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Q & A: Garrett Oliver



July 20, 2009


Garrett OliverBrewmaster of the Brooklyn Brewery and author of The Brewmaster’s Table, Garrett Oliver knows his beer, how to make it, and what to eat with it. We got in touch with him to find out which restaurants have the best beer programs and his thoughts on the beer cocktail fad. James Beard Foundation: How did you get involved in beer and brewing? Garrett Oliver: I lived in London for a year in the mid-1980s and fell in love with traditional British beer. Then I traveled all over Europe and had great beers there, too. When I got home, I found that I could no longer drink American beer. It was 1984 and almost all American beers were mass-market concoctions that tasted like water. I started making beer at home so I’d have something nice to drink. It was a slippery slope, and I eventually fell in. JBF: What experience did you have before becoming brewmaster for the Brooklyn Brewery? GO: I went to work for brewmaster Mark Witty, who had come from Samuel Smith’s in England, at Manhattan Brewing Company in 1989. This was a huge brewpub in Soho, one of the first in the country. I became brewmaster there in early 1993 and went to Brooklyn Brewery towards the end of 1994. JBF: Do you do your own brewing at home? GO: No, these days I unleash all my brewing ideas on the general public! JBF: Mixology has resurged in popularity over the past couple of years, with many restaurants developing elaborate cocktail programs; do you think beer will eventually get the same treatment? GO: A lot of the top mixologists are good friends of mine, and I find cocktails fascinating. Craft beer is already catching on in better restaurants. Gramercy Tavern even has a “vintage” beer list, and we make a beer exclusively for Thomas Keller’s restaurants—it’s called Blue Apron. When the French Laundry is having its own beer made, you know something is happening in the culinary world. JBF: Recently we started to see beer cocktails at places like PDT in New York and Alembic in San Francisco. What do you think of this trend? Have you tried any? GO: I’ve tried many of them and, although I tend to be a “beer purist,” I have to admit that some of them are really delicious. I did a tasting of Black Velvets (stout and Champagne) with Toby Cecchini at the New York Times, and while some were lacking, some blends were brilliant. JBF: What restaurants, in your mind, have exceptional beer programs? GO: The Publican in Chicago, Gramercy Tavern in New York City, the Armsby Abbey in Worcester, MA, Higgins in Portland, OR, the Ravenous Pig in Orlando, FL—there are plenty these days. And these are very serious restaurants, so it’s great to see them stepping up in the beer department. As much as I love wine, beer is a much more versatile partner for food and has a far wider range of flavor, so I think it’s a natural evolution and we’ll see it advance even further over the next several years.