In this special episode of “End Of Day Drinks,” VinePair’s editorial team is joined by Garrett Oliver, brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery. Oliver is a man who wears many fancy hats, but the past year has seen him stuck inside like the rest of us. This, he explains, led to the launch of the Michael James Jackson Foundation for Brewing & Distilling.
Oliver tells us how 2020 events sparked a realization that being Black and “seen” isn’t as good as actively bringing others into the fold. He sees formal education as the key to long-term careers for BIPOC in beer and spirits.
Or Check out the conversation here
Cat Wolinski: Hello, and welcome to VinePair’s “End of Day Drinks” Podcast. I am Cat Wolinski, VinePair’s senior editor, and I’m joined today by VinePair’s editorial team including Joanna Sciarrino, Katie Brown and Emma Cranston, and Elgin Nelson. Our guest today is Garrett Oliver, who many of us know as the brewmaster of the Brooklyn Brewery. He’s also the author of “The Brewmaster’s Table,” editor in chief of “The Oxford Companion to Beer,” a James Beard award winner, and lots of other things. Garrett, welcome to the show.
Garrett Oliver: Thanks for having me.
C: I really appreciate you calling in today. I know it’s not as fun as having you in the office over some beers or some cocktails, which I think you also tend to enjoy.
O: Hopefully pretty soon. I’m fully juiced up with Moderna. I’m so happy to actually see people again.
C: I am very excited for everybody who’s getting their shots, so congratulations! There are a lot of things that we would like to hear from you about today, from the Michael J. Jackson Foundation, the Museum of Food and Drink exhibition, and the Brooklyn Brewery, of course. The new beers, the continuing growth abroad, including in Chile. Now, what I really like to start with is: What does a day in the life of Garrett Oliver look like? How has your role as the brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery changed over the course of the last year through the pandemic?
O: Well, I would say that thankfully, I have not been ill at all. I haven’t even had a common cold. Outside of that, my wife might have been more radically changed, I would say, than most people, because my normal year would have included about 10 countries and meeting thousands of people. It’s certainly bizarre to go from that to being stuck inside your own house. I was actually traveling so much that, even though I didn’t really complain about it, I actually wanted to spend more time at home. Watch out for what you wish for, because I got a lot more of it than I was bargaining for. I tried to, as everyone has, make the best of it, but it’s been a bizarre year.
C: Yeah, I was going to say I can’t imagine how a globe-trotting, dinner-party-hosting man of mystery like yourself has been operating in these circumstances. I know one of the big things that you were able to accomplish this year was launching the Michael J. Jackson Foundation, and you recently announced the first five award recipients. I would love to hear more about the foundation, how you created it, and how these scholarships will honor the legacy of your good friend.
O: Oh, well, thanks for that. I didn’t lose 10 pounds, I didn’t learn French or read the great book if I ever had the time. In the wake of the social movement that we saw last summer, these were plans that I already had. But with the globe-trotting part, came a difficulty in focusing on a task this large. It’s a strange thing. It gave me the opportunity to actually focus on the founding of the foundation. Now, what the Michael James Jackson Foundation for Brewing and Distilling does is actually pretty simple. We provide funding. Let me go back, I will say we award scholarship awards for technical education in brewing and distilling. I was just being interviewed about this today by some folks from Brazil, and they were asking about what the American brewing industry looks like. Even though various racial groups that are not of European extraction are nearly half the country, they make up only a couple of percent altogether of people working in brewhouses and distilling houses. There are lots of historical reasons for this. People tend to think that this is because African-Americans, Latinos, Asians, and indigenous people are not really into craft beer, which is not true. This was something that people made up. Not true at all, number one. Number two, there are a number of reasons why this has happened. Many of us in the industry have actually participated in the perpetuation of this situation, even without intending to. I think what we’re doing with the foundation is simply moving one toggle. One of the barriers is that you need to either have experience, or you need to get an education, a technical education, if you want to work and have a future in brewing or distilling. Education is very expensive. It is worthwhile but very expensive. African-Americans, for example, have 10 percent of the family assets of European Americans in the United States. I want to repeat that. Ten percent. People find that difficult to believe but it’s true. I’m not talking about income. I’m talking about money that you might put your hands on to pay for something. Ten percent. So when you have a course that costs $10,000, $16,000, this becomes a nearly insurmountable barrier for the vast majority of people of color in the United States. You will also hear this barrier of wanting somebody with two or three years of experience. Well, where are you going to get those? If there’s nobody there, then nobody can have two to three years of experience. If you can’t afford the education, you can’t get there. This means perpetuating the situation essentially forever, so we’re looking to break that cycle.
C: Yes, and you’ve awarded some really interesting and inspiring individuals who you can talk more about, if you like.
O: They’re inspiring and amazing people. We are expecting that in future years, we’ll get to a point where we are going to be able to take people who don’t even have a foot in the door of the brewing industry or the distilling industry and bring them in at this early stage. We’re starting with people who have a foot in the door. Maybe they’re even doing well, but they don’t have a technical background that will give them a career. It’s similar to working in a kitchen. You can become a good cook in a kitchen being taught by the chef, by rote. If nobody ever took you through all the backgrounds of things and how to make all the foundational sauces, it is going to be hard for you to advance and become a great all-around chef. It’s possible to be a great cook without actually having the training to be a great chef. Now, it’s not the only way that you can become a great chef, professional training, but it is one path. It is the professional training path that we are facilitating for people.
Joanna Sciarrino: Hi, Garrett, this is Joanna. I was wondering what the process was like in finding these recipients?
O: First, we put it out, and we did it entirely over social media. They went out in two rounds, so when people got in touch with us, then they were let through a gate to a place where they could upload all sorts of stuff. We tried to lower the barriers so it wasn’t a complicated thing to do. People could upload videos that would then go into a file for us. We have nine board members. We actually spent hours and hours reviewing every one of 100 or so applicants that came in. It came down to about 14 finalists and we interviewed all of them. Then, there were just many hours of discussion before we arrived at five individuals. It’s also important, I think, to note that I hope I’m going to be able to live up to and we will be able to live up to this as an ambition. If people did not get this particular scholarship at this time, we don’t view that as the end of the process of trying to work with them. As I was saying, there are many paths. There are other scholarships. There are people we know who are offering internships. There are all sorts of things that are going on, and what we’re looking to do is to use the access and connections that we have to help out anybody who comes in front of us and is serious. Even if someone did not win the scholarship, that does not mean they won’t hear from me next week with three other opportunities that are not directly through the MJF. I regard the work that’s visible as being the 20 percent of the iceberg above the water in the cliché, and the 80 percent is below the water. The 80 percent is actually the bulk of the work which is not the part that people are donating money for, which is paying for technical education, but it’s at least as important. We have already, well before this, gotten people jobs where they have been offered equity as brewers in new breweries. That is at least as important as what we’re visibly doing.
C: Yeah, it seems there are more of these internship opportunities. We had Beer Kulture working with several organizations. We had Tiesha Cooke and the Bronx Brewery on the show recently with these technically focused training opportunities, which is certainly a barrier. It makes sense to me, too, coming from the Brooklyn Brewery, as a much larger organization and one that is focused on future thinking in terms of quality control and learning those basics. The rules that you can’t break and then the ones that you can, in order to become successful in these fields.
O: Yeah, and there are a lot of people who came up as I did the old-fashioned way. Some people start as the dishwasher or they are behind the bar or they get an opportunity to work in the brewhouse. They show some aptitude and work their way up but possibly when the time comes and someone says, “OK, I would like you to change the recipe so that it’s much more bitter, the color goes this way, and it’s slightly less sweet.” That person may or may not know what to do, because they’ve been taught how to brew, sure, but they haven’t been taught the underlying science. One way or another, you need to fill all that in if you’re actually going to have a career rather than a job. Jobs are great, but we are hoping to help people build careers, and the people to whom we’ve given these scholarship awards, we expect to see them in positions of influence where they are going to be able to hire other people. Eventually, I hope, we will see tasting rooms and taprooms that actually look like America. Because right now, we all know that they don’t. As I’ve said to many people, “OK, imagine this. If you are a person of European extraction, suppose you love natural wine and you’re really into it, or you love cocktails, craft beer, but every time you wanted to have these things in a public setting, everybody in there was Black. You were the only white person in the whole place, every time. How would that be for you?” If the answer to that is, “Oh, that would be fine,” one, you’re probably lying and two, you’re a bizarre person. No, it’s not normal. It doesn’t look normal, it doesn’t feel normal. That’s the world that people of color live in this country and in this business. When we walk in, we’re often the only one in the room, and it’s bizarre.
C: I am heavily nodding my head, but you can’t see me. Yes, that does sound super uncomfortable.
O: Yeah, when you reverse it, people say, “Ohhh.”
C: Exactly, then you notice.
O: Yes, you notice. If you’re white, you never noticed that there was only one Black person in the room. You’re there with your friends. You’re doing what you’re doing. Why would you notice that? It is the truth of what goes on, especially at the higher end of food and drink and whatever else in the United States. It’s not that people aren’t interested, it’s not that they don’t have the money, in many cases, to at least afford a beer in these places. It’s partially that there is this vibe being given off that you’re not welcome in here. Part of that vibe is not actually hiring anybody or having people in the business who might bring their friends and relatives to your business and spread the love of what’s supposed to be going on in the world of drinks.
C: I totally agree. It’s something I found really interesting with some of the biggest leaders around racial equity and equality in beer over the last year. We heard this with Marcus Baskerville from Weathered Souls around the “Black is Beautiful” campaign. You didn’t know you’d end up an activist. You start looking into your own experience and then realizing you have this role or job where you didn’t face that much adversity personally. Then, you realize there are so many reasons behind you being the only one there in that room. Is it accurate to say that you had a similar feeling around the time you launched the Michael J. Jackson Foundation?
O: Absolutely. I have to say that to a certain extent when people would talk about intersectionality, I didn’t really understand what it meant when I read the word, but I didn’t really understand a lot of parts of what it truly meant in real life. Look, there were times when I was poor, where they came and turned the lights and gas off. I mean, poor poor. But by and large, for most of my life, I grew up fairly middle class. Yes, I had teachers say and do racist things to me, but I grew up in the ‘60s. We powered our way through a lot of situations.
C: Wow. Did you grow up in New York?
O: Yes, I grew up in Queens, New York. Growing up, I had parents who really drove home the importance of education. I saw many people who were every bit as smart if not smarter than me, who had wonderful families that got shoved to the wayside by the tremendous drag forces of this society trying to put you down. Just because I managed to claw my way here is not in some way indicative. It’s like people saying “Oh, well, things have changed, Obama has been president for eight years.” Well, look around. That has not done anything for the average person walking up and down the street. It was awesome, but it hasn’t fundamentally changed people’s lives. I came to realize that representation was not simply being there and being visible. It’s great to be visible, but that does not mean that we’ve done anything for anybody.
C: You can still be doing very much and inspiring people. Obviously, you accomplished many things in your 27 or so years at the Brooklyn Brewery, but yes, it’s also looking at how you can bring more people in.
O: You get to a point where you have political and social capital of some sort. I watched, over the past year or so, people who have a voice out there, like Tom Colicchio, whom I’ve known for 25 years, speaking out on social issues. I would say to myself, “Well, if I have a platform and people are going to listen, then what are you going to do with it beyond being able to get yourself into reservations in places that are tough to get into?” The fact that the chef will take your phone call is awesome, but are you actually using that only for yourself, or are you going to do something for somebody? It became important to me over this last year that whatever position I might have achieved becomes meaningful beyond me. Michael Jackson, who we’re talking about — obviously, your listeners will know that we are not talking about the pop star. A lot of people don’t really realize at that point, years on from his prime, what a massive figure he was in food and drink in the 20th century. Craft beer as we know it worldwide almost certainly would not exist without his writings. He sold about 15 million books in 20 languages. Nobody came anywhere close to him. I don’t know whether the old wine writers of the day like Hugh Johnson ever sold that many books, but I doubt that they were that influential, but they were big names in their day. Michael was very distinctly and noticeably anti-racist, and he did things about it. Sometimes it shocked people, including in 1991 or 1992 when he almost single-handedly put me on a panel of six people to choose the Champion Beer of Britain. You had a bunch of people sitting there in that room in London, a room where no Black people had ever been, and you had a young Black guy from Queens. “Who is this guy and why should he be here to choose champion beer of Britain?” At the time, Michael was basically a deity. He would say, “Garrett is the guy.” It was things like that, the wind in my sail, that helped me get to where I am now. The American ideal of the self-made man is a truly corrosive and ugly thing. It is not true, it’s a lie. It’s always a lie. I think that we should be relying on one another because we have to.
Katie Brown: Garrett, this is Katie. I have a question that relates to this. I was wondering what you think that breweries and beer drinkers can do to follow in those footsteps and be anti-racist. This past year, there’s been a lot of beer collaborations and there have been ways to donate. What do you think are the most helpful ways and the best things that people are doing to help?
O: Well, I don’t know who it was that said it, somebody a lot smarter than me, but they were talking in this case about Black people. You can apply it to whatever group you want to try to bring some benefits to. What they said is, “OK, whatever it is that you’re doing, you feel like you’re doing, if Black people can’t use it to get a job, eat it, drink it, spend it, or live in it, then the person for whom you were doing this work is you.” When you think about that, you understand that things are not tangible. For example, the notion of “Oh, I became president, I did this. I did that.” Yes, I went to a couple of marches, too. I’m not saying people shouldn’t go to marches, but don’t fool yourself into believing that is direct action if nobody can do anything with it. Then, you are not bringing the benefit that you thought you were. When I went to approach this, I said what would be actually effective? What would actually change somebody’s life? What would actually put them in a position of power within this industry where they could affect change? The MJF has turned out to be very streamlined in its focus, and we are not at all saying that this is the only path. There are 20 different paths. We’re just choosing one because to say we’re going to do everything is, one, a function of the ego because you’re not going to save the world. You’re not going to do everything for everybody. Why don’t you just try to do one thing as well as you can? That’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to mostly do this one thing as well as we can, and we think that it will make some difference. Then, you will have 20, 30, 50, or 100 other organizations who will make some difference, and together we’ll all get something done.
Elgin Nelson: Hi Garrett, this is Elgin. This is a perfect segue to what I wanted to touch on, which is mainly about the Museum of Food and Drink. For our listeners that are familiar, the museum uses exhibits to change the way people think about food and drink. I know the museum holds exhibits that highlight African-Americans in culinary, brewing, and distilling. Much to that effect of the National Museum of African American History and Culture that serves the same way with the Museum of Food and Drink. Can you speak on your experience and your role with that?
O: Well, it’s certainly been exciting preparing for that exhibit, which is called African American: Setting the Nation’s Table. We were just about to open that exhibit at the top of Central Park on Fifth Avenue and that’s when the pandemic struck. We had just about finished the exhibit when the pandemic prevented us from having our opening gala and then, of course, from opening the exhibition at all. Now, what the exhibition is about is the largely untold history of African-Americans and American food. People tend to think that, “OK, the African-American contribution to the American food world is in soul food and barbecue,” which is absolutely true. What people don’t know is that even haute cuisine was brought into the United States, practiced, taught, promulgated, and developed entirely by Black people. If people have this idea like, “Oh, some dude must have come over from France in 1790,” no, there was no French dude. It was James Hemings, who when he arrived back — still enslaved to Thomas Jefferson after Thomas Jefferson’s stint in Paris as our ambassador — he had been put through all the major kitchens of Paris and came back as by far the most accomplished chef in the United States. Then, he started to pass that down, and then it moved up through the hotel systems, which is where haute cuisine comes from in the United States, including the Grand Hotel, which basically had an all-Black staff. That input is something that came to us entirely through African-Americans, and we have been cut out of the story that we actually told. The same is true in brewing, where African- Americans did almost all the brewing in the United States up through the Civil War. Who do you think was actually brewing the beer? Every single African society in the South, East, or West, traditionally, is centered around brewing. Brewing is central to all African societies. Yet beer is seen as European. We have a partial history told in so many things. This is actually not only an inspirational but fascinating history, because people have been told that they were not part of and their families, were not part of something that they were, in fact, integral to. The Museum of Food and Drink did a great job telling the story of Chinese food in America, which is totally fascinating. That story was also tied up in racism, politics, etc. A lot of people had never heard of the Chinese Exclusion Act until they came to an exhibit that was ostensibly about Chinese food in America. Then, they were reading about how we ended up having Chinese food as a major American food to the extent that it is the most popular type of restaurant in the United States. People will look at it, and say, “Well, wait a minute, that’s interesting, how did that happen?” Somehow, Asians disappeared personally from this scene. You go back to the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s when you can start to hear about great chefs, and you don’t know any Chinese people. Almost nobody does. They became the top propagators in that type of restaurant in the United States, and nobody ever heard of them. That’s what America does. It wipes out a lot of people’s histories. Part of one of the many things the Museum of Food and Drink is doing is telling people the truth. That truth — which is often fun, interesting, sometimes disturbing, but always enlightening — about their food.
Emma Cranston: Hey, this is Emma. I just want to circle way back really quick and ask one last question for the listeners at home. Especially for those looking to learn about beer and brewing through the internships or programs you’ve discussed. I’m curious about how they can study up at home or outside of a brewery. I read that you’re the editor-in-chief of “The Oxford Companion to Beer,” so how can people harness that text, whether they’re beginners or pros at home? What role does the text play for both those who are essentially self-taught, as well as those who may be training to be cicerones? Also, how do you feel that text influences the larger beer world?
O: Well, thanks for the question. I’m certainly gratified by my first book, “The Brewmaster’s Table,” which came out in 2003. That book is still in print and sells more than it did 10 years ago. I think that speaks to the development of craft beer in the United States and people’s interest in it. The fact that what we used to call the gas station beer list, where they have had a few of the major brands, which you would see in top restaurants, is no longer the beer list you’re going to see. It may not be as developed as it should be, but you’re going to see some good stuff on almost every restaurant list which you didn’t use to see. Both of those books, “The Brewmaster’s Table” and “The Oxford Companion to Beer” are widely used, which is great. There are a number of other great books that are out there. We’re reading Randy Mosher’s “Tasting Beer” and a number of other ones. Cicerone is doing a great job of basic education all the way to advance education for people, especially those who are going to be on the serving side of the equation of beer, which is, frankly, where the rubber meets the road. Having young people in the restaurant and sommeliers as well, understanding the world of beer. I think these days people tend to think that a sommelier is a wine waiter. That’s not a sommelier. An actual sommelier is not a wine waiter. The sommelier is somebody who’s supposed to curate your experience of drink. That includes beer, wine, and cocktails. Real sommeliers like Roger Dagorn, who was at Chanterelle in those major years. Eric Asimov and I went there once about 15, 20 years ago, and Roger took us through the most amazing tasting of sakes. At the time, I didn’t really know anything about sake. I drank sake, but he was taking us through sweet, dark, and aged sakes. He knew all about these, plus he could talk his way around beer and knew his way around a cocktail. That’s a sommelier. You don’t see those as much as we used to. Juliette Pope was another one when she was at Gramercy Tavern. A real sommelier. I think that these books are helpful when it comes to building that culture back into the drinks culture. There are so many online resources as well. We’re just learning the basics at home. The great thing about beer is that, frankly, your entry level is about as easy as it possibly could be. You can have a good article, go to Whole Foods, spend $20, and get yourself a good beginning education in four, five, or six different beers, and understand style. The great thing about that is if you understand a little bit about beer, what it tastes like, what the various types are, and how you might want to do stuff with them and with food, your life will become slightly better every day for the rest of your life.
C: Oh, so true!
O: Isn’t that the best you can possibly do? There are many things in your life that are going to make things a little bit better everyday. You discover jazz, and your life becomes a little bit better every day for the rest of your life because now you discover jazz, whereas maybe a few weeks ago, you’d never really listen to jazz. Things are better. That is the critical thing that we’re able to do is learn something brand new. When I discovered fermented fish sauce and I really discovered how to use it at home and cooking, it changed my life.
K: It is such a game changer.
C: Oh, my gosh. All very true words.
O: Beer is the secret sauce.
C: Beer is a secret sauce to all things. That’s a really great way to end our conversation. Thank you, Garrett, so much for sharing these pearls of wisdom. I hope — and I know that the rest of the team hopes — that we can share a beer with you sometime in person soon.
O: Absolutely. Thanks for all the great work you guys are doing at VinePair. I’m reading your articles and stuff online all the time. It’s great to see people out there doing the work, because Lord knows, we need it.
C: Thank you so much. I really appreciate that.
Thanks for listening to this week’s episode of “EOD Drinks.” If you’ve enjoyed this program, please leave us a rating or a review wherever you get your podcasts. It really helps other people discover the show. And tell your friends. We want as many people as possible listening to this amazing program.
And now for the credits. “End of Day Drinks” is recorded live in New York City at VinePair’s headquarters. And it is produced, edited, and engineered by VinePair tastings director, yes, he wears a lot of hats, Keith Beavers. I also want to give a special thanks to VinePair’s co-founder, Josh Malin, to the executive editor Joanna Sciarrino, to our senior editor, Cat Wolinski, senior staff writer Tim McKirdy, and our associate editor Katie Brown. And a special shout-out to Danielle Grinberg, VinePair’s art director who designed the sick logo for this program. The music for “End of Day Drinks” was produced, written, and recorded by Darby Cici. I’m VinePair co-founder Adam Teeter, and we’ll see you next week. Thanks a lot.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.