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home Home > Subscribe to Ratebeer.com Weekly RateBeer Archives > Interviews

Garrett Oliver

Beer and food maverick
Interviews May 5, 2005      
Written by joet


Garrett Oliver is head brewer at Brooklyn Brewery, author, speaker and bon vivant who has been at the forefront of stressing beer’s importance at the table. We spoke last Friday by phone -- I interrupted some important orders at the brewery -- and by chat.

<table border=0 cellpadding=0 cellspacing=0 align=right> <tr><td>   </td><td class=beerfoot align=center><IMG border=0 SRC=/images/features/goliver.jpg>
Garrett Oliver</td></tr></table>

ratebeer_joet: Hey Garrett. OK, bye by phone.

ratebeer_joet: You there?

<font color=black>Garrett_Oliver:</font> ghhjkhjkkj

ratebeer_joet: Ummm, great. Ok so you’re very unique in this space of food and beer... there are other people acting as apologists for beer in what might be considered a less than comfortable space

ratebeer_joet: but you’re definitely pushing boundaries.

ratebeer_joet: How did you find yourself here?

<font color=black>Garrett_Oliver:</font> When you say apologists, do you mean apparent beer enthusiasts who still don’t believe in beer’s place with food?

ratebeer_joet: Apologists meaning those who are explaining beers role at the table, often to unbelievers...

ratebeer_joet: there are a few people doing this but few – well, none - with your level of focus

<font color=black>Garrett_Oliver:</font> Well, I’d perhaps quarrel with the term - to me "apologist" means someone who overlooks shortcomings, such as macro beer apologists who say that a cold PBR is a fine thing.

ratebeer_joet: Ha ha

<font color=black>Garrett_Oliver:</font> My level of focus on this comes directly through the way that I eat and the way that I live.

<font color=black>Garrett_Oliver:</font> I mean, we all eat dinner every day, and I don’t know about you, but I’m not having Coca Cola or water with dinner. So it’s going to be wine, beer, sake, etc. and over time, despite the fact that I know a fair bit about wine, I’ve decided that beer is superior.


ratebeer_joet: And you’re in touch with foodies quite regularly obviously

<font color=black>Garrett_Oliver:</font> Well, here’s the difference - to some extent I am a "foodie", but I actually have a problem with the concept of a "foodie".

ratebeer_joet: tell me

<font color=black>Garrett_Oliver:</font> In Italy, if you tried to explain to someone what a "foodie" is, they couldn’t understand you. They’d say, "as opposed to what"? They don’t know anyone who doesn’t care what they eat. Every Italian is a "foodie", so the word would have no meaning.

ratebeer_joet: It’s culturally contextual...

<font color=black>Garrett_Oliver:</font> I really don’t understand people who don’t care about food, and I’ve stopped trying to understand them. I don’t really know many people like that anymore. Some people would say this is elitist, but I think it’s quite the opposite.

<font color=black>Garrett_Oliver:</font> Some of the world’s greatest cuisine is based on poverty. Making stocks, etc. is based on the principle that you can’t afford to throw away food. Americans throw away food, throw away their time. People who say they don’t have time to cook somehow find time to watch every episode of "Desperate Housewives". So the question is, how will you spend your time and your money and with whom?

The food revolution

ratebeer_joet: Let me ask you this then... I see this cultural change as stemming from somewhere in the 1970s and largely piggybacking on the wine revolution.

ratebeer_joet: Craft wine was in an infant stage back then

ratebeer_joet: and the new food sensibility we have now is a relatively new phenomonon

ratebeer_joet: We’ve seen new appreciation for coffee, cheese, bread. Is beer in there?

<font color=black>Garrett_Oliver:</font> I think beer is in there, and that it’s the new affordable luxury. Some of the best beers in the world cost less than a coffee at Starbucks. That’s amazing, and I’m not sure people really appreciate it yet.

ratebeer_joet: If you took a look into your crystal ball, where will beer end up -- I mean there are no Budweisers of wine, and Starbucks has killed general foods coffees

ratebeer_joet: Wonder Bread died last year. Bud, Miller and Coors haven’t had the fate of other poor quality mass produced products.

<font color=black>Garrett_Oliver:</font> But I do think they will. The big thing to realize is that craft beer isn’t a fad, but a return to NORMALITY. There are supposed to be many types of beer, bread and cheese. To have it any other way is unnatural.

<font color=black>Garrett_Oliver:</font> Wonder Bread died because Wonder Bread is not bread.

ratebeer_joet: Hehe...

ratebeer_joet: Foam bread is a staple here with barbeque -- very unfortunate

<font color=black>Garrett_Oliver:</font> Let’s face facts. Bread has a few ingredients and is fresh for a day or two. It doesn’t have 20 ingredients and stay "fresh" in a plastic bag for two weeks.

<font color=black>Garrett_Oliver:</font> The stuff that most Americans call bread is in fact a chemical sponge. People do know what real bread is, but they’ve gotten used to a bread facsimile. In my opinion, the same thing happened to beer. People drink beer facsimiles. Now they’re rediscovering the real thing.

<font color=black>Garrett_Oliver:</font> I love this country, but who else in the world would even consider eating plastic "cheese" from a can? Wine is doing very well, partly because people see it as a ticket into the middle or even upper middle class.

<font color=black>Garrett_Oliver:</font> It has a powerful social context going back to the Norman Conquest, when France took over England. Even the British royal family’s motto is in French - there are very strong reasons why people see wine as sophisticated.

Beer snooty?

ratebeer_joet: Do you think beer has to gentrify before it has similar acceptance?

<font color=black>Garrett_Oliver:</font> I do think beer has to "re-naturalize". By that, I meant that it has to break down into its natural categories - high and low.

<font color=black>Garrett_Oliver:</font> Wine, of course, has these categories. Go to any small winery in the south of France or Italy and they’ll have their bottled wine, but they’ll also have those two gasoline hoses on the wall. Red or white? You bring your bucket and fill up. This idea of wine being instantly sophisticated - well, the French and Italians know better.

ratebeer_joet: It’s amazing that many people can go to their local supermarket and buy a world class beer for the price of a couple slices of pizza.

ratebeer_joet: Will this change?

<font color=black>Garrett_Oliver:</font> I think that some beer should cost more than it does. But beer will remain less costly than wine, which is great for the consumer.

ratebeer_joet: We’ve seen some price hikes but we’re still talking about prices that are 1/10 to 1/100th of similar quality wines

<font color=black>Garrett_Oliver:</font> I’m hoping that people will discover beer’s special talents. The culinary power of flavors like roast and caramelization often go far beyond what a wine can do. I’m glad to see Deus out there for $30 per bottle. It tastes a hell of a lot better than Veuve Cliquot (which is revered here, but is pretty dreadful stuff).


ratebeer_joet: We’ve talked about some consumer resistance to beer but how about acceptance among -- ok not "foodies" -- but the food establishment? When I heard your story about talking to (I believe you said the CIA), and having to call 8 times or so before they agreed to site down to taste your free beer demonstration, I said "Aha, I guess I have to ask people to free beer more than twice." Why is it that some foodies are resistant to the idea of beer at the table?

<font color=black>Garrett_Oliver:</font> Americans tend to be willing to believe that imported things are always better. Sometimes they are - I haven’t had an American tripel that would beat Westmalle. But Stella?

ratebeer_joet: The British slogan is hilarious something like "assuringly expensive"

<font color=black>Garrett_Oliver:</font> I think that the class connotation of beer is so powerful that people feel it necessary to defend wine when it doesn’t need defending. "Assuringly expensive" is not only hilarious, but shows a perfect understanding of what’s going on in people’s minds.

<font color=black>Garrett_Oliver:</font> Wine is great. I drink it all the time, I’ve given four wine tastings myself in the past year, and I sit on New York Times wine tasting panels. But the idea that wine is better with food is hogwash. Which is why I like to compete with sommeliers in front of an audience.

<font color=black>Garrett_Oliver:</font> Then people are forced to face their prejudices.

<font color=black>Garrett_Oliver:</font> When it is clearly demonstrated that, for example, Corsendonk Brown Ale is better with braised short ribs than a bottle of Bordeaux, then you have to start thinking harder about your choices.

ratebeer_joet: Yes, obviously. And this isn’t a natural question for those in the food industry?

ratebeer_joet: You’d think they’d suffer less of the same marketing-related deficiencies and be more explorative

ratebeer_joet: than consumers

<font color=black>Garrett_Oliver:</font> I’m doing a benefit for the American Institute of Wine and Food in about ten days. It’s a "cheese war" - me vs. Paul Grieco, the James Beard Award-winning sommelier. Beer vs. wine. Should be fun. People often don’t want to explore - they want to be assured that they’re correct. I like to upset that apple cart.

<font color=black>Garrett_Oliver:</font> Restaurants need to ask themselves, why, when we have an excellent wine list, does out beer list look like it came from a gas station?

ratebeer_joet: ha!


<font color=black>Garrett_Oliver:</font> And unfortunately, that’s still very common.

ratebeer_joet: Even in places like New York and San Francisco.

ratebeer_joet: I still send letters and make phone calls.

ratebeer_joet: I’ve seen a few changes.

<font color=black>Garrett_Oliver:</font> I’m working hard to change that. Some restaurants are worried that they will lose their wine sales. Wine sales are critical because the prices are cranked through the roof. If it’s on the menu for $30, chances are it cost the restaurant $10.

ratebeer_joet: Ah, that’s an important point. The profit margins are different for beer.

<font color=black>Garrett_Oliver:</font> People are loath to give up that cash. But they don’t have to. They can match great beers with the appetizers and desserts. But relatively few have the courage to approach the customer with a beer choice. That’s too bad, because they’d find customers to be very willing to listen and try something new.

<font color=black>Garrett_Oliver:</font> My favorite beer list is "Higgins" in Portland. They won Best Restaurant Northwest from Beard House - they’re no slouches. Huge wine list. Huge - and brilliant - beer list.

<font color=black>Garrett_Oliver:</font> They even have an "after-dinner" beer list. When I saw that I almost cried. That’s where things need to go.

ratebeer_joet: Wow. How do you think they deal with the revenue issue?

<font color=black>Garrett_Oliver:</font> They don’t have to. A bottle of Westmalle Tripel is $13 at Gramercy Tavern, the top restaurant in NYC. People shell out happily, and have for years. But Gramercy Tavern is a great restaurant precisely because they lead, they don’t follow.

<font color=black>Garrett_Oliver:</font> Great restaurants don’t just make great food - they teach. A great meal doesn’t just fill you up and entertain you, it shows you something brand new to like. That’s what I hope we do when we serve our beer to new customers.

The forefront is the fringe

ratebeer_joet: At the forefront you may or may not look back to see how out on the fringe you are. Are craft beer folks odd?

ratebeer_joet: Some of the flavors are very uncommon

ratebeer_joet: as with berliner weisse or geuze

<font color=black>Garrett_Oliver:</font> Believe me, if you’re in the beer business, you can’t help but notice how far out on the fringe you are. I was in Copenhagen in February, doing beer dinners at Noma, one of the top restaurants in Denmark.

<font color=black>Garrett_Oliver:</font> I served Hanssens Gueuze with one of the courses.

ratebeer_joet: (I’m grinning already...)

<font color=black>Garrett_Oliver:</font> And I told the crowd, "Look, you may hate this beer or you may love it, but I didn’t come here to have you love every beer. I came here to show you something that you might not otherwise ever taste in your life".

<font color=black>Garrett_Oliver:</font> And they not only respected that, but some people asked where they could get the beer afterwards.

ratebeer_joet: Wow. That’s great.

<font color=black>Garrett_Oliver:</font> Here’s the elitist thing - to think that your palate, your level of sophistication, allows you to appreciate things that other will not. Wrong.

The right approach

<font color=black>Garrett_Oliver:</font> Most people actually have good palates. They are willing to be adventurous. And they know good things when they taste them.

<font color=black>Garrett_Oliver:</font> I can’t tell you how many people - women in particular - have said to me "I don’t really like beer - I usually drink Coors Light - but I’m loving this IPA". I mean......WHAT?!

<font color=black>Garrett_Oliver:</font> The point is that open-mindedness IS sophistication. Closed-mindedness - which still plagues the food press - is the opposite of sophistication.

<font color=black>Garrett_Oliver:</font> What we really need to do is to write our newspapers asking for coverage of beer.

<font color=black>Garrett_Oliver:</font> Beer sells far more than wine does in this country, and craft beer sales are higher than good wine sales.

<font color=black>Garrett_Oliver:</font> But newspapers that cover wine once a week cover beer once a year? Why? Partly because they know so little about beer that they actually CAN’T write about it.

<font color=black>Garrett_Oliver:</font> That’s one reason why I try so hard to do tastings for editorial staffs.

<font color=black>Garrett_Oliver:</font> That’s where the real influence and power is.

<font color=black>Garrett_Oliver:</font> I’m also thrilled that Eric Asimov, who I’ve been friends with for 15 years, is now Chief Wine Critic for the NY Times.

<font color=black>Garrett_Oliver:</font> He’s been covering beer, and guess what? The beer articles get much more response from readers than the wine articles do.

ratebeer_joet: Beer is approachable an "affordable luxury"

ratebeer_joet: So why more questions about beer?

<font color=black>Garrett_Oliver:</font> This is partly because the big secret is that good wine drinkers and good beer drinkers tend to be the same people.

<font color=black>Garrett_Oliver:</font> I wrote "The Brewmaster’s Table" [now available in paperback -- jt] to show people why beer was interesting, what it tastes like, and most importantly, what it can do for them. That’s what people want to know. Do you know the top question asked of sommeliers? "What’s the best wine for Thanksgiving dinner?" People want useful information.

ratebeer_joet: And beer is a rich and welcoming place to explore.

<font color=black>Garrett_Oliver:</font> Look, if you try a bottle of some beer you’ve never had, and you don’t like it, what’ve you lost - $2.00? Try that with a bottle of Burgundy and you’ll be crying over it. People should experiment.

Words just for you

ratebeer_joet: We try to do a little of that at RateBeer. Any words for RateBeeria?

<font color=black>Garrett_Oliver:</font> Support your local brewery. Don’t be constantly asking for all the taps at your local beer bar to change constantly, because you’ll actually kill your local brewery.

<font color=black>Garrett_Oliver:</font> I’d rather have you drink good beer from your local brewery than ask a bar owner to take their beer off to put on a special keg from me. It’s not right.

<font color=black>Garrett_Oliver:</font> I’m glad people want Brooklyn beer, but I’ll take the Bass line, thank you!

ratebeer_joet: hehe

ratebeer_joet: Thanks much for your time, Garrett.

ratebeer_joet: It was a pleasure.

<font color=black>Garrett_Oliver:</font> You’re quite welcome. Thanks, Joe.



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start quote The big thing to realize is that craft beer isn’t a fad, but a return to NORMALITY. There are supposed to be many types of beer, bread and cheese. To have it any other way is unnatural. end quote