Garrett Oliver: ‘Beer now is a 20-way street’
Garrett Oliver, editor of the recently-released Oxford Companion to Beer, has been here, there and, indeed, everywhere in the past few weeks promoting the book. Today’s Independent carries a profile of him but the limitations of print meant there was plenty of interesting stuff that got left out – so it has ended up here:
Are you pleased with how the book turned out?
I’m very pleased with how it has turned out. After such a long period of time working on something, inevitably you feel that something is going to disappoint you when it arrives – you’re almost braced for a bit of let down. After I spent the first few hours with it I was quite pleased on all our behalfs! They did such a nice job on the production as well. There are things about the book that, despite having read it over and over again, still surprise me.
How do you respond to the criticism the book has received (Two respected beer writers and bloggers, Martyn Cornell and Ron Pattinson, have registered their disappointment with the book, accusing it of – among other things – repeating beer myths. For more on their criticism, see here)?
There was never any way you were going to get away with something this big and not have some people have a tilt at it. By and large all the reviews have been extremely positive – almost all the criticism we’ve got has come from a few people in the UK, who felt that they knew better about a few relatively obscure historical matters, mostly. It’s one of those things where – well, there’s certainly some distemper among a very small number of people.
Actually the fact that there are so few actual complaints attests to the fact that this is a serious, peer-reviewed project. Will that [the book] evolve over time? It almost certainly will. I would think that there are very few things that are facts that will evolve but I recall having read that in Jancis Robinson’s book (The Oxford Companion to Wine), that by the time she reached the third edition, she had changed ‘radically’ 40 per cent of the information, thanks to new understandings and new information. There’s that old Arab phrase: ‘You should make your words soft and sweet because some days you may have to eat them’. I am not saying that no-one could have done a better job – however I think that the 166 people who worked on this took it every bit as seriously as any few people who are slinging criticism. I think it will stand the test of time.
There’s a lengthy entry on pairing food with cheese on the book. How important is the food aspect?
In a way it’s one of the most important things about beer and it’s one of the things that people tend to miss. Even people who love a wide variety of beer – people who are drinking Brooklyn, Chimay, Greene King – may not look at the food and the beer together as something special. Given that beer has a much, much wider range of flavour that wine does – and I say that as a wine geek – that means that all these beers provide people with the opportunity for a much more interesting culinary experience at home than they might otherwise have. To miss the boat – when it doesn’t really cost anything – for every dinner to be a little bit more interesting, then that’s a shame.
How did your love of beer begin?
My first pint of what I would call real beer was at some pub behind Victoria Station, literally minutes after my arrival in London where I was going to live for a year. It never occurred to me that this was going to be my life – I had a degree in film and I ran the University of London Union on Goodge Street. I was stage managing bands: I put on shows for people like Billy Bragg and the Cocteau Twins. We had some really cool stuff.
I was going to the pub and everybody talked about the beer when I arrived. This was not something I was used to – you didn’t go and drink Budweiser in a bar and say ‘boy this Bud is great tonight!’ but people were saying ‘The pint is this way, the pint’s that way, it’s dead, it’s spot on.’ It gave every evening a certain kind of texture and personality and I learned my way around the beers. Slowly but surely, I fell in love with those beers. Then I went travelling all over Europe.
Then I got back home and I was like ‘oh, no. We have one kind of beer and it tastes like water’. I started making beer at home. I started apprenticing in New York to a guy who had been senior brewer at Sam Smiths [Mark Witty, at the short-lived Manhattan Brewing Company]. So in a way I kind of grew up a Yorkshire brewer. I learnt interesting Yorkshire locutions that I know to this day, like ‘the kettle wants water putting in’. This was 1989. I remember thinking – there are about five things wrong with that sentence, at least in American English!
It has been a fascinating journey. I definitely feel that the UK is a second home for me for beer – if not the first one.
And then there’s the American craft beer revolution…
It’s kind of funny. When I used to go travelling, about 20 years ago, I was like a Labrador retriever, classic American: ‘Hi how are you guys doing? I’m an American brewer!’ and they’d basically say ‘oh yes. We have heard of your American beer.’ Sometimes [they were] openly derisive, sometimes with a twinge of pity. They didn’t realise what we were doing.
I think that what some people miss is that the craft beer movement is not a trend or a fad. What it actually is is a return to normality. We had the most varied food culture in the world – we had breweries in the 1900 that made nothing but Weiss beer, breweries that made nothing but porter, breweries that specialised in pale ale, breweries that specialised in what were new lager styles. We already had the most interesting beer culture in the world back then. We’re a nation of immigrants – we import people and their ideas and then we play with them. The strange part was when we gave all that up.
I spoke to the guy who procures stuff for the US armed forces and he said, ‘I knew that craft beer had really arrived when the enlisted men would be going to buy some beer and started asking ‘where’s the real beer? We don’t drink this, we want some craft stuff. Where’s the Sam Adams, where’s the Sierra Nevada (right)?’ When you’ve got soldiers asking for it, you know that its reached a certain point in the culture.
And what about the British scene? You have been critical of its conservatism in the past…
I think things have changed. I think that there are some British brewers who are saying to themselves – wasn’t that ours? Didn’t we invent that thing? Porter, India Pale Ale? How come other people are having so much fun with it? So you see breweries like Thornbridge bringing back really punchy forms of IPA that are as nice as anything you’re going to find anywhere and I think that’s brilliant. And I still don’t think that there are many breweries in the US who can brew bitter as well as the best British breweries.
Brewing now is great because it’s not only a two-way street but it’s a 20-way street. You have the Italians being influenced by the British and the Belgians and the Americans all at the same time. It’s nice for us to be in the mix when it comes to a book like the OCB, the fact that we’re in that mix really helps you take the global view that a book like this is supposed to take.
I would certainly accept a criticism that there [is] an American bias or even an East-coast bias [in the book] but we worked pretty hard to make sure it wasn’t parochial and [for example] we’d dive into anything that was particularly British, or particularly something else and we’d spread the subject to the many places where it might be appropriate.
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