Brooklyn Brewery: Secrets from a Brewmaster

Ever wondered who the masterminds are behind the best craft breweries? This month, we’re teaming up with Brooklyn Brewery at the multi-city Mash Tour. Prior to the tour, we sat down with head brewmaster Garrett Oliver to get the inside scoop on the dream gig and what it takes to make a really good beer.

What inspired you to enter the world of brewing? Was there a turning point or were you always interested in beer?

No – actually, when I was in college, I didn’t really like beer at all! We drank beer, of course, but I thought all of it was thin, watery and bland. This was well before there was a “craft brewing movement” in the United States.

In 1983 I moved to London to stage-manage bands at the University of London Union concert hall. My friends took me to the pub, where I discovered, magically, that beer could be wonderful.

You’ve developed many different beers using a variety of different methods—what has been your favorite beer innovation over the years and how did it come about?

I’m very excited about work that we’ve been doing for several years involving natural yeast sediments from non-beer fermentations. We’ll go to a local winery or orchard who is using 100 percent natural yeasts from the surrounding environment, and collect their yeast after the wine or cider fermentation.

We then add this yeast to our beer in oak barrels, and some amazing things happen. These are the most complex beers we’ve ever made. 

What elements should a beer uphold to be considered excellent in your eyes?

In short, balance, elegance, structure, deliciousness, and honesty.

Beyond these things, almost everything else is just noise. Yes, there is the idea of provenance – a feeling of “place.” But those five elements need to be there. And “honesty” simply means that you never do anything that you wouldn’t be perfectly happy to tweet out.

What is the biggest misconception people have about brewing?

A lot of people seem to think that brewing is easy or that it’s glamorous. It’s neither. Many others think that brewing bears some resemblance to homebrewing. It doesn’t.

Being a brewer is, in many ways, like being a chef. Many people do it, but it’s hard to do well. It’s hot, it’s cold, it’s wet, it’s dangerous, and you are always one tricky moment away from failure. Which is what makes it exciting and beautiful. Because when you’re good, you make people happy.

At any given moment, what bar are we most likely to find you in and what would you be drinking?

Ha! Tough question! Right now, I’m spending a lot of time in The Four Horsemen, a bar opened by James Murphy (of the band LCD Soundsystem) and one of my best friends. They focus on natural wines, but they have a very nice short beer list there too. As for beer bars, we’re spoiled for choice these days – there are a lot of people doing excellent stuff.

What are some of the highlights or things you’re enjoying most about this year’s Mash Tour?

It’s exciting to see how The Mash has grown and changed over the course of the last three years, yet maintained the original bones and values it was built on. We’ve got long term collaborators like Dinner Lab and Found Footage Festival who have been a part of the tour since its inception, to first time partners like Timberland who are bringing great new elements to the tour.

It’s cool to hear that Mash Bash is coming back for the remainder of The Mash. Music is huge part of our culture here at the brewery and in Brooklyn generally. Having Surfer Blood on stage in Chicago should send us back to Brooklyn in a fine mood, ready to finish up an awesome summer.

What does The Modern Trail mean to you? And how do you think Brooklyn Brewery’s Mash Tour fits into the idea?

I think the idea of variety and versatility is what links the two so well here. The Mash has always been a way for us to connect with the creative classes in the various neighborhoods and cities we visit on the tour. Within that group, you’ve got artists, musicians, chefs, designers, entrepreneurs, and other innovators.

The notion of being ready for anything and anyone ties in really well to the idea of the Modern Trail. And I grew up, improbably for an NYC native, hunting quail, pheasant and chukkar partridge, with dogs and shotguns, often on horseback. I’m good out in the woods – my dad taught me well. And we always had great gear – we were geeks about it.

How would you describe your personal style? What are some of your go-to, essential items?

I like a blend of modern and very traditional stuff. I had some old-school hats made years ago, before hats were “in.” They go with everything. So I’ll wear a 1960s fireman’s coat over a nice jacket, some pincords in a good color, and some boots – and I’m good to go.

Back in the day I was a veteran flea market guy, so I’ve got a ton of cool old stuff that I mix up with new stuff. I like a lot of the Timberland aesthetic, because it just fits right into what I’m already doing.

Meet Garrett at the 2015 Brooklyn Brewery Mash Tour – a week of beer tastings, art, comedy, screenings, pop-up supper clubs, lively debates and a variety of craft beer. This traveling festival will bring together people, food, style, culture and entertainment  - pencil it in your diary now and join us in the following cities: Chicago, Washington D.C., Philadelphia and Austin.