Published on March 3rd, 2016 | by Alastair Gilmour0
Oliver twists the flavour profile
Brewers the world over have one man to thank for stirring their passion for beer, writes Alastair Gilmour
The man who has been raising the craft beer bar for the past 20 years has been inspired by Newcastle. Garrett Oliver, brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery and himself an inspiration to hundreds of brewers around the world, also says that the Quayside is “a fascinating introduction to a city”.
“I was really inspired by what I saw,” he said before conducting a Ghost Bottles tasting of beers at The Bridge Tavern, following an invitation from Wylam Brewery.
“I had a good walk around and down by the Castle Keep. The Quayside is an interesting area. I loved that great arch then dropped into a couple of pubs like the Crown Posada.”
Garrett Oliver is internationally renowned for his elegant lectures on the history of beer and the art of brewing, his extensive knowledge of movies (he even matches beers to film clips), literature and his debonair personal style which includes two hats which travel the world with him (although he can only wear one at a time, as in Newcastle).
He is also the brewmaster of Brooklyn Brewery, editor-in-chief of The Oxford Companion to Beer, author of The Brewmaster’s Table and winner of the 2014 James Beard Award for Excellent Wine, Beer or Spirits Professional. He’s a global traveller, apparently a snazzy dancer, and his colleagues at the Williamsburg, New York, brewery are starting to suspect he doesn’t sleep.
“Ghost Bottles are the things we make for ourselves but don’t sell to the public,” says Garrett. “There were 70 different styles at the last count and about 200 cases of every beer. Although some of them are 10% abv and over they don’t drink like they’re that strong.”
The Ghost Bottles mantra is that while modern brewing is wonderful, sometimes a little cavorting is a fine thing which gives brewers a chance to reveal their funky side. Ghost Bottles demonstrate Brooklyn Brewery’s experimental edge; they’re complex, adventurous brews, some fermented with multiple yeasts, and almost always barrel-aged. The beers are shrouded in mystery enhanced by the fact that they are unavailable to the public apart from a few highly selective events where they appear in hand-labelled 750ml bottles.
So, the audience at The Bridge Tavern was a privileged assembly of beer lovers, microbrewers, chefs and publicans, ready to listen, learn and appreciate.
The beers included Galahad, a strong Belgian-style golden ale aged on cider lees (deposits left over after fermentation), Hand & Seal Cognac Edition 2013 (a strong Belgian-style golden ale aged on Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc lees), plus Lancelot, Bedivere Wild Ale, Chichicapa, Caradoc, Bel Air, Saison Kitaya, and Black Chocolate Stout which had been ageing since 2005.
The 9.0% abv Caradoc is an interesting beer – close your eyes and you’d swear you were drinking a sherry-like wine. Curiously, it was regarded as a rare Ghost Bottles failure.
On first tasting, Garret admitted: “This was not what I had in mind. I looked at it and thought I’d re-ferment it. But I left it for five or six months in bottle and didn’t show it to anybody. Then I actually liked it.
“I always try to make something beautiful. If you’ve failed and it’s not the best, don’t worry, because you’ve tried.”
There was a distinct “whoop” from the audience when Bel Air (9.5% abv) was flipped open to sample. Sour beers like this have developed a certain cachet of late among the British drinking public.
“It’s a sour beer but not the most sour beer you’ve ever tasted,” said Garrett. “It has apricot, mango and papaya flavours – it’s a drinker; not a bad thing to have in a beer. I’ve made this several times and I’m getting good at it.
“I’m always reminded of the line from one of my favourite movies, Spinal Tap, ‘There’s a fine line between clever and stupid’. Sour beers are like bacon. Bacon is not an acquired taste. A good sour beer can be aggressive, but can be fun to drink. Beers that strip the roof off your mouth aren’t any fun to drink, but I could drink this all day.”
Garrett Oliver first fell in love with beer while studying in London in the 1980s while also running the University of London Union concert hall, putting on the likes of Billy Bragg and the Cocteau Twins. Back home in America he realised his native beers did nothing for him any more, so he started making his own flavoursome styles.
In 1993, on a trip to the Manhattan Brewing Company to blag some yeast, he met Mark Whitty, formerly of Daleside Brewery in Harrogate, North Yorkshire. Mark told him his assistant brewer was leaving. Garrett said: “Give me the job.”
Inside two weeks, he went from “a cushy job in a law firm with great views over Manhattan, to less money in a sweaty brewery”. In 1994, Brooklyn Brewery owner Steve Hindy approached him with the prospect of being his brewmaster and helping design their planned Williamsburg brewhouse.
But first came the challenge, the job application, so to speak. Steve invited Garrett to brew a beer for the holidays that people wouldn’t forget. That beer was Black Chocolate Stout which he had been developing at home.
“The owner of Manhattan Brewery had cancelled everybody’s health insurance without telling anybody,” said Garrett. “I was going to leave anyway, so I went in on Independence Day when there was no-one around and brewed Black Chocolate Stout and took it to Brooklyn, saying ‘this is what I would do’. By the time Manhattan could do anything about it I was gone.” He got the job.
“There were almost no examples of a classic imperial stout in the US at that time. I think there were only two, one of them from Sam Smith’s that wasn’t even available in the UK. I thought ‘was it possible to sell more of this type of beer?’ The answer was no, but we thought, ‘well, if they won’t drink it, we’ll drink it’.
“A while later, I asked some of the guys in the brewery ‘where’s the Black Chocolate Stout?’ They said, ‘It’s gone’. Gone where, I asked. ‘It’s just gone. Gone, gone, gone.’
“We had to go out into the market and buy our own beer back from the wholesalers and had to pay full retail price for it. Now we’re the largest producer of imperial stout in the western hemisphere.”
The Black Chocolate Stout on show at The Bridge Tavern was ten years old. It was sublime and even at a strength of 10% abv, all too easy to drink, but how could anyone resist the temptation to sneak a batch open?
Garrett said: “Everything is about patience. You’ve got to be patient when you’re making beer. I enjoy putting beers down to sleep then see how they wake up. This stout is really nice stuff, there’s a lot coming together like leather, and old suitcases – which sounds terrible – but also dark chocolate and coffee. When a beer gets to this stage you drink them for what they are. I hope brewers today make some of their beers and hold onto them for ten years.
“Beers that are years old like some of them we’ve been tasting in Newcastle should have structure and balance, not just looking to have one flavour and not the most bitter beer in the world. I get bored when people say they’ve brewed a beer with 500 IBUs. A monkey could do that.”
When he’s not travelling the world, Garrett Oliver can be found at the Brooklyn brewhouse overseeing daily operations, developing recipes, and pushing the bounds of beer.
He says: “I’m still technical and creative head of the brewery, it’s still all my recipes – and there are constantly new ones – and even now I’m on the road I’m in contact with the brewing team several times a day. I don’t drag hoses around like I used to, I have nice young people to do that.”
And a final inspirational message: “Cheers. May your health insurance never get cancelled.”
*The Brooklyn Brewery Ghost Bottles were supplied in association with independent beer importer and distributor James Clay (www.jamesclay.co.uk)