Garrett Oliver is sitting in a chair at the back of a pub in Kensington. Phone in one hand, half-pint of Brooklyn Summer Ale in the other, he scrolls and sips as shafts of sun pour through the window. Yesterday, he brewed with Thornbridge in Derbyshire, tomorrow he'll be hanging out with Lost & Grounded in Bristol, and in an hour or two he'll be uncorking rare bottles from the Brooklyn Brewery cellar to a gushing crowd of beer lovers.
All the while, Oliver's straw hat sits on a chair of its own. It's as synonymous with him as the beer Brooklyn makes – Bel Air Sour, Black Ops Stout and that lager that caused a stir on UK shores about a decade ago. So synonymous that it now appears on the label of Brooklyn Lager – a nod to a brewer who's thrived at the heart of craft beer since the mid-1980s.
We're here to pick his brains. When you've been knocking around in the craft beer world since its early days, you're going to know a thing or two about the beers that matter. He talks us through the brew that inspired the craft scene, and the modern styles he thinks will stick around.
The eight most important beers in craft
Beers like this one were the inspiration that was then built on by beers like Anchor, Sierra Nevada and Samuel Adams. I moved to London in 1983 and was stage-managing rock bands – that's when I fell in love with British beer, and how I ended up becoming a brewer. Whenever I'm over in the UK now I look for this beer on cask. I get that cask isn't going to be the beer of the future, but I hope that British brewers will loop around and put more value on their own beer culture, because right now brewers in the UK are making American-looking beers, and Americans are the ones buying British hops.
You don't get anywhere without Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. In the US it's the big, breakout beer that got craft beer started and these days it's an institution. There were people who came before, but not much before. You had Anchor, too, who have a special place. Anchor Liberty ale was the most heavily dry-hopped beer I'd ever tasted back in 1985 or 1986. I didn't even know that was a flavour profile that could be achieved. Sierra Nevada was on a much lower level.
Pliny The Elder
This is a huge beer. It's fantastic, and it's kind of responsible for the trend of bigger IPAs. Pliny is kind of the O.G., but these days, Russian River is doing exceptional things across not only hoppy beers, but also sours, spontaneously fermented beers and more. They're probably one of the best all-round breweries in the world.
At the outset, Samuel Adams were super brash. They kind of acted the way BrewDog acts now. They were looking to push the envelope of what was happening at the time with quality. They built a model that a lot of people are working in now – they pretty much established contract brewing as a way you could do business, although they aren't making beer that way now.
Obviously I'm in two minds as to whether I can say this in a list – but it's a seminal beer. It started off as a way-out-there beer with a flavour profile that was way stronger that Sam Adams. It's got a higher hop profile, more caramel and is punchier.
Even to this day, people drink Brooklyn Lager and they're surprised. It started out as the weirdo and became the everyday drinking beer for a lot of people. It went from the realm of beer geeks to the sort of thing people are drinking at a baseball game or in a fishing boat. The beer itself never changed – everything changed around the beer – and that's why I think it's done so well.
Black Chocolate Stout
At the launch of this stout in 1994, we were the only craft beer distributor in New York City. For that reason, we knew exactly how much imperial stout got sold in the city, because we sold all of it. We looked at how much we'd need to sell, and we asked ourselves "could we possibly sell a 10% stout?" – "could we even sell all of a single batch?". At that time the clear answer was no, we probably couldn't even sell a quarter of it. So we just said "If they don't drink it, we'll drink it" and made it anyway.
About two weeks later I went out on the brewery floor and asked where all the Black Chocolate Stout had gone because I was going to take some to a tasting. It was all gone. We actually had to go out and buy it back at retail price to do tastings with it. We went to loads of different people and said "you'll sell it back to us at trade price, right?" and they were like "nuh-uh!". It really helped us understand that there was a market out there for big stout, and that's grown ever since.
In the more modern era, Allagash is a great brewery, and Allagash White can sometimes fly under the radar a little because it’s so well known. It’s a really well made beer, and their whole spontaneous programme is amazing.
It's hard to pick in the US right now because we have more than 7,000 breweries, but just for the modern idea of a farmhouse-style brewery, Jester King is very important.
They're not an O.G., they're relatively recent, but I think a lot of people are looking at what they're doing as a model. You look at all these acres of land, and all the spontaneously fermented beer that's being made in the brewery there, and on a nice Saturday they'll have 1,500 people there drinking beers that are $20 a bottle and up.
They recently bought hundreds of acres around them to make sure that nobody could build a Wal-Mart that would look over their land.
Brewed to last: which beer trends are here to stay?
New England IPA
Grimm Artisanal Ales
This is a style that'll continue to have a place. People love it – I like it when it's done well. I think the more sugary versions are probably pretty short lived and are already starting to flag.
There's nothing wrong with the actual beer style, the problem is that it's misnamed: it's not really IPA at all in many cases. It bears no relationship to IPA except that it's heavily dry hopped. If that's the only thing that IPA is then we kind of lose all of our nomenclature. IPA was dry, super dry hopped, strong and bitter. If it's not at least those things, then what have you got to talk about with that terminology?
Setting that aside, there are a lot of places people go and they see 20 of the same beer on, and after a while you're bored. What's happening now in the scene – which used to be full of all this great variety – is you've got people saying 'well I've got to make this because it's what everyone's into right now'. It's super boring. It used to look like a meadow and now it just looks like a lawn. I think NEIPA is here to stay, but other flavour profiles have got to become popular again at some point soon.
Sour beers are going to be huge. I wouldn't be surprised to see them being 30% of the market in 20 years. If you look back in British history, sour beers used to be huge, but then we went into a period in which we wiped out our beer culture, food culture and everything, replacing it all with facsimiles of the real thing. We took cheese and replaced it with the stuff people are still melting on hamburgers. The bread I grew up with had about 50 chemicals in it. In that sense, craft beer is simply return to reality and normality, not a wild and funky trend. We've been here before and we gave it all up for big things, and now we're getting it back.
When I moved to the UK in 1983 and started drinking cask beer I was like 'holy shit, what the hell is this?' – I wasn't even sure I liked it. I'd just got out of college and I thought I'd been drinking beer all the time: they'd told us it was beer, and they were lying. We gave that whole culture away – the older UK styles, the sour beer coming out of Belgium and Germany. Berlin at one point had 100 different breweries making nothing but sour beer.
In my opinion, it should never have gone away. Give anyone a sour candy, and there'll be nothing but giggles – everyone loves sourness. Kids start with a lemonade stand, then they move onto margaritas and champagne – but then people didn't initially want to drink sour beer. It's crazy. That's changing though: we're starting to see grandmothers pick up Bel Air Sour, and all the guys in the warehouse are drinking rosé beers. They're all driving forklifts and saying "Hey, that Rosé de Ville is my stuff".
There are two things here: number one is the style itself and what it tastes like – I've not yet had one that I like. Then there's the thing I like to refer to as brewery religion – the things you'll do and wont do. Enzymes are against our religion: craft beer was a way of moving away from artificial things, so I'd rather be making things naturally than by dumping in enzymes artificially. The style could almost be a type of saison, you can make those extremely dry. Take Saison Dupont as a good example. I'm sure people can make a nice example of it, but It's not a beer i'm personally going to drink.
There's a human amusement with food that appears to be something else – and that's the ground that pastry stout is treading. I remember April Bloomfield in New York made a pig's trotter dish: it came to the table breaded on a plate, it was huge and the shape of a hoof, but when you cut into it you realised it was just formed in the shape of a pig's trotter. It was made of pig's trotter but in fact all the meat had been taken off, rendered, confited and then reshaped with breading. It was really funny.
We've made beers like that, too, 15 years ago we had a beer called Cookie Jar Porter which had raisin purée, cinnamon, oats and whatever else in it. It was made to taste exactly like a cinnamon-raisin cookie.
What I'm not a fan of is when you put actual pastries into the beer when you don't know what's in them. People put 50 doughnuts in a beer without knowing what's in there: frosting with wax, high-fructose corn syrup, artificial colours and whatever else. That's nasty. I'm hoping it all moves in a more naturalistic direction – I think the from-scratch element of craft is really important. If you're going to make a beer taste like a cocktail, don't just put bitters in, use a bill of botanicals instead.