Brooklyn Brewery’s Garrett Oliver on Pierre Celis and the State of Brewing

Photo courtesy of Brooklyn Brewery.

Few names invoke the level of respect in the beer world more than that of Garrett Oliver. Brewmaster of Brooklyn Brewery in New York, Oliver has been at the brewing game for close to four decades, starting in the early 1980s in England.

While overseas, Oliver tried many beers he hadn’t seen in the U.S. before, opening up a whole new world for him. After homebrewing a bit soon after, Oliver moved back to the U.S. becoming the president of the New York Homebrewer’s Guild, and later head brewer at Manhattan Brewing. It was at the Guild where he met Steve Hindy, who approached Oliver the following year to be the brewer at Brooklyn Brewery’s new Williamsburg brewery.

Oliver has gone on to win numerous awards for his beers. He is the author of ‘The Brewmasters Table’, editor-in-chief of ‘The Oxford Companion to Beer’, and is the winner of the 2014 James Beard Award for Excellent Wine, Beer or Spirits Professional. And yes, he is the Crown Prince of Hats. Oliver is known to be quite the snappy dresser and lover of fine hats.

I sat down with Oliver recently during the Craft Brewers Conference in Denver to discuss Pierre Celis (the father of witbier) and the witbier style, for a new book I’m working on. What resulted was a conversation not just about Pierre, but the brewing industry as well.

What do you think Pierre’s place in brewing history is?

I think Pierre has a particularly special place. I mean, we can't point to somebody and say, okay, they were the progenitor of the triple or even the IPA or whatever else. But in Pierre’s case, he may not have invented witbier, but he pretty much invented it for everybody who brews it now. Much in the way that Dupont invented saisons for everybody that brews them now. That in and of itself is a spectacularly powerful thing. It's very hard to point to anybody else who's done anything quite like that.

For me, it’s less of a memory of him talking about specifics of how he was making the beer or whatever else. It’s hard to convey. It's just his kind of puckish personality that I remember. I think that his general lack of jealousy about actually spawning something was, especially among the Belgian brewers, though not entirely unique to him, still relatively unique. You didn't see a lot of guys like that.

If Pierre were still around today, what do you think he’d say about the widespread popularity of the witbier style? It seems most breweries have one in their line up these days.

If anyone had got from him, even the slightest hint that he thought that we shouldn't be brewing the style (witbier) or that we were somehow competing with him or anything like that, we may not have brewed it. I think he actually wanted to plant a seed and it grew. I mean, look at Allagash. They are in a way the pure heir of Pierre.

It's a style that I've brewed here. I brewed it at our subsidiary brewery, our sister brewery in Stockholm. I brewed at Jeju Brewing, Jeju Island in South Korea, where it is our lead beer and has not changed from what Pierre was doing. I think in some ways witbier is among the more pure of the original styles. Not that much has been warped or played with, you know by craft. Not that I don't think that we shouldn't have creativity around things. Sure. But you know, by and large, witbier is still witbier, and I like that.

Have other styles taken over in their approachability?

I think that it (witbier) deserves as a style greater popularity and I think it probably will have greater popularity again, but you know, we are going through waves right now. The IPA wave is big enough to have largely suppressed a lot of these Belgian styles and the Belgian beer itself, which you don't really see that much, at least in our market.

Pierre’s known for his having given up his family business to pursue his dream of brewing. Do you see that grit in the industry today?

We're at an inflection point. This coming generation is going to be the first generation of craft brewers who did not have another career first. They didn't give up anything to get there. The story of craft beer is a story of diversion. You take your entire life, everything that you plan to do, the degree that you got even. You got a degree in law. You became a lawyer, you became a doctor. It became this, it became that, and then burn all of it.

There is a model for more immediate success now. Like with a fish, there's an ocean. This thing, when we started, we had to dig the ocean and put water in it to have some place to be alive. There was no craft brewing movement. There were no craft beers available in New York City before we started distributing at Brooklyn. At the end when we kind of sold that distribution off and kind of went in our own direction, we had over 200 brands. We had everything that was not Sam Adams or Guinness. That's was the early nineties through, and when we finished we were the largest Sierra Nevada wholesaler outside of Northern California.

Sacrifice has been a cornerstone of the small brewer. What is craft’s identity now?

Our recent past, it gives you a perspective on craft beer that not everybody has because we've watched this thing being built under our tutelage. Through people like Michael Jackson, Pierre, obviously Charlie (Papazian), you know, all these foundational figures. And so the thing that I worry about is that without having that basis of things, you lose your foundation. You see the kind of culture that's growing up now where everybody is trying to do kind of the same thing, and what you have is like a thing where you marry your brother and sisters. You replicate your DNA over and over again, and you end up with idiot children. You know we used to have a great variety because we were taking ideas in from all over the world.

Now that we're only looking at each other in this fishbowl, things get a little bit more boring, you know? And I'm hopeful that we will see soon a re-differentiation of what's going on in craft.

In an attempt to keep things interesting for consumers and encourage our own creativity, have we lost sight of our origins?

It just reminds me of the fact that we didn't come out of a monoculture, and what we have right now. I think the local movement is great. We all have wanted to support local our entire careers, though we wouldn't have a craft beer industry without these examples from foreign brewers. We wouldn't have anything to base what we're doing now.