Beer Bloggers’ Conference #4: Garrett Oliver and Spiegelau

Brooklyn Brewery logo

Garrett Oliver is a beer god.  We all know it.  It’s not enough that he was the first brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery’s brand new,  heroically placed plant in the heart of a very, shall we say, discouraged section of Brooklyn where, once up on a time, there had been many breweries; and then made a success of the brewery and associated brewpub.  Timing had something to do with it; the interest in craft brew had grown enough that distributors, restaurants and bars were more amenable to carrying the Brooklyn Brewery brand.  Thanks to a great deal of diligence by the Brooklyn team and some really remarkable beers, you can now have Brooklyn Beer in 25 states and 20 countries.  I don’t mean to diminish the incredible work done by founders Steve Hindy and Tom Potter and the rest of Brooklyn’s devoted staff – they were believers when belief in craft beer was not a fashion, and worked against very high odds to make this brand a success.  And then they hired a star, who’s made it famous.

Add to that Garrett’s own accomplishments.  A graduate of Boston University,  he went from apprentice to brewmaster at Manhattan Brewing Co. in four years.  He has hosted more than 800 beer tastings, dinners, and cooking demonstrations in fourteen countries, and writes regularly for beer and food-related periodicals.  He has also hosted beer tastings and dinners at many fine restaurants, cooking schools, and food events including the James Beard House, Eleven Madison Park, Per Se, Craft NYC, Oceana, The Waldorf-Astoria, Gramercy Tavern, Aubergine (London), Noma (Copenhagen), the Slow Food Cheese Festival and Salone del Gusto in Piemonte, Italy, Restaurant Roberta Sudbrack (Rio Di Janiero), Restaurant Julia (São Paulo), Anthony’s (Leeds), Cape Wine 2006 (South Africa), The Association of Westchester Country Club Chefs, The American Institute of Wine and Food, The Culinary Institute of America, the Sommelier Society of America, The French Culinary Institute, The Institute for Culinary Education, Johnson & Wales University and the 2008 GEL Conference (With a list that long I think my English teachers are weeping somewhere. Too many to link, sorry.   On the other hand, I aspire to a schedule like his some day!).   He has hosted tastings and talks for many cultural institutions, including the Smithsonian, MassMOCA, the American Museum of Natural History, the National Geographic Society, and The Jewish Museum.  And then there are all the radio and TV appearances – guess that degree in Broadcasting and Film is getting some use.

There are the books:  The Oxford Companion to Beer is #8 on Amazon’s list of overall books.  The Brewmaster’s Table: Discovering the Pleasures of Real Beer with Real Food was the winner of a 2004 International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) Book Award and was a finalist for the 2004 James Beard Foundation Book Awards.  Jiminy.

The awards and honors are just ridiculous: in addition to the books, Garrett was 2009 and 2010 finalist for the James Beard Award as “Outstanding Wine or Spirits Professional”; judge for the competition of the Great American Beer Festival for twenty years, and has been a perennial judge for the prestigious Great British Beer Festival competition and The Brewing Industry International Award; recipient of the 1998 Russell Schehrer Award for Innovation and Excellence in Brewing, granted by the Institute for Brewing Studies; 2003 Semper Ardens Award for Beer Culture (Denmark) and Cheers Beverage Media’s “Beverage Innovator of the Year” Award for 2006. In 2007, Forbes named him one of the top ten tastemakers in the country for wine, beer and spirits.  Note we haven’t even gotten to the medals his beers have won.

And we had him for three whole days.

Garrett Oliver at Podium
Garrett Oliver in his signature BB blazer (I don’t mean Buckaroo Banzai)
Allan Wright with microphone
Our fearless leader/host Allan

Allan Wright, our host from Zephyr Adventures, said they had an advisory blogger board who helped select the content and speakers.  The board voted on candidates.  Barack Obama got the perfect 5 score, but wasn’t available.  Garrett was next on the list.

Garrett gave one of our two opening keynotes, with the very groovy title “The Matrix: Reality, Facsimile, Technology, and the Beer Culture.”  Later he worked with Matt Rutkowski of Spiegelau to present to us the difference between your usual barware and really fine quality glasses.  (Please, I’m a Southern girl; you want me to evaluate good table crystal?  Ok!)

Garrett’s keynote points spoke to my homebrewer’s heart:

Beer isn’t just for geeks anymore; it is deep and wide and tall these days.  It is bringing reality back to food and drink (Amen!).  Food facsimile: there was a time when taking plastic and turning it into cheese was a sign of progress, but now a lot of what’s in the supermarket is not actually cheap phentermine diet pills food (Sing it!).

As a brewer, you have something to say, and a way to say it.  Most craft brewers had another life that they’ve given up to do this; no one’s asking you to take the emotional and financial risks.   (Yes indeedy!)  So what’s the story that we’re here to tell? A hundred years from now maybe someone will know what we’ve actually done.  (Oh.  That’s me.)

The purpose of beer is people.  Connecting to them, doing things with them, people finding a thing that brings them more joy – beer entwines with their lives.  You can open the door for people to find something they like.  On the other side of that door is a better life.

Everyone who stands in front of a kettle is trying to make magic.  It’s tricky.  (Yes we are, and yes it is!)

The more I understand about beer, the more beautiful it becomes, and the more mysterious it becomes.   And that, to me, is the title of the song.

Matt Rutkowski looking through a Spiegelau glass
Yes, that’s optical quality glass.

The Spiegelau demo was right after a break; we came in to find Elle Potter had been polishing – and I mean like a jeweler – five glasses for each of over a hundred attendees.  Matt Rutkowski and Garrett worked together well, Matt talking about the glassware – optical quality, we saw microscopic comparisons – and Garrett provided the beer to profile each glass.  We had a standard pint glass, and the four Spiegelau glasses from the Beer Connoisseur set – wheat beer, lager, tall pilsner, and stemmed pilsner –  which they graciously allowed us to take home.    For each, we were served small quantities of a Brooklyn brew in the pint glass and one of the Spiegelau glasses, so we could compare.    OK, I’m a believer.  The beer just plain behaved differently.  First, the Spiegelau glasses are made to capture aroma, so putting my nose in the glass was infinitely more rewarding.  Head formed better, and held better; bubbles were more consistently shaped, color was easier to discern, and it lasted notably longer in the Spiegelau glasses.  The flavor was more distinct, and I could pick up many more subtleties, something that has often bothered me in the field judging I often do at medievalist events.

I am hereby upgrading the judging glass I bring.  And possibly building a travel box for it.

Same beer in two different glasses: head is lighter and thicker in one
Same beer, poured at the same time. See the difference?

If I get really honest here,  full pint glasses require a little attention to get a grip on and lift.  I’m a small woman with hands a bit too small for the rest of me.  After lifting two full pint glasses until they’re empty, I’m being really careful with them.  There is definitely a slight release of internal tension, and easing of attention for matters external (like good company, good conversation, and beer)  if I can put my hand around a full glass and I’m not afraid I’m going to drop it.  I can do that with the Spiegelau glasses we tried.  The stemmed pilsner, in addition to being a lovely shape and good for tasting in, gives my small hand several ways to easily grasp or cradle it.  I thought it would be my personal favorite, and it is.

Added to that, we were tasting some really wonderful beers.  We had Local 2 in the tall pilsner, a dark, dry, spicy, fruity Belgian-abbey-style ale.  To finish – be still my beating heart – Black Ops in the Spiegelau stemmed pilsner.  Oh heaven!  Dark and caramely with a biscuit head doesn’t begin to cover it.  Spicy, mysterious, complex; at the end I didn’t dump the remainder, I carried the bit left in my glass back up to my hotel room to store it in the fridge for later.  It was much too good to waste a drop.  Black Ops is pretty rare, so it was cool to have the opportunity.  Oh my, that was a memorable session.


As long as I had some time in the Midwest, I would like to try two regional specialties: a tenderloin, made of  breaded pork pounded thin on a round bun, the pork much bigger than the bun,  served possibly with a side of ketchup and some chips or fries.  Ideally it’s the perfect balance between crunchy and juicy.  A sugar cream pie, also called (among other things) Indiana cream pie.  This one looks right up my alley.  A good pie crust, then a filling with sugar, heavy cream, vanilla, a little nutmeg, and enough flour to hold it together.  I wonder if it’d be unthinkable heresy to make it with brown sugar?  My Scottish side is peeping through.  Hey Jay Ducote, every tried either of these?

Related Post