A beer with... Garrett Oliver

Burton is swathed in several shades of grey. It seems to carry the look really well.. and often. The taxi driver isn't sure about taking me to the National Brewery Centre until I say the magic word: museum. "You mean the Bass Museum?", he mumbles. Clearly, some things are slow to change in Beer Town.

At the Bass Museum Coors Visitor Centre National Brewery Centre, Brooklyn Brewery's Garrett Oliver is patiently awaiting the start of a tasting in support of the Oxford Companion to Beer. He's the very definition of dapper and happy to have an chat about his editorship of the book. The preface suggests that he wasn't madly keen on taking on that responsibility. Was the thought of it really that daunting?

"I simply couldn't imagine how anybody, especially someone who has a job already, could possibly do this", says Oliver, "and I also knew that a book takes over your life". That work, The Brewmaster's Table, re-inforced his position not only as an authority on beer and food matching but as a effusive writer who could render technical detail with panache. Eventually, he came around to the idea of editing the Oxford Companion to Beer as a positive experience: "I would come out of the process being a stronger brewer and simply knowing a lot more than I used to".

Not that the role was straightforward. "It's a weird brief that the editor has", he explained, "because you're basically a conveyor of information, much of it from other people. But you have to be able to understand all of it... if you have no technical brewing background you couldn't edit things on organic chemistry, for instance".

A matter of perspective was something else that he brought to the book. "You also have to have a broad world view; for example on a piece about Berliner Weisse you get great information from a German writer (Fritz Briem) but then you would also be able to add in that it is widely brewed now by small breweries in the US and a few in Italy and Japan, having been there and had those beers."

When I asked him who he thought the book was aimed at and he answered, "the broad enthusiast, the amateur brewer, a resource for the professional brewer", you can begin to understand why it touches upon a such a variety of topics. Which is something that Oliver feels has been lacking in the past: "It's quite surprising what is not out there already... go and find a book readily accessible to the public that gives you more than two sentences on, say, dry hopping. You will find, to your surprise, there is almost nothing".

Not that there's everything you ever wanted to know about beer but were afraid to ask a hundred experts, though. "Across such a broad range of disciplines it has to be comprehensive," he reasons, "but I'm not sure definitive exists. Maybe it will at some point in the future but I don't think anyone can do that yet". And it's the exclusions and different interpretations that have had certain beer blogs buzzing since the book's release. Was he prepared for such criticism?

"The comments I've seen are not, by and large, errata.," he explained. "I certainly expected criticism but I thought it would be more philosophical, someone arguing for example that cask breather is anathema or someone arguing about sparklers or swan necks.. what I didn't expect was somebody quibbling about matters of history that are highly disputed. I don't understand the tone and I don't understand the lack of balance".

Oliver is happy to carry on talking about why fewer breweries made the final cut, or how some articles needed "more humanity breathing into them", but eventually I have to ask the obvious question and then make my confession. When a man world-renowned for beer and food matching comes to England, what pairing does he most look forward to?

"At it's very best.. I had a pint of Adnams - many pints of Adnams - sitting at the seaside. And when you get someone who actually knows how to make fish and chips - when you have it done perfectly - boy! It's particularly awesome!" So then I don't feel too bad that I'm slightly sceptical about this matching malarkey. "With beer you have the element of surprise", he says. And with that, he tries to convert me...

There's now a dozen or so writers, retailers and beer enthusiasts around the table and he takes us all through a selection of Brooklyn beers paired with straightforward English snacking food. The dry, lemonish Local 1 tastes fine with smoked salmon. To be honest, I'd say it worked fine with any damn dish that it wanted to dance with. But what happened next was a step change.

It's simple enough. Local 2 - robust Belgian slightly spicy stuff- with a thumb-thick slab of pork pie. Both really tasty. And then he starts to explain. How the caramalisation of the pie crust latches onto the fruitiness in the beer. How there's a contrast between the saltiness of the pie and the sweetness of Local 2's dark Belgian sugars. In thirty seconds flat, I'd gone from knowing that I liked a beer & food combo to understanding, in terms of taste, *why* I liked it.

After that, things started falling into place rapidly. The never-usually-bottled-IPA, Blast, felt soft yet spritzy, maybe some minerality taking the edges off the 70-ish IBU count. With prickling vegetable samosas, Blast was calm like a bomb. Black Chocolate Stout and Stilton has become one of Oliver's iconic pairings and it's easy to understand why; fudge. The beer has the taste of it; the cheese has the consistency of it. Blue funk and chocolate kisses. Wow.

The final beer on the table, Black Ops, doesn't actually exist of course. So there was nothing to pair it with. Because we never tasted it. Right?

Two things struck me about Garrett Oliver. He'll never tire of talking to people about beer, even in the Midlands on a wet Wednesday, because he's driven by a passion. And he's the perfect man to take on an impossible job.

After all, if he can make me look at pork pie and beer in a different light, the editorship of the Oxford Companion to beer must have been a walk in the park.

Many thanks to Garrett Oliver for his time, the Oxford University Press for the lunch and Chris 'Stoph' McBride for the photo.


  1. "on a piece about Berliner Weisse you get great information from a German writer (Fritz Briem)"

    Right. It's clear from the Berliner Weisse article that Fritz Briem hadn't read the most important works on the topic. There's plenty in the article that's wrong. Not a good example for Garrett to pick.

    The errors I've pointed out are errors in fact. He seems to not want to admit that some of the authors knew eff all about the topics of their articles. Denying that there are factual errors isn't going to help improve the book.

  2. Ron - point me to where you've pointed out errors and/or what the 'important works' are. I'd like to know more.

  3. I've three posts that highlight specific errors in the OCB:


    The important works are Schönefeld's "Die Herstullung Obergähriger Biere" and "Die Berliner Weißbier" published by the VLB (Versuchs- und Lehranstalt für Brauerei in Berlin).

    The latter is particularly important due to its revelation that the distinctive flavour of Berliner Weisse is derived from brettanomyces.

    When I have time I'll pull apart the Berliner Weisse article in detail. It's very poorly researched.