When an editor at the Oxford University Press first approached Garrett Oliver, brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery, about doing The Oxford Companion to Beer, he politely declined. Having already written a book, the prospect of such an undertaking scared the malt and hops out of him. Eventually, with some gentle nudging from his loved ones, he reconsidered. The 960-page tome is out early next month. He sat down with Fork in the Road to discuss the monster beer-documenting project.
What exactly does creating an Oxford Companion to something entail?
It’s not just like writing a book. The Companion has over 1,100 individual subjects on beer. All the Companion books are essentially encyclopedias. So, it covers, basically, every subject you can think of within beer, A to Z, in alphabetical order. We had 166 writers from 24 countries. So, it took a while just to come up with the list of subjects. Then, I had to assign the subjects to writers, including myself. It’s a difficult type of writing because it has to be of interest to the professional, but also to the enthusiast.
How would a normal person use this book?
There’s two ways to use it: One, you’re going to look for something just like you would in the dictionary. The other way, which I think is really engaging and people don’t really do this anymore with the Internet, is that you can search the book. When I was a little kid, we used to have encyclopedias. We would just grab one of them and look up different things. “S” was our favorite one because it had spiders and snakes and space. If you’re under 30, there’s almost no possibility you did that. But if you’re older, almost everyone has that memory. It’s like the difference between reading the paper and going online: There’s that serendipity of running across a subject you may never have looked up.
What are some of the exciting trends in beer these days?
Barrel aging, which is covered extensively in the book, is the use of barrels to produce a range of flavors, either by pulling those flavors from the wood or taking some of the flavors that were previously in the wood, like port or bourbon. There’s cask conditioning, which is the traditional British way of making beer. Another trend we see is the explosion of craft beer as a worldwide phenomenon, not just an American one. Going to Brazil and seeing a huge explosion of breweries there. Or even more so, Italy, which we think of as a wine-producing country, but now has 350 breweries and there’s a new one opening virtually every week.
Why was the craft-beer movement so crucial?
If you were in a supermarket in 1975, you would have had one or two kinds of bread, a few kinds of cheese, and one kind of beer. What’s happened in the last 20 or 30 years is that we’re kind of in recovery. We used to have one of the most interesting beer cultures in the world 100 years ago. We had 4,000 breweries in the United States, then we lost everything. Just like we used to have every kind of bread you could possibly imagine. Then, with the standardization of foods, we ended up with one kind of store-bought white bread. Beer, which is the most diverse beverage in the world when it comes to flavor, suffered by being standardized to the point where it became a relatively flavorless fizzy, yellow liquid. And people didn’t know it was supposed to be anything else.
What has yet to be done in the craft-beer movement?
There’s a lot of things we haven’t brought back or done yet, but there’s someone working on each of them. There’s a revivalist culture of bringing back all the stuff we used to have. But there’s also a culture of trying to be creative and bringing out new flavors, like spiced beer or barrel aging or sour beer. People are working with completely natural fermentation.
As a self-proclaimed purist, what would you never do at Brooklyn Brewery?
You can never imagine a great winemaker saying, “I want to make a special light wine that has 90 calories a glass.” So, you’ll never see light beer from Brooklyn Brewery. We might make some beer that’s relatively light, but the reason is that it tastes best that way. You’re never going to see us selling beer based on anything but flavor. What are some of your favorite places to get a drink in New York?
I’ve got so many favorite places that it’s hard to put my finger on one. But certainly Blind Tiger remains an amazing place for the beer culture. You have a number of amazing places now in Brooklyn. You always had the Waterfront Ale House. But now you have a new generation, with places like Barcade, Spuyten Duyvil, Brooklyn Bowl. What you no longer see is the kind of bar that you had in 1980 that has only mass-market beer. Even [dives] that look scary now sell Brooklyn Lager.
If you were stuck on a desert island with just one beer, what would it be?
Out of my beers, right now, I may well take a beer called Sorachi Ace, which is a saison, a Belgian farmhouse-style. Sorachi Ace is a hop variety originally from Japan, but now grown only on 12 acres in Washington. It smells so unusual — very lemony — that we based a whole beer on it. I’ve been drinking it all summer. And I’d be happy to keep drinking it all winter. And, in fact, I will.
What do you drink when you’re not drinking your own beers?
Again, I have so many favorites. Of the American beers, I particularly like Russian River, which is from California; there’s a new brewery up in Vermont, called Hill Farmstead, making some very interesting stuff … definitely one to watch; out of Colorado, Avery Brewing Company is making a wonderful India pale ale; the guys from Allagash, in Maine.
What’s coming up at Brooklyn Brewery?
We’re coming out with a new beer this week, called the Companion, named after The Oxford Companion to Beer. But it’s not just named after the book, it’s also a version of the book. It’s a collaboration between me, my associate editor, Horst Dornbusch, and Thomas Kraus-Weyermann, one of our top writers on malts who also makes our malts in Germany. It’s an old style of beer called wheat wine. It’s strong, about 9 percent, made from more wheat than barley malts. It’s fairly light on the palate, almost smoky, with a deep wheat flavor. It’s going to be released only on draft and only for a few months. It’ll be available around New York, everywhere from Gramercy Tavern and Eleven Madison Park to beer bars. Then, we’ll move on to the next draft special in the Brewmaster’s Reserve.