Garrett’s interview will be provided as a two part series. Part I will share Garrett’s reflections on what the craft beer movement means to him.
The interview begins with Garrett Oliver bringing me a beer… a Brooklyn Brewery Radius. Now that is cool!
“The Purpose of Beer is People”
I typically start off with asking the interviewee to share some poignant moments in his background, but I figure Garrett’s background has been rather well covered. What I am interested in is what “the purpose of beer is people” means to him. It is a statement he made at the US Beer Bloggers Conference back in July.
Garrett jumps right in to recall the work of Michael Jackson (beer, not music) and the work Michael did to learn about the people behind the beer before the beer was even talked about. Garrett feels a lot of that is lost in today’s minutiae of tasting notes and beer reviews.
“What did people go through? What did they give up in order to get to this place?”
He reflects a bit more on the current state of journalism in beer, with so many people writing and talking about beer without a real understanding of what the beer means in the life of the person who is actually making it.
Garrett uses Cigar City Brewing as an example.
“A bunch of young guys, in an area that had not previously been known for an adventurous beer culture…starting off with beers, all of which are pretty far out there…and taking personally a lot of risks.”
Garrett feels this kind of risk taking is not just for a beer to be out there for someone to assign a score to. He admits that this can make him feel a bit angry at times but then shares that “angry” might be too strong of a word to describe it. He longs for more of an appreciation for what the beer represents with respect to the person or people taking the risk. The person could be putting the whole life on the line for what amounts to a bet.
He continues by making a distinction between homebrewing and commercial brewing, in that homebrewing is a hobby with no risk; while deciding to become a commercial brewer inherently comes with substantial risk. He feels some do not understand that when you are brewing for a living the risk is real. In Garrett’s opinion, homebrewing bears no resemblance to commercial brewing at all.
“There is no risk in homebrewing. I hate to say it but it doesn’t matter how the beer turns out. If it doesn’t turn out, you can dump it and make another one. It’s fun. It’s a hobby.”
To further drive the distinction, Garrett explains his love for cooking. He feels he is a good cook and boasts that he is not afraid to cook for anyone on Earth.
“You pay serious money for my cooking.”
Garrett admits he is good for about a party of eight people…maybe up to twenty-five in a controlled setting. But put him in a restaurant kitchen on a Saturday night…”useless.” He is a cook. He is not a chef. There is no risk in him playing around as a cook.
For him, brewing is a craft with a long, honorable history.
He recalls a story he shared at the US Beer Bloggers Conference. There was a moment when he was left alone in a room at the old Young’s Brewery. He was standing by two massive, misused kettles that seemed like totems or gods to him.
“And I was really moved to think about everything that had flowed through those kettles.”
For Garrett, it’s not just about the pints of beer that were made with those kettles. He goes on a short and interesting tangent about all of the life events that may have occurred around people having those pints of beer.
“It’s like life flowed through those kettles.”
Garrett has a sense that so many of life’s peak moments are spent around a table, usually with a drink in front of the people at the table, so for him it makes brewing beer really important.
“I like to say, when we are brewing, what we are trying to do is to be worthy of your time at the table.”
He believes that making beer is not the most important thing in the world, but when used in moderation, beer can give people a better life.
The Soul of Craft Beer
I listened to Garrett’s talk on the August 20, 2012 Brewing Network podcast. In it he compared the soul vs. the science of craft beer. I wanted to know what Garrett thinks will be the soul of craft beer going forward.
Garrett does not hesitate to say he believes the soul of craft beer is creativity. Calling upon his pre-brewing training and work in film, he relates that he sees things in visual, “filmic” terms. Sometimes an idea for a beer comes to him in a similar fashion, through parallels and a balance between the left and right brains, and what parts of him the beer brings to the table.
It becomes clear that it’s not just creativity that Garrett feels is the soul of craft beer. He returns to his previous point about how people end up in craft beer. His sense is that it is nearly never the first thing anyone has set out to do for a career, that it is often a “second or third act.”
He shares his full expectation of becoming a filmmaker, but ultimately he was pulled away by the allure of brewing beer. He was not looking to change his career at the time.
“It’s interesting to me that something could actually have such gravity it could pull you out of that orbit.”
Garrett began to get a sense that he perhaps he did not have as big of a fire in his belly as he had thought for filmmaking. For one, he noticed other filmmakers were making much larger sacrifices than he was willing to make.
Another aspect had to do with the nature of the business as he had come to discover through a friendship with Peter Berg; a Hollywood actor, director, producer, and writer. On a visit with Peter, Garrett asked what happens after a movie is completed and Peter explained that you go to the next movie project and get new friends.
“I don’t want to be making new friends every year and get rid of my old friends. I want to keep the friends that I have.”
Garrett circles back around to the thought about creativity as the soul of American craft beer. He feels that whatever you were doing before you began brewing, you are going to use those skills again in brewing. He compares the American craft beer scene to what typically happens in a decision to enter the German brewing industry.
“We (Americans) don’t decide at 16 to go into engineering school and then while in engineering school you decide you are going to have a brewing focus…because it seems like it pays well or it’s decent…”
Garrett explains his feeling that the German beer industry is currently struggling because it is not populated with people who are on fire with a love of beer. He feels it could become that way someday for the German beer industry, but for now the world looks to the American craft beer industry for inspiration in brewing. Garrett believes the inspiration that comes out of the American craft beer scene is largely due to the fact that it is a second or third act for many who pursue it.
In Part II, we delve deeper into the life skills and traits Garrett relies upon as a person and a brewmaster.
Go to Part II.