The beer ambassadorGarrett Oliver's got the right brew for any meal
"One thing that I really enjoy doing-I've done this in England, I've done it in Denmark, I've done it [in New York]-is competing versus sommeliers head-to-head with cheese or something," said Garrett Oliver, with obvious relish. "Cheese is usually what we do-seven different great cheeses. The sommelier brings the wines, and I bring the beers. And they're always surprised to be crushed."
Oliver, brewmaster for New York's Brooklyn Brewery and author of The Brewmaster's Table, clearly loves to tweak the nose of the wine establishment-and he does it very well.
Oliver, a film-school graduate, fell in love with beer while living in England after college. "When I got to England I was just shocked at the depth, the flavor, the complexity of the beer," Oliver said, "and everybody was into the beer. It was like they didn't consider themselves beer fans, it was just part of everyday life that you discussed the beer and how it was today.
"Then I got home," Oliver continued, "and in 1984 there was nothing-I mean absolutely nothing. You know Bud, Bud Light, Miller, Miller Light, Coors, Coors Light, and maybe a dusty bottle of Bass in the corner somewhere, and that was it."
The situation prompted a friend of Oliver's to buy him a homebrew kit for Christmas, which eventually led Oliver to an apprenticeship under Samuel Smith's former head brewer, and finally to his current position-making beer so good it's popular in countries like England and Denmark. No small feat for American beer.
"When they use the word "lager,' they think of Tennant's Super or something like that," said Oliver. "Some really crappy English lager, and they're surprised to see that [Brooklyn Brewery's lager] has color, that it has flavor-I get e-mails all the time about stuff like Black Chocolate Stout, where people have never had anything like it before."
Oliver said he considers American beer makers like him "cultural ambassadors, going to show people that not everything in the United States is nearly so bland as they might have been led to believe.
He added that he's been working overseas with "the whole beer and food movement." Obviously, people are familiar with wine and food-but beer as a serious food accompaniment is sadly overlooked, thanks to a combination of snobbery and ignorance. "I don't understand how you're going to live well if you say, "Oh, I don't like anything from this region of the world,'" he said, "or, "I hate fish, all fish,' or, "I don't like bread,' or "I don't like beer.' It's ridiculous. But they're reacting to what they think is beer, and clearly they have no idea what they're talking about. It's like going to the supermarket and getting a loaf of Wonder Bread and saying, "Yeah, you know, I tried bread and I don't really like it.'"
Living well is ultimately the goal behind The Brewmaster's Table. Inspired to write it after witnessing people in the beer aisle settling on Heineken when confronted with so many choices, Oliver writes, "Learn a little bit about the amazing variety and complexity of flavor that traditional beer brings to the table, and in return I promise you a better life."
I must confess, I thought I understood food-and-beer pairing-but after reading Oliver's book, I realized the vastness of the subject. Oliver breaks the beers down by style, then country, then brewery, detailing particularly noteworthy beers of each variety and suggesting food pairings-both exotic and pedestrian, from foie gras to quesadillas. Oliver takes great pains to break down the beers into their flavor components to aid in the matching process-and much of the information is eye-opening.
For example, I'd never really understood the fuss over brown ales. But after learning about how the caramelized malt could accompany the caramelized surface of seared meat, I tried one of Oliver's suggestions-pairing a simple seared boneless lamb loin with Samuel Smith's Nut Brown Ale. The combination was every bit as sublime as Oliver said it would be, the caramelized flavors melding seamlessly into one another.The Brewmaster's Table is available in hardback, with a paperback version coming out this spring. It's essential reading for anyone who is serious about food, beer-or both. Beer aficionados and neophytes alike will find a wealth of useful information in the book, and if you like to cook, it will inspire you to try some new things in your kitchen.