With the publication of The Oxford Companion to Beer, I thought it would be relevant to interview the editor, Garrett Oliver. Garrett is the brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery and has been brewing beer professionally for over 20 years. The Oxford Companion to Beer has over 1,000 subjects and is the largest amount of knowledge about beer ever assembled in one book.
JZ: How did you approach The Oxford Companion to Beer?
GO: When they first asked me to do this I said, "No way, I already have a busy job." I didn't want my whole life to disappear in to this project but my friends convinced me that I would be sorry later if I didn't do it. I also thought that at the end of this process I would be a lot smarter from when I started, which is a good motivation.
JZ: How did you start the book?
GO: The start of it was developing the subject list. I started off with about 300 subjects and then I sent that list out to a bunch of brewers from around the world and they suggested ways to develop the list further. I asked that they send me their top 20 subjects that were not on the list. I worked with the beer community to build a list that covered almost everything. Then we brought on an advisory board of some of the top minds in beer from around the world.
JZ: You are one of the top minds in beer.
GO: The great thing about being an American is that we have a broad view. The Germans know a lot about German beer, but they don't know a lot about other beers. In the United States we have one of the greatest brewing cultures in the world in part because we have our own culture and everyone else's. That puts me in a great perch to look around the world. Brooklyn Beer is sold in 15 countries so we travel a lot and know everybody. We had 160 writers from over at dozen countries. The third part of the project was once we had our list of subjects we had to assign them to writers. After it was written it would come back to me and I would do editing which would range from something light to a complete rewrite. Over a long period of time the book starts to come together. At a certain point you look at it the way you look at a film. For example, Peter Jackson who directed Lord of The Rings. When you see the movie you think, "How can one guy possibly hold all this stuff in their head to the extent that they could make a movie?" What you find is that the director has an overarching vision but they can't be there for every single thing. The imprint of the director is on everything I wrote or edited every single word in this book, but it's really the collected knowledge of a large community of people from around the world.
JZ: How happy are you to be done with this book?
GO: I can't even begin to tell you. For the last year I worked 16 hours a day every day. Between the brewery and the book it has been nonstop. There wasn't anytime when I was not working.
JZ: What made Oxford decide to do a beer book now?
GO: I think they saw the resurgence of beer around the world. The craft beer movement isn't just a U.S. phenomenon. Beer is a much more diverse type of beverage than wine. There is a wider range of flavors and a much broader history. I like wine, but beer is much more interesting. Beer can taste like chocolate or coffee or almost anything. It's a fascinating world that hasn't really been covered this way.
JZ: What's your bestselling beer?
GO: Brooklyn Lager. It's the first beer we ever brewed and remains about 50 percent of our overall production. What's so interesting about Brooklyn Lager is that now it's the everyday beer for a huge number of people. When it first came out it was out there. People thought it was too dark and bitter, but now tastes have shifted in our direction. Brooklyn Lager is the beer people have in their fridge all the time.
JZ: Did you always want to be in the beer business?
GO: No, I wanted to be a film director. I worked for HBO and went to film school. I started down the film path but beer sidelined me.
JZ: How did you get into beer?
GO: I started making beer at home because in the U.S. in 1984 we didn't really have any traditional beer. I was used to drinking it in Europe then I got back and there was nothing to drink. Then I fell in love with actually making beer and it took over my life. I have been brewing professionally for 22 years.
JZ: What would people be surprised to know about Brooklyn Brewery?
GO: We are a much more artisanal brewery then we were five years ago but we are also notably larger. That's a great evolution for us. Most companies as they get bigger they become more commercial and less artisanal. The beer business is extremely interesting from the artisanal and commercial side. The good thing about the book is we cover the whole industry and all aspects of all beers. We cover things like how light beer is made.
JZ: Can you make a good artisanal light beer?
GO: Absolutely. People talk to me about it all the time. My only problem with it is as a brewer is I would be offended with selling beer based on calories. We stay away from that not because we can't do it, but because it's the wrong way to think about things.
JZ: What advice would you give to someone who wants to open up a brewery?
GO: I would tell them to figure out the one thing they do really well and focus on that one thing. I say that as a brewer who makes a lot of things. Also, you should make the beer you want to drink then bring people to it. Don't do it the other way around by trying to figure out what people want.
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