.
“When I traveled around and I said I’m a brewer from the U.S., people would look at me with this look of pity, and say, ‘Oh yes, we have heard of your American beer.’ They didn’t even show the slightest bit of respect. Now, when you go overseas and you say ‘I’m an American craft brewer,’ it really means something.”
In Oliver’s view, the U.S. has taken the lead in creative craft brewing from its European rivals.
“You’re talking about a beer that is really made for flavor. It is not brewed to be a mass-market thing. It’s an individualistic vision, usually by a smaller company looking to create something new, exciting and different, by traditional methods.”
To extend the mainstreaming of craft beer, Oliver would like for people to think of it in the same way they think about wine – as a dignified, yet versatile, beverage.
“Beer is actually much more of a varied drink than wine is…it is actually a better pairing partner for food.”
Oliver has some basic suggestions for those new to beer pairings. First, match food with a beer that will provide balance. “You don’t want a big beer versus a very light dish; you want these things well matched when it comes to overall weight.”
Next, “find the part of the beer’s flavor that might link up with some part of the food’s flavor.” Oliver offers the example of a beer that has some caramelized flavors, like a lager. “What foods have caramelized flavors? Anything that’s on a grill,” such as roast chicken, or steak. “Because of the caramelization thing, it’s all about the char on that steak.”
For fried chicken? A pale ale. “You want enough bitterness to cut through what is essentially salt and fat.”
Fish and vegetables call for something lighter, such as wheat beer. “These are beers that have relatively low bitterness, and the flavor won’t get in the way of the seafood.”
And for those cornerstones of American cuisine, pizza and burgers? “I think you want something dry. It can be a really nice, sharp pilsner.” Other beer enthusiasts may prefer an IPA, or India Pale Ale – a brew that’s “big, bold, bitter, [with]huge, floral citrus hop.”
Oliver says he is happy to see new craft beer fans come to the table, literal and figurative.
“For a lot of people, coming to craft beer is like discovering some brand new kind of music that you’ve never even heard about, and now you get to enjoy it for the rest of your life. I mean, what’s better than that?”