Photos by Roger Kisby
Founded in 1988 and celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, Brooklyn Brewery is one of the borough's very biggest success stories. Brewmaster Garrett Oliver has been with the company since 1994, and he's witnessed massive changes—in the Williamsburg neighborhood they call home and in the craft-beer world for which he's been such an outspoken advocate. We spoke to Oliver about those early days, as well as what the future holds.
Can you talk about when you first started at the brewery? What the community in Williamsburg was like and how it's changed?
I would come to Williamsburg every once in a while for parties, particularly for raves, because they were happening in the abandoned buildings and places like that. One that I remember was called Praying Mantis, and it was run by some people out of Berlin. This was like 1993, maybe. It was in the old mustard factory that was not far from here. They only knocked it down a few years ago. There were hundreds and hundreds of people, and they had watermelons with fuses hanging from the ceilings down to the floor, and people would light the fuses and then 20 minutes later, all the watermelons would explode, Of course everyone was completely out of their mind, so it was a good time.
But mostly, Williamsburg was a real outpost. When you walked from the brewery back to the subway at night, if you saw somebody on the same side of the street as you, you crossed the street. There wasn't anybody walking on the street who was likely to do you any good. To give you some idea, at the time there were already ATMs on every corner in Manhattan. There was no ATM anywhere in this neighborhood. If you ran out of money, you literally had to go to Manhattan. Which was just as strange in '94 as it would be now. There were only a few restaurants… two or three restaurants, you know, the Polish restaurants.
What were the other businesses you guys felt a kinship with at the time?
Certainly the first was Teddy's. And that was the first customer Brooklyn Brewery ever delivered beer to. That was way before I came on. But it was places like that. The Waterfront Ale House down on Atlantic, that was one of the places that took on serious beer before people knew what it was. They don't crow a lot, but they were way ahead of things. They're old school and I love them for it.
Any businesses that have closed that you miss?
I miss Planet Thailand, who I remember when they were back on Bedford, at a time when they were just about the only decent restaurant aside from the Polish places. And I'm not hating on the current incarnation, but I really miss the old version of Joe's Busy Corner.
Were there other challenges that you faced being in Brooklyn?
If I was going home late at night, I'd get in a cab and say I was going to Brooklyn, and it'd be like, "Oh, I'm off duty." And this was not a long time ago, even like seven or eight years ago. And this would happen four or five times before someone was willing to take you to Brooklyn. It was considered the boonies to an awful lot of people. So when you said that you were from Brooklyn Brewery, it was like, "Why would you name a brewery after Brooklyn?" Most people who live here don't know that this was one of the great brewing capitals of the world. We had 48 breweries in the late 1800s into the early 1900s, and they made 10 percent of all the beer in the country. So Brooklyn used to be famous for beer.
It's been interesting to watch the brewery grow from a tiny brewery that nobody knew to a small brewery that a lot of people know. It went from "Brooklyn Beer? What the hell is that?" to, "Brooklyn Beer? Why is it amber? What's wrong with it?" to, "Brooklyn Beer? I heard that it's good" to "Brooklyn Beer? Ok, I'll try some." And that happened over the course of many years, and now it's, "Of course we're gonna have Brooklyn Beer. What are your new specials that are coming out?"
What I like to say is that these days Brooklyn Lager is the beer that, if somebody's having a party, you bring Brooklyn Lager and you know everyone's going to be happy with it. It used to be you brought Brooklyn Lager, and it was the weird, fancy beer. We're getting out of that period.
I wanted to talk about the 25th-Anniversary edition of the Lager. What was it like working on that beer?
I've had a lot of beers that have been anniversary beers for various breweries, and the temptation is always, "We're going to make the biggest, craziest, most barrel-aged thing you've ever seen, and it's going to completely blow your mind." And I started thinking about it, I'm like, ok, we make beers like that, and we think they're a lot of fun. But if this is really about our 25th anniversary, shouldn't it tell the story of where we came from and where we're going and where we are? So that's how I came up with the idea that it would be an amped-up version of Brooklyn Lager, made with the same proportion of just about the same ingredients. But then, in its bottle form, we're refermenting it in the bottle, which is something we didn't even know how to do until 2006 or 2007. I think it shows the arc of the brewery in a certain way, and it shows that we're still very proud of our roots. We're very proud of that beer.
But at the same time, it's kind of like if you were a musical artist, and you've been around for 25 years, are you really just gonna play all new stuff? There's always that album that came out 20 years ago that everybody still loves and that you're still most famous for. Your inclination is to play all the new stuff because you're an artist and you're moving forward. But every time you play a concert, you have to play those songs from that first album. And I feel that way about Brooklyn Lager. It's our everyday beer, and I'm gonna sing that song every time I show up, but I've got a lot of songs.
So you'll be releasing it throughout the year with four different labels from four different artists. How'd that idea come about?
That really came from Steve Hindy, who's always been tied into the artist community here. He wanted to do something that really reached back to our roots. Here are artists from Brooklyn that were just starting out when we were starting out, and are now well known internationally. I came up with the beer separately from his idea for the label, but I think we were both thinking in the same direction. We're not here divorcing ourselves from where we came from. We're proud of where we came from.
Can you talk about the growth of the craft beer industry over the past few years?
It's interesting watching the thing you've been doing all this time become normal and become a regular part of the culture. I think that in the mid 90s there were about a dozen breweries in the city. Most of them were brewpubs—you had Heartland, which was a brewpub at the time. You had Typhoon, you had Commonwealth Brewery, you had places on the Upper East Side, you had Times Square Brewery. And what's interesting is that what happened to all these brewpubs is that craft beer actually won, and as a kind of ironic result, the brewpub became disadvantaged versus the regular bar, which now had 15, 16, 20 draft lines. And here's the brewpub with their eight, which before would have been great, and it was the only place you could get real beer back in those days. But it's interesting that if you opened a bar now that had the same lineup of beers you'd have had in 1992, you'd close. Nobody would go to your bar. You can't live in that world anymore.Things are a lot different.
Could you speak about the differences between the beer cultures here versus overseas?
Well, what you really see is that even different parts of the US are developing definitively different beer cultures. The West is really different than the East. They don't even really like the same hops that we like. For example, a lot of the West Coast breweries prefer hop varieties that have dank, weed-like, oniony aromatics, whereas we prefer brighter citrus, floral characteristics. It's not an absolute split, but you talk to the hop growers, and they're like, "Oh yeah, the stuff you hate, they love it."
Also, you have some cities that are all about themselves. When you go to Philly, the first question someone asks is, "So, are you from Philly?" And if you're not, they don't really think they need to know you. In Brooklyn, people go out of their way to open bars that don't have anything from anywhere near by. Their thing might be that they're known for sours from at least 500 miles away, and it's all very specialized. We're very popular, which is great, but the geeky beer scene here reaches to the outside rather than the inside.
How important is it to you guys to engage with the beer geek community?
Well, we are beer geeks, so we always have and naturally would engage with everybody. I think what we don't do is we don't follow. And that's an important thing to me. There was a period when we were doing a lot of cool stuff and nobody knew about it, and it kinda goes back to the Waterfront Ale House. I'm just old enough to remember a day when the worst kind of person you could be was someone who talked about themselves all the time. That was the very worst. The idea that you'd be tweeting or telling everyone that you just came out with a new beer to me, was a little too boastful. We've started doing parties whenever we release new Brewmaster's Reserve beers. And when one of our guys suggested it, I was like, "I don't want to throw a party. We're just releasing some beer. We've been releasing beers for a long time; there's no reason to throw a party!" But it turns out I was wrong. People love coming to these parties, and I have fun at the parties.
I'm sure a lot of people here would love it if I tweeted a lot more often, but we're learning our way into that world. You want to let people know who you are without seeming immodest, which is a difficult balance to strike. For me, it's really important that, as we grow as a brewery, we become more interesting and not less interesting, and I think anybody who just took an objective look at the program of beers that we have that we just take to parties and don't release, which are special projects that may later become released, we're a much more artisanal brewery—to use that awful word—than we were even five or six years ago. And I'm proud of that. I'm proud of the team, proud of working with partners that will let me go where I want to take the brewery. I never get any push back.
Where are you taking the brewery?
Well, something we've been doing for a long time but that we want to embrace even further is barrel-aging. We have a small facility here, but what we're hoping to do before the year is out is have a separate barrel-aging facility nearby where we could put up to a thousand barrels or so that would allow us to do longterm barrel-aging projects. Black Ops, which is aged in Woodford Reserve barrels, is the only one that we release to the public on a regular basis, but then we have a whole other range of stuff that we take to events and dinners and things.
Probably the most fun of that stuff is something we're working with the guys at the Red Hook Winery. They're producing some wines that are 100 percent natural, meaning they just press the grapes and they don't add any yeast for the fermentation, which is the way that wine used to be made. So we take the yeast sediment from their wines and add them to our beers in-barrel, which basically takes the beer in wild directions. The beer becomes unpredictable. We've seen over time where it tends to go, but then we'll blend our barrels—you know, one that's really funky, one that's nice and clean, etc.—and we'll do blends. These are sours, but they have a really nice type of acidity. This is the most interesting, fun stuff. It's a way of taking a piece of countryside and literally getting it down to a couple of gallons of liquid. This is stuff that I'm really interested in. We have a beer called Wild Streak coming out in the fall that we have some wild yeast in. It's been in barrels for months and months. It'll be a bottle release.
We're also getting more deeply involved with the farmers. It started a few years ago with Sorachi Ace and really getting to know the guys who were growing that hop. The next beer we're bringing out combines something new with something that we came out with years ago that people didn't quite get. The original beer was called Scorcher, and it was from 2004 or 2005, and it was like a light version of IPA. A lot of bitterness, huge hop aroma, but only 4.5 percent. Back in those days, when we brought it out, we loved that beer, but the beer geek community was not in love. They're like, "But it only has 4.5 percent." I'm like, "That's the point, you can have five of them!" They're like, "We want special beers to be 8 percent" and I'm like, "Well, this one's 4.5."
We wanted to do a beer like that now to feature a hop variety that's so new it doesn't even have a name yet. It's called 366, and at some point the people who are growing it will name it, and it will have a name. It's only on 1.2 acres in Yakima, Washington, and we got enough of it to make this light IPA, and that's gonna be a lot of fun. The stuff that I've been writing about it, the stuff that will go out to people, has the names of the growers. It's kind of like, "These are the guys who developed it and this is how they did it, and this is where it is." They started growing this thing in 2001. It takes a long time to get a hop variety to market. When people see these new hops come out, like citra, they don't realize it may have taken someone 15 or 20 years to make that into something commercial. There's a reason it's so scarce—this stuff is grown by people, and sometimes people think it just comes out of thin air. As we connect ourselves more deeply to our farmers, we want to connect the people who are drinking the beer more closely to the farmers as well, so they know there are actual people behind what we're doing, which I think is what differentiates craft beer from something else.
Speaking of that something else… what's your take on the proliferation of the "crafty beer" movement?
My outlook on it is somewhat philosophical. Am I annoyed? Yes. It's very annoying to see people who are not you walking around dressed as you and claiming to be you, essentially, and using the advantages they have to try to get people to think, "beer is beer, it's all the same," etc. What I say to people is, take the big breweries, and anyone, anyone in the room I'm in, sometimes hundreds of people, can you name the brewmaster? Anyone got a name? No, there is no name. There's no name. There's nothing but money. And money moves, and this liquid moves around the world, and there's nothing but money. If you want to understand what it's about, it's about money. And we are about something else. If we were about money, we know what the answer is to the question, "What's the thing that's going to be the most popular?" There are ways of doing this. Focus groups can tell you all these things. We've never asked anybody what they thought about our beer. We're glad people like it, but that's a different thing. So we really are a different animal than they are, and I don't accept this idea that beer is just beer.
However, the other side of it is, what did you expect the big breweries to do? The writing's on the wall. Things are only going in one direction. They can read the writing on the wall as well as we can. Did you expect that these breweries were going to die? Because I think there are a lot of really smart guys at these places. What else are they gonna do? They can see that this is where the juice is, and it's where it's going to be in the future. So everything they want to do is on our turf. So we just have to get used to the fact that this is a sign that we're winning. We don't have to be happy about it, but when you're winning, it's important to win gracefully. There's a lot to complain about, and we all get in a room and bitch to each other about it, but at the end of the day it's only because we're doing a good job.