Meet the Authority: Garrett Oliver Discusses Beer, Food and Collaborative Brewing
Interview held August 2007 at Brooklyn Brewery
For our inaugural "Meet the Authority" interview, the folks at GreatBrewers.com only thought it appropriate to interview the man who’s writing the book on beer, quite literally. Garrett Oliver has been asked to write, curate, and edit the Oxford Companion to Beer for the Oxford University Press. Before Garrett embarks on this ambitious undertaking, we paid him a visit to discuss beer, food, and international collaborative brewing.
The world’s preeminent authority on beer and food, Garrett also wrote the book on this subject. An internationally acclaimed brewer himself, Garrett spent years scouring the breweries and eateries of Europe and discovering a myriad of culinary delights, which culminated in the publishing of his 2003 book, The Brewmaster’s Table: Discovering the Pleasures of Real Beer with Real Food.
During Garrett's years of globe trotting in search of beer and food bliss, he surprised himself on some occasions with the harmony of certain pairings. In one such situation, Garrett was impressed with "how well a lot of malty German beers, double bocks for example, worked with traditional Mexican food." Garrett explains that "it wasn’t on my list, at all, of things to pair with traditional Mexican food. I thought hoppier pale ales, and it’s not that that’s not true, it is, but there are a lot of things going on in traditional Mexican food that lend themselves to smoky, toffeeish, earthy characteristics." While writing his book, Garrett recalls “sitting with an editor from Gourmet Magazine who was helping me work through this stuff, and I said 'check out this mushroom quesadilla with the Schlenkerla,' and he was absolutely categorical, 'I hate smoked beer.' I said, 'no, no, no, no, have it with the food,' and he was like 'my God, this is tremendous!' I said, 'try it with everything,' and we started trying smoke beer with everything." Reminiscing about one of his earliest discoveries, Garrett mentions, "I still remember sitting at a café along the side of a canal in Amsterdam with an open faced smoked salmon with cheese and everything else on ciabatta, and I had this big glass of [Belgian] wheat beer, and I thought, 'this is like the best thing in the whole world,' it was just so perfect."
While Garrett is celebrated globally as a brewer, he is feared locally by New York City’s finest wine sommeliers for his impressive record in winning "Iron Sommelier" competitions. At the time of publishing, Garrett is batting 1000, as he has impressed upon every single audience attending these friendly, educational events that beer makes a superior accompaniment to food than wine.
Most people are comfortable serving beer with pizza or pub grub, but how can beer exceed wine in its ability to harmonize with all types of food? Garrett explains that "beer has a much broader range of flavors than wine does…even though both wine and beer are complex, the range of flavor for beer is much wider than the range of flavor for wine. Being a fan of wine myself, I know this is a sacrilege to say, but the fact of the matter is that for the average person with an untrained palate, white wine tastes like white wine, and red wine tastes like red wine. Yes, people can tell the difference between a California zinfandel and a light pinot noir, but you’re really looking at gradations of similar flavors to most people in most cases. That’s not true with beer. Weisse beer doesn’t taste anything like IPA, doesn’t taste anything like brown ale, doesn’t taste anything like rauchbier (smoke beer), doesn’t taste anything like imperial stout." The key to exceptional pairings lies in considering the full range of beer styles available, and selecting the right style to complement a particular dish.
The Iron Sommelier events that Garrett competes in draw a large number of wine buffs, who are frequently skeptical that beer can be a suitable pairing for a wide range of food. Surprising to some, particularly the competing wine sommeliers, every single audience, including a large group attending an American Institute of Wine and Food fundraiser, has conceded that beer is, in fact, superior overall in pairing with food. So how does Garrett consistently defeat wine superstars such as Paul Grieco in convincing crowds that beer can work better with food? Sharing some of his secrets, Garrett offers that "I can bring caramelized flavors to something like a sheep’s milk cheese from the Pyrenees, which you can approach pretty well with certain white wines, but not as well as you can with a brown ale. So the sheep’s milk round of any of these events, I kind of already know in advance that I’m going to win. Washed rind cheeses, or stinky cheeses, are very difficult to pair with wines, but much easier to pair with beers, especially Belgian styles. They have such earthiness to them that finding a wine that will actually work well with that pungency can be tough, but again, beer has an easier time. For wines, you are generally looking for things with more subtle differences. And there are obviously great pairings that you can do with wines, but for most people, on a day to day basis, for beer, once you understand a little bit about styles and whatever else – that an IPA is going to be hoppy and dry and bitter and relatively pale and great with spicy food – that’s kind of all you need to know, and it’s not that hard to really get a grip on it. These big areas of beer flavor are pretty easy to get a grip on. And when the wine person comes to do one of these tastings, the flavors in beer are, in fact, so much more complimentary, that it really turns out that the wine person is almost handicapped in this situation, while they usually don’t know it."
The record shows that you’ve defeated Paul Grieco three times in these competitions. Any comments? Garrett chuckles, "Paul’s a wine genius, he’s won numerous awards for best sommelier, but the liquid he’s working with just doesn’t have quite the same skill."
Garrett has been collaborating with brewers internationally since 1999, sharing regionally influenced brewing techniques and developing innovative new beers. Most recently, he worked with Schneider Brewmaster Hans-Peter Drexler to produce a dry-hopped weissbock. At Privatbrauerei G. Schneider & Sohn in Kelheim, Germany, the duo brewed Schneider-Brooklyner Hopfen-Weisse, and at Garrett's home base, the Brooklyn Brewery, they brewed Brooklyner-Schneider Hopfen-Weisse. "The idea was that he would brew an expression of his ideas about American hops [with Palisades and Amarillo hop varieties], and I would brew the expression of his local area, which to me is more interesting," explains Garrett. "For my hop addition, we picked the Saphir variety, which is a new Hallertau variety growing in the fields right around Kelheim. I thought that it would be really cool to brew a beer that expresses [Bavaria’s] local terroir."
Pointing out that Germany has not produced a new style of beer in decades, Garrett hopes that "this is also a way for us to give something back, because we’ve learned so much from the Europeans about these wonderful beer styles. Now, I think the United States is exporting creativity and passion and excitement. I hear from Hans-Peter that they are talking about the possibility of having a small pilot brewery within Schneider to make new, exciting, and experimental beers." Acknowledging the relative lack of innovation and the receding demand for beer in Germany, Garrett mentions "I think that there’s a possibility that at some point in the future, a project like this will spark some interest in doing new things."
Do you have a favorite food pairing for Hopfen-Weisse? "I think a perfect thing for it would be salmon done in a Thai curry sauce…not something really, really spicy, but a little bit spicy so you have the classic pairing of a little bit of hop bitterness together with all the kind of tropical aromas that you have going on there, the mango, pineapple, and banana aromas."
Over the years, I have been impressed by the number of wine and spirits drinkers who suddenly become beer fanatics once they’re introduced to a style they like. What’s your take on this phenomenon? "It’s surprising how many people think they don’t like beer," Garrett observes. "The thing is, I tell people, and I’m sure you tell them the same thing, most people who think they don’t like beer never had a traditional beer, never had a craft beer. It’s sort of like eating Wonder bread your entire life, and when someone asks you 'do you like bread?' you might say, 'well no, I don’t like bread.' But then, what do you know about bread if that's the only thing you’ve had? It's the same kind of thing. People who have only had Kraft slices might say 'I don’t like cheese, it’s kind of bland.' Of course, there are all these cheeses out there, you have no idea. That’s kind of what the market is like for all these people who just have no idea. And it’s fun, obviously, being the people to show them and watch them have that discovery."
What portion of the drinking population can appreciate craft beer and enjoy pairing it with food? Is this strictly for those with a well-trained, sophisticated palate? "What I’ve come to find out," Garrett explains, "is that if you let people know what they’re about to taste first, as long as you kind of give them a context and don’t just spring it on them, almost everybody has a good palate, and will recognize good pairings when they taste them…Every drinking age American is somebody who can enjoy craft beer, not only at the simplest level, but also at the biggest, most raucous, most complex level, as long as it’s good. Which is a great message, because that means that the upside for people like us, for craft brewers, is essentially endless. We’re not playing to 10% or 20% of the people out there, it’s everybody. And that’s great." That’s great, indeed.
GreatBrewers.com thanks Garrett for his time and insight into the world of beer, food and collaborative brewing and wishes him the best of luck on all future endeavors.
- To purchase a copy of The Brewmaster’s Table, please click here.
- To discover local retailers where you can purchase Schneider-Brooklyner Hopfen-Weisse, click here.
- To discover local retailers where you can purchase Brooklyner-Schneider Hopfen-Weisse, click here.
- To learn more about Brooklyn Brewery and their fine ales and lagers, click here.
- To learn the basic rules of pairing, go to our Beer and Food section.
- To view the full list of beer styles available in America, enter our Beer Styles Overview.