A beer grows in Brooklyn
Garrett Oliver on craft brewing and wine's superiority complex
Dapper Garrett Oliver is a beer and food sophisticate. The brewmaster of the Brooklyn Brewery and author of "The Brewmaster's Table" has lectured extensively on traditional beer and food and was way ahead of the curve on the subject of beer paired with fine dining.
So when he comes to town it's a big deal, and he has a full schedule this weekend. On Thursday , he has no fewer than three events:
• A book-signing from 2 to 3:30 p.m. at Central Market (4001 N. Lamar Blvd.).
• A beer-and-cheese pairing at the Hotel San Jose (1316 S. Congress Ave) from 4 to 6 p.m. $15.
• A beer dinner at Olivia (2043 S. Lamar Blvd.) at 7 p.m. $75.
On Sunday at 7:30 p.m. at the Alamo Drafthouse Lake Creek (13729 N. U.S. 183), he'll host a $50 four-course dinner with multiple fine offerings from the brewery.
We caught up with Oliver via e-mail as he was traveling in Japan to chat about the state of brewing, a certain controversial New Yorker article that attempted to make him and Dogfish Head's Sam Calagione adversaries and why beer just doesn't get the respect it deserves.
Austin American-Statesman: You're almost as much about great food as you are about quality craft beer. But the move away from meat-and-potatoes/food-as-fuel toward gourmet offerings began decades before the revival in small breweries, at least in the States. Why the time lag?
Garrett Oliver: Greetings from Ibaraki, Japan! Actually, when you think about it, the food revival and beer revival have been remarkably concurrent. New Albion Brewing opened in California in the late 1970s, just as Alice Waters was bringing Chez Panisse onto the scene. Sierra Nevada opened in 1980; in 1980, sushi was still exotic and the No. 1 condiment in the U.S. was still ketchup, not salsa.
Both movements — food and craft beer — have been pretty gradual ... One thing I will say as that no food or drink has been as thoroughly industrialized as beer was in the U.S. So craft beer had a very long climb back because beer had fallen so far when it comes to flavor and food interest.
What are your thoughts on the Texas beer scene?
It seems pretty vibrant to me. When we launched Brooklyn beer in Texas, I don't think any of us thought that our strong bottle-conditioned beer, Brooklyn Local 1, was going to be among the most popular. We've sent whole trailers of Local 1 to Texas — at one point Texas was definitely depriving New York City of the beer!
Aside from your time spent in England, where does your brewing philosophy come from?
My brewing philosophy is essentially a chef's philosophy — try to make something creative and beautiful out of honest ingredients. And always brew beers that you want to drink — and nothing else.
In a New Yorker piece last November about extreme beer, you sort of came off — forgive me — as Felix Unger to Sam Calagione's Oscar Madison. You called DFH 120 'unbalanced and shrieking' and said you even found the term 'extreme beer' 'irredeemably pejorative.' One could argue that yours is a fairly restrictive perspective, almost like Wynton Marsalis' stuffy view of what is and isn't jazz. Isn't there room for crazy beer that challenges people, even if some of the efforts fail?
I was very disappointed by that article. Basically I was set up. The author cut-and-pasted my comments out of context to try to inject some dramatic tension into the article. The fact is, I pour Dogfish Head's beers in tastings all the time, and we are good friends with those guys. We just made a beer infused with bacon, and our current release is a barrel-aged beer called "The Manhattan Project" — it literally tastes like a Manhattan! So we're anything but stuffy or pedantic.
What I actually said was that I love a lot of very strong, hoppy beers — Pliny the Elder from Russian River is a great example. It's 10 percent alcohol and the hops will blow your head off, but it's really nice. We have been making 10 percent beers since most brewers were in junior high school — I launched Black Chocolate Stout in 1994.
But although I love a lot of DFH beers, I don't like their 120. I also did say that the term — and it's important that we're talking about the term itself — "extreme beer" is irredeemably pejorative. And I stand by that statement. Transfer the term to "extreme food," "extreme wine" or "extreme cheese" and it sounds pretty silly, yes? The term "extreme beer" makes us sound like schoolchildren.
And speaking of crazy beers, how'd that bacon beer turn out?
Excellently! We debuted it at a magnificent beer dinner at Thomas Keller's New York restaurant, Per Se. We are very happy with that beer, though it's only an experiment. But it does taste just like bacon with a hint of bourbon. If that's wrong, I don't want to be right.
In terms of fine dining, wine seems to trump beer even though beer goes better with a variety of cuisines than wine. Why that persistent bias? Why do so many restaurants have a 30-page wine list and four beers?
Ever since the Norman Conquest (when France took over England in 1066), English-speaking people have had a strange inferiority complex toward the French.
Wine became both aspirational and intimidating — it became connected to class and to money. Now, if you go to Italy, you'll see none of that attitude. Which is one reason why the Italian brewing scene is so cool right now — they suddenly have almost 300 breweries doing some great stuff. And people embrace what they're doing. American restaurants have been slow — they are way, way behind the American consumer. It's very foolish of them — restaurants that have great beer lists get better customers who come back more often. And they make more money.
Historically, has beer always been viewed as less refined than wine? If so, can we blame France for that, too?
We have only ourselves to blame, but we're getting over it. The fact is that most wine and most beer consumed in America is still industrial. But when people think of wine, they think of the 10 percent of wines at the top of the wine world. When people think of beer, they think of the 90 percent at the bottom of the beer world.
Most of that is because of heavy advertising. The fact is that beer has a far wider range of flavor than wine does. It's not even close. Beer is better able to match the complexity and diversity of American food. Many people remain unfamiliar with real beer. Many of the best beers in the world cost less than a double latte at Starbucks.
Austinite Outon on 'Winemakers'
Twin Liquors wine guru Ross Outon still is alive after three episodes of the PBS reality series "The Winemakers," in which a dozen contestants compete to start their own wine label. At the top of the third episode, which aired Saturday afternoon, Outon sounded borderline cocky: "On the one hand I feel like it's mine to lose. On the other I just don't know what to expect."
The nine remaining contestants worked a shift at a wine-tasting bar before a crowd they thought was civilian. In fact, there were lots of wine experts. Later they faced a "crossfire challenge," in which judges grilled them on questions such as:
Pinotage is a crossing of what two grape varietals?
What's the key difference between how port and sherry are fortified?
Three contestants failed the exam, but when the challenge was announced before the group, Outon rubbed his palms together and smiled. According to my journalist's math, that leaves Outon and five others.
In the second episode that aired Oct. 3, the judging was harsh. One judge, the Simon Cowell of this show, said of one effort, "Your group's presentation — it reminded me of a 10-year-old's chemistry experiment. It was chaos. It was unfocused." Harsh!
The show airs at 12:30 p.m. Saturdays on KLRU through Oct. 31.
Uncle Billy's wins big
Brian Peters and Uncle Billy's Brew & Que took a gold medal late last month at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver for their outstanding Hell in Keller, kellerbier-zwickelbier. This was the second consecutive year Peters has won a medal — Hell in Keller netted a silver at the '08 fest. .
A lot of Oktoberfests
The Flying Saucer has scheduled its second fall beer fest in the park around the corner from the bar at 815 W. 47th St. More than 30 beers are expected to be on tap. The event runs noon to 10 p.m. Oct. 24. That makes Oct. 24 the busiest day of the year for local beer hounds: The Ginger Man's first-ever Oktoberfest is that day; North by Northwest's is that Saturday and Sunday.