To say Garrett Oliver gets around is an understatement. When we sit down to talk beer past, present and yet to come – and particularly what we drink it with – he’s on an end of year mad dash: Yakima, Washington state for hops; Denver, Colorado for the Great American Beer Festival; Stockholm; Hong Kong; back to Stockholm… he’d be forgiven for feeling exhausted.
But the American beer author, educator, world traveller and Brooklyn brewmaster since 1994 is known for his many hats. In the literal sense. He appears this evening with a wide-brimmed pork pie-style hat, an old-school firefighter’s jacket and, despite crossing the Atlantic just hours before, a twinkle in his eye.
It’s been a crazy 2018, he says, with his personal highlight being the release of Brooklyn’s Bel Air sour beer (yet to hit UK shores) – the result of three years’ work.
“We’ve been champing at the bit to get it out. People have been producing sours for hundreds of years – but it’s fun to be restoring that part of the beer world to what it used to be, which was normal.”
Restoration is the name of the game right now, and not just in beer. The thirst for sours – which take their cue from wild-fermented Belgian styles like lambics, where natural yeast strains present in the air and on grains do the work – is part of a wider trend, Oliver says.
“What you’re seeing is a massive shift towards a return to reality, and what I mean by that is alternative fermentation, natural fermentation.” He notes the release of frequent world number one restaurant noma’s Guide to Fermentation, an instant bestseller.
“You look at natural wine: exactly the same thing is happening there as is happening in coffee, cheese, bread… everyone in their little area thinks what they’re doing is unique – it’s not, it’s one movement.” It’s all part of a continuing kickback against the mass production that “paved over the culinary landscape” postwar in the States. And, he hastens to add, the UK, as he found on his stint as a band manager in early-Eighties London.
Squeezing in a last trip of the year, Oliver is here to kick off celebrations at Brooklyn’s house party, hosted by London Fields Brewery. There’s a collaboration – London Göse Dark – from the two for the occasion, as well as offerings from the New York operation’s sister breweries.
And crucially for Oliver, a huge champion of uniting food and beer, there’s also a novel snack pairing for each brew on show. Think citrusy mango New England IPA with ceviche, or imperial stout with chocolate ice cream. This ethos extends to Brooklyn Brewery’s website, where each of the 35-plus beers produced per year appears alongside its ideal matches.
Let’s cut to the chase: beer has better food-matching potential than wine, and your tastebuds deserve these kinds of pairings this Christmas. But why does that feel like a controversial statement that might compel my sommelier friends to come at me with a rusty corkscrew?
“I think in the UK it’s a class thing. And this follows into the States a bit,” says Oliver. “Look at the English language after the Norman conquests. Do you eat, or dine? Do you hit, or strike? Do you meet, or rendezvous? To the English ear the Norman, French or Latin version of something always sounds more sophisticated than the Anglo-Saxon one.
“Wine plays into it, and the French are really good at that!” he laughs. “They understand where their cultural power comes from and they exercise it well, and wine gets held up above the native beverage.”
But this, Oliver explains, is food-matching folly. “It’s pretty simple: beer has a much wider range of flavour to work with. With wine you have one ingredient, which is a grape.
“The difference between the lightest of white wines and the biggest and heaviest of reds is relatively small compared to between beers that are roasted, caramelised, spiced, the wide range of yeast strains you can do,” he continues. “I can do bitter beers, acidic beers, 2.5 per cent beers, 13.5 per cent beers… from a drinking, eating and tasting point of view, it’s superior.”
The growing popularity of beer pairing means Oliver’s first book The Brewmaster’s Table, released in 2003 on the subject, sells better now than it did five, 10 or 15 years ago. And while beer sommeliers are as yet a rare breed, it’s unusual – viewed as embarrassing even – to see in a serious restaurant what Oliver calls the “petrol station beer list”.
The best way to get started is to have fun. “If you’re not sure you’re gonna love it, big deal,” he says. “It costs a few quid! It’s not like spending £40 on a bottle of burgundy that might be crap.”
After-dinner pairings are the ones that really make people’s eyes light up, Oliver says, especially with barrel-aged beers. He recommends imperial stout or barley wine with stilton for a “revelatory, life-changing experience”. Likewise the stout with chocolate or cheesecake. Or try a juicy, New England IPA with spicy food: Thai or Szechuan Chinese: “Where really there are no wines that can work. Be adventurous!
“Enjoying your eating and drinking, life is about variety and I’m certainly not going to stop drinking wine or cocktails,” he adds. “If you say I’m into wine and don’t like beer that’s like saying, ‘I only listen to jazz’. You’re missing the entire rest of the world of music.”
So what, or where, should beer lovers train their sights on next? “On the beer side, maybe the most interesting thing I’ve seen coming along is Brazil. We’re all so tied by social media that everyone is doing the same thing. If you go to Hong Kong, they’re brewing New England IPA.
“In Brazil you find a lot of breweries that are making beers that are indigenous, that are made with ingredients we don’t even have, and that are really distinctly Brazilian.
“I go overseas I want to see – what comes from here? Where are your ideas? The US is very creative, which is great, but as it turns into an echo chamber it’ll be places outside Europe and the US that take the forefront.” Sounds like a brave new world.
Five Christmas gifts for beer lovers
The Beer Kitchen by Melissa Cole – RRP £20, £14.28 amazon.co.uk
Award-winning beer writer Melissa Cole, fed up of seeing recipes calling for nothing more specific than “beer”, brought her twin passions together for this beautiful cookbook. Each of the 70 recipes features a specific style, with suggestions and pairing options included, and Cole sets out the science behind beer cooking and food matching in a clear and lively style.
And you can try before you buy: we’ve got three wintery recipes from The Beer Kitchen here.
BeerBods 12 week subscription – £36 beerbods.co.uk
BeerBods subscription service does what you might expect, bringing craft beers hassle free to your door and then some. You’ll find brews from small, independent producers in its boxes, and while there are one-off gift options, I recommend the 12 week subscription. It gains the recipient entry to “Beer Club” – members can gather round Twitter each Thursday night to discuss the beer of the week in a live online tasting.
Homebrewtique Christmas Cheer all-grain craft beer starter kit – £87 homebrewtique.com
Whether you’re making the step up from extract brewing or are a beginner, Homebrewtique kits make the all-grain brewing process easy, and because the batches are so small they’re ideal if you’re limited for space. The Christmas gift kit has everything you need to get started making your own delicious beer at home – my own Homebrewtique black IPA was a great success.
Brewery visit – ukbrewerytours.com
Treat the beer fan in your life to a field day and find out how it’s done. UK Brewery Tours offers trips to breweries all over the country, so there’s a fantastic range of options at various price points. If you’re into reducing your carbon footprint by giving “experiences” rather than “things”, this is the way to go.
BeerHawk Imperial Stouts and Porters box – £65 beerhawk.co.uk
There couldn’t be much better over the Christmas period than cosying up by the fire (or electric heater) and nursing along a dark, velvety barrel-aged stout, or enjoying one with cheese. But they sell out notoriously fast. This case of nine is indulgent, but if you or a loved one dig wood-aged beers, jump on it – you’d struggle to find such a good selection elsewhere.