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Interview with Brewmaster Garrett Oliver

Interview with Brewmaster Garrett Oliver Photo

Photo by IgoUgo Staff

Posted on March 10, 2008 in Trip Ideas

Brooklyn Brewery Brewmaster Garrett Oliver is famous not only for the high-quality craftsmanship of his beer, but for his almost unique ability to pair beer and food. We’re not talking about coupling cold beers and burgers either; we’re talking Belgian trappist with “monkfish sautéed with bacon and mushrooms,” or a pale ale from Colorado with “Thai crab cakes.” An author, sommelier, and gourmet, Garrett can also add “world traveler” to his impressive resume; his job includes extensive travels to search for new brews, talk to other brewmasters, and visit breweries around the world. We asked him some questions about the seemingly universal appeal of beer.

IgoUgo: Like traveling, beer appreciation is possible for just about everyone, yet it is not always immediately feasible. How do you make beer and food pairing accessible to everyone, from people who “don’t like beer” to those with a highly refined palate?
Garrett Oliver: If there’s one thing I’ve discovered after more than 500 beer dinners and tastings, it’s that almost everyone has a perfectly good palate. The most important thing is an open mind. I’ve seen grandmothers who initially said “I don’t like beer” end up going for strong complex Belgian ales or roasty imperial stouts when they’re paired with the right food. I never think that a beer is too outlandish or unusual for people—if the beer is really good, and you give people the right context for the beer, most people will enjoy the vast majority of things you put in front of them.

IgoUgo: Brooklyn—and New York City in general—has a pretty rich history of beer-making, yet it is only relatively recently that the tradition has picked up again, and Brooklyn Brewery has really helped spearhead that resurgence. People travel all over the world for their love of wine; do you think that New York, or anywhere in the US, will become the same sort of destination for beer-loving travelers as, say, Germany or the Czech Republic?
Garrett Oliver: I think that many travelers already have beer somewhere on the agenda when they travel to beer-centric cities like San Diego and Portland. The tours at The Brooklyn Brewery are very popular with both American and foreign tourists, and I think that’s a growing trend. We have hundreds of people here every Saturday for tours, and our Friday night “Happy Hour” is always packed. We’re not Brussels yet, but we’re getting there.

IgoUgo: Your book The Brewmaster’s Table: Discovering the Pleasures of Real Beer with Real Food is the gold standard for beer and food pairings and appreciation. Food and travel often go hand in hand for people looking to expand their horizons or live “the good life.” Why do you think that is, and where does beer fit in?
Garrett Oliver: Beer is the new affordable luxury in dining. Many of the best beers in the world cost less than a latte at Starbucks, which is pretty amazing. So most of the world’s great beers are very accessible, and they’re increasingly available in great restaurants. In New York City, top-rated Gramercy Tavern even has a vintage beer list! Not far away, you have places like the Michelin-starred pub The Spotted Pig serving great beer and The Blind Tiger Ale House pairing a huge beer list with some deceptively accomplished bar food. Beer fits in everywhere because the range of flavors is so wide, and beer is the best accompaniment for the food we actually eat every day, especially as we’re no longer a “meat and potatoes” nation.

IgoUgo: We love your beer reviews. You are one of the few, if not the only, great reviewers who always mentions what food would go well with each beer. Does this vary from time to time and, more importantly, from place to place? That is, if you’re enjoying a breakfast wheat beer in Germany, are you inherently going to be craving a weisswurst to accompany it?
Garrett Oliver: I used to be the only reviewer who ever mentioned food, but others seem to have picked it up, which is great. I do enjoy the classic pairings like weissbier and weisswurst, Guinness and oysters, etc. But maybe even more fun is discovering new pairings. A few weeks ago I led a pairing class at a local Whole Foods—our beers matched with the excellent chocolates from Fritz Knipschild. The pairings worked really well and some of them were very surprising. I always love pairing challenges. That’s why I enjoy my “wine vs. beer” cheese-pairing competitions against sommeliers—I always learn something new. And I always win!

IgoUgo: Aside from work, do you travel specifically for a certain beer? What is one of your favorite beers you’ve ever had while traveling?
Garrett Oliver: In order to enjoy English beers at their best, you really do need to be near the breweries—the traditional cask-conditioned ale doesn’t always travel well. I’ve had very memorable pints of Adnam’s Southwold Bitter in the town of Southwold. And now England’s best cellarman, Mark Dorber, runs a hotel and pub called The Anchor right nearby in Walberswick (a nice young lady rows you across the small river between the towns in about two minutes, and it’s very cool!). Anyone looking to travel to the English seaside should put The Anchor towards the top of their list—no doubt they’ll have a brilliant experience and great beer served by a master of the art.

IgoUgo: If you could go anywhere in the world for one last meal and one last brew, where it would be and why?
Garrett Oliver: I’d have to do it Mitterand-style and call all my chef friends to my house and ask them one last favor: a great dish. My many wine friends, beer friends and cocktail friends would provide excellent libations. Mitterand’s last meal lasted for two days, if I recall. I don’t expect to enjoy that meal for a great many years, hopefully!

IgoUgo: People have “must-go” lists—places they are dying to visit. Do you have “must-brew” lists with flavors or colors you are trying to achieve or ingredients you have yet to use?
Garrett Oliver: I want to go to Thailand specifically for the food, though I think I’ll want to carry some American IPAs (India Pale Ales) with me.

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