Behind the Bar Bar Talk

Brooklyn Brewery’s Garrett Oliver on the Importance of Inviting Everyone to the Table

He hopes the Michael James Jackson Foundation, launched in honor of his late friend, will be his legacy.

Garrett Oliver
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Matt Furman

In the world of craft beer, Brooklyn Brewery’s longtime brewmaster, Garrett Oliver, has pretty much done it all. He helped engineer the original IPA boom in the 1990s and pioneered all sorts of now-common creations like chocolate stouts. He’s the editor-in-chief of “The Oxford Companion to Beer and author of “The Brewmaster's Table: Discovering the Pleasures of Real Beer with Real Food.” He judges the most competitive brewing contest on the planet, and he has been nominated for a half-dozen James Beard Awards and took one home for Outstanding Wine, Beer or Spirits Professional. He even invented the concept of the modern beer collaboration without realizing it.  

But there’s something Oliver has never done or at least hadn’t in a long, long time: stop and look around. Like many, he didn’t have a choice in 2020, which led him to start something that he says means more than the above accomplishments put together: launch the Michael James Jackson Foundation to connect distillers and brewers of color with the technical training and mentorship to break into the adult-beverage industry. “If, in the future, the beer is gone and people don’t remember the books and this foundation is my only legacy, that would be fine,” he says. 

Oliver laughs about what he wasn’t able to achieve during the pandemic: “I didn’t read the great novels, I haven’t learned a new language.” But more importantly, he toiled to get a 501c3 nonprofit set up and assembled a decorated board. The MJJF started accepting applications in 2020 and, as of mid-March 2001, is preparing to announce the recipient of its first Nearest Green Scholarship Award for Distilling. 

The foundation honors Oliver’s late friend Jackson, the world’s preeminent beer and whiskey writer. While not a person of color himself, the foundation’s website points out, “Michael can only be described as actively and profoundly anti-racist.” 

“I wanted to do something like this, but I was always traveling and so busy,” says Oliver. “It’s been so much work that I can’t see how it would’ve happened without the pandemic. To come out of this situation, and the murders of George Floyd and others, with something that feels like a tiny part of the solution is hopefully not nothing.”

You posted on social media in early January, “The [foundation] is a small part of the cure for the illness we’ve seen playing across our screens this week. Brewers and distillers do work that brings people together—ALL people. That’s why we do it. This is the way.” Can you expand on that?

Part of the illness running through America is a lack of many things. I’m not a religious person, but there’s a lack of a spiritual center. There’s also a lack of selflessness. I’ve seen through international travel that we can be a great country, but we also can be selfish. Over the last few years, there has been a rise in selfishness, though with COVID, you do see a lot of selflessness from people on the front lines and in care positions, from essential workers and from medical staffers.

There’s also a lack of time at the table. If people pay attention, they see that the table—in a restaurant or in your home—is in many ways the center of your life. The most important moments of your life often happen around the table. If in your life or business you exclude people from that table, you don’t spend time with those people, they’re not going to get hired.

Beer and spirits have missed out, big time, on the opportunity to let everybody have a seat at the table. You hear people in the industry say, “We’re not unfriendly. Why not just come in? Do you need an engraved invitation?” 

Think of it this way: You’re a European-American, and you really want to get a well-made cocktail or a quality craft beer. But every time you go out, everyone in that bar is black. You can say that wouldn’t be a problem. But really really? People are people. It would feel weird.

When we go as African Americans and see none of us in the space, behind the bar or as servers, it’s freaky. You end up being excluded without there being a sign on the door. But when you have broader equity in hiring, that provides its own invitation. Things will integrate themselves. 

The idea that has been put out there that beer culture is a European thing is just not true. For entire wings of human existence, north to south, east to west, brewing is at the center of all traditional African societies. It was brought to the U.S. in the 1700s, and most of the brewing and distilling was done by African Americans. 

To be told this thing is for one group of people is ridiculous. It’s bad for us spiritually, bad for us culturally and bad for us business-wise. The important fallacy to get past is that Black people aren’t into craft beer.  

On top of the psychological barrier, there’s the financial barrier. Black American families have 10% of the assets that European-Americans do. Taking a brewing course costs $10,000 to $16,000. If you don’t take the course, we’ll want two to three years of experience. That means you have a catch-22: If you don’t have training, you can’t get experience, but you can’t get experience without training. It’s a trap. So we need to get past that, too. 

You’re about seven months in with the Michael James Jackson Foundation for Brewing and Distilling. What have been some challenges and victories?

We have a really strong board with a lot of experience, with worthy opinions. You want to build something that will last that’s not just based on yourself. Over time, the founder is eventually in the way of the progress of the organization. I know from human nature; if we’re successful, when we are five years in, I’m not going to want to go. I’ve done this hard work. Why should I go anywhere? So my term as chairman is over in five years and cannot be renewed. That’s why we put that in place in the beginning—to make sure I have to go and we build an organization that has a future and brings people up into it. 

It has been a big learning curve entering the 501c3 world. [Montana nonprofit] Hopa Mountain has been a huge help. They work largely with indigenous populations but also do a lot of mutual aid with other nonprofits. Bonnie Sachatello-Sawyer walked me through the whole filing process, which would have taken me forever. Fundraising has gone very well. At a certain point, I had to stop doing interviews because I needed to do this thing we’re actually talking about. 

I realized pretty early the foundation is the classic illustration of the iceberg. The part above the water: Donate money and spend the money on education. That’s the 20% you see. The 80% is providing access, cultivating connections and fostering mentorship. 

How will you ultimately define success for the foundation? 

The foundation will have been successful if it goes out of operation because there’s no longer a need for it. If it turns out our taprooms, cocktail bars and distilleries look like America in their makeup, we will have been successful. Unfortunately, we’ve seen in the United States that it’s taking a very long time. I’m in my late 50s. Things have not progressed. 

This is a way of toggling one switch. The thing we’re doing, providing technical education, is one way we’re sure it’s going to work. 

We’ve met awesome people. If they’re empowered with education, they’ll get the jobs. Breweries aren’t inherently racist. I’m not racist, but I wasn’t hiring minorities, because I was requiring two years experience. 

I came to realize what racism is. Racism isn’t a feeling; it’s an outcome. There’s a difference. You can have the outcome because of the feeling, and you can have the outcome without the feeling. 

I’m not a racist. But if I’m requiring two to three years of experience or coursework no one can pay for and I end up with an all-white staff, that’s a racist outcome. 

We used to bring refugees from places like Africa and Iraq into brewing programs, and they were awesome. Think about it: Who’s going to be smart and have more situational awareness than someone who walked across the desert or stayed alive during a civil war and managed to get their family out? Who do you want in a foxhole with you? I’ll take that guy.  

We would sponsor them through the International Rescue Committee. Ironically, that was a path that wasn’t available to our own American minority citizens. We were figuring we were doing the right thing, but it wasn’t as much of the right thing as we thought. 

How can people help expand the foundation’s impact?

I’m starting to show up on forums facilitated by some people in the liquor industry, and having spoken to a lot of them, they’re all enthusiastic. But few have stepped up to make monetary contributions besides Tito’s Handmade Vodka, which donated $10,000. 

We have awarded (but not announced) a scholarship for a distiller, and that person is going to be amazing, but the course costs $16,000. So the entire liquor industry hasn’t given enough for one student. Not that they don’t want to, but by and large, with big corporations, things move slowly. They’re realizing, We have a [diversity, equity and inclusion] problem; we don’t know where to start. I’m trying to provide one place to do so. 

Diversity is going to be great for business. This is part of your future if you’d like to be culturally relevant to every adult in the United States. To be culturally relevant in only some communities is bad business. 

There’s some incredible cooking happening on your social media. Your book, “The Brewmaster’s Table,” is this beautiful celebration of beer and food. How does cooking inform brewing and vice versa? 

The modern brewer’s mind is a culinary mind. Yes, there are traditions and technical knowledge that needs to be brought to bear, but there’s a creativity that plays through in a culinary fashion. 

Each intern in our brewing department gets to make a beer with no input for me. We host a release party and put it on our bar. Saidou Ceesay from Gambia worked on our bottling line after we sent him to packaging school. He wasn’t a brewer per se, and we told him do whatever you want, something that represents you personally. He said everything in Gambian food is smoky and [spicy] hot. So he smoked malt, roasted a bunch of jalapeños, hung them in bags below the liquid, then put the beer in casks with different amounts of habanero. This is a beer that never would have occurred to me. 

Ayad Asha from Iraq brewed something he called 1,001 Nights with black lime and cardamom. It outsold our best-selling Brooklyn Lager for a month and a half until it was out.

We draw inspiration from cocktails, too. I made a beer based on a Manhattan and another with Sam Ross based on his Penicillin. There are so many different flavors that come from wine, as well. We’ve done a number of secondary fermentations with yeast from natural wine, and we’re working with sake producers to do things based on traditional sake yeast and koji.

If you’re just trying to replicate your own DNA over and over again, you end up with idiot children. You’ve married your cousin or your sister, and it’s not going to go well. Bringing in creative DNA from other people, and you get amazing results. It’s never just you. 

Heather McGhee writes in “The Sum of Us” that never mind the psychic damages of racism, look at all the productivity that’s lost by excluding minorities and women from opportunities. It adds up to the losses of trillions of dollars every year. It’s not just morally wrong; it’s stupid.  

What’s the most underappreciated trend in modern craft beer?

Subtlety! There’s also this: I used to do talks where two of us brewers would interview each other, then switch chairs. One of my favorite questions to ask was, “What is the dark side? What is the beer you really really want to brew but it’s somehow wrong?” The answer is usually pilsner. This is from some of the biggest funk brewers, doing all sorts of nerdy things like using coolship fermenters. Because a great pilsner is the tell. It’s like an Old Fashioned in the cocktail world. You do it well; I now trust you. It’s like, Make me an omelet in the French tradition. It looks simple but isn’t simple at all. Everyone wants to do a good pilsner. 

What’s your favorite brewing disaster story?

Hoo, boy! I don’t think I’ve publicly told this story. We were working on a weissbier, a German-style wheat beer. One of the brewers came to me and said, “We have a problem. We dry-hopped tank 8.” “What’s in tank 8?” “A weiss.” Which has no hop profile, and we needed that beer to fill a couple hundred kegs. “When did you do it?” “Last night.” “Oh, no.” We needed to remove the hop fragments without filtering the beer because that would take out the yeast. And we had no way to do it. 

So I went to the pharmacy and bought queen-size pantyhose, a term I learned that day. We sterilized the pantyhose and flowed beer through them. The yeast went through and hop particles were trapped, but the pantyhose completely filled up with green sludge. So I went back to the pharmacy. “I would like three more pairs of queen-size pantyhose.” The woman flashed me the biggest smile, “Oh, honey,” she said. It was hilarious. I never figured out why I didn’t send Tom, the guy who had dry-hopped the tank. We had a phrase from then on: “You do that again, you’re going to wear the pantyhose” once they’re full of green sludge. The rescued beer did smell strongly of hops, and I could still tell it was different, but we blended with several other tanks, and no one noticed.

And now for a lightning round of questions. What’s your favorite nonbeer adult beverage?

Mezcal. I do love wine, but mezcal.

What’s your favorite hop?

I have a lot of favorites. I do have a place for Sorachi Ace. It’s a little weird because it tastes like lemongrass and lemon peel.

What’s your favorite atypical ingredient in beer?

I have so many. A favorite, depending on what you say is typical, is yuzu. I love yuzu.

What’s your favorite beer travel destination?

That’s very difficult. If the question would be, Where do you want to be drinking beer right now?: It would be a classic English pub in London with a perfect pint of bitter in front of me.