I run into some craft brewers who say, ‘We don’t get respect from the local press.’ And, well, could that be because you’re dressed like a small child? And you’ve been trying to disabuse people of the idea that you’re little kids playing with fun toys?
-Garrett Oliver, Brooklyn Brewery
The Aleheads have been discussing Garrett Oliver a bit since his recent publicity tour in support of the Oxford Companion to Beer. First of all, kudos to Oliver for completing this comprehensive tome that will likely serve as THE de facto reference guide for those interested in the fermented arts. For those that don’t know the man, besides being the brewmaster at the widely-respected Brooklyn Brewery, he has also become one of the faces of the craft beer revolution in the US. The nattily dressed, eloquent, and outspoken Oliver is a wonderful spokesman for beer and has often been called (by himself and others) one of the “world’s foremost beer experts”.
The quote that leads off this post gives a taste of the flipside of the Oliver experience. There has always been a reputation around Oliver that he sees himself as more than a little “above” his fellow brewers. He can come off in interviews as a touch elitist and more than a touch egotistical. That he’s earned the right to feel this way is undeniable. Still, craft beer fans are proud of the camaraderie and egalitarianism in the industry so it’s not surprising that many of us bristle a bit when we read quotes like this from Oliver. He’s correct, of course. Many brewers DO dress like they’re heading down to the quad to get in a hack before taco night at the food court. But there’s something about Oliver’s three-piece suits and polemical prose that seem a tad antithetical to the whole craft beer revolution. It’s a truly blue-collar industry and despite beer’s growing reputation as a high-quality libation on par with wine and Scotch, it will still always have a blue collar vibe (and frankly, most Aleheads LIKE it that way). I thoroughly enjoy Oliver’s beers…I truly do. And I respect his opinions and often agree with them. But I can’t help but be a little put off by his holier-than-thou, bigger-than-the industry attitude.
It’s most likely a personal thing. I’ve always been hesitant to embrace institutions that are defined by a cult of personality. I generally eschew Apple products because of the slavish fanboyism that hung on every Steve Jobs’ utterance. I can’t say I’ve been much of an Oprah supporter (though being a male in my early 30s could have something to do with that). I used to thoroughly enjoy the Smashing Pumpkins until the band became more about Billy Corgan than their actual music. That’s not to say such an approach can’t be successful. I’m not 100% sure what Apple’s sales figures have been like since Jobs took over, but from what I understand, they do OK. And I believe Oprah makes a decent living as well. I just try to be careful not to fall under the sway of self-promoting, charismatic leaders. Historically, such figures have often caused problems.
As such, I “generally” select beers from breweries that aren’t helmed by those who put themselves on a pedestal at the expense of the rest of their employees. Brewers like Sam Calagione at Dogfish Head, Larry Bell at Bell’s, Greg Koch at Stone, and Oliver at Brooklyn fall under that heading for me. You can argue that the personalities of those brewmasters has no bearing on the quality of their beers and you’d be 100% right. Truth be told, I LOVE some of the offerings from all of those breweries. I would NEVER pass up a Burton Baton, HopSlam, Ruination, or Black Chocolate. But, given the choice, I’m more likely to grab a brew from Founders, Three Floyds, Allagash, Deschutes or AleSmith. I can name most of the brewmasters for those companies since, you know, I write for a beer blog. But if I wasn’t an Aleheads employee, I’m sure I wouldn’t have a clue who they are. They’re not flagrant self-promoters…they just let their beer speak for itself.
Look, the market’s getting crowded and you need to differentiate your product more than ever in the craft beer world today. I get that. And I get that one of the best ways to do that is to have a bright, well-spoken, good-looking CEO go out and market the hell out of your offerings. If I was Garrett Oliver or (shudder) Sam Calagione, I’d do the same thing, I’m sure. But that doesn’t mean I have to like it. I guess I just prefer the old-school approach of brewmasters spending most of their time actually brewing instead of conducting tastings at upscale Manhattan restaurants and editing giant Oxford tomes. Sure, SOMEBODY needs to continue to champion craft beer and help push it into the mainstream. And really, who better than Oliver to do it? To be honest, if I had to vote on the best spokesperson for the industry, I’m not sure I could think of anyone better than him.
And therein lies the conundrum that all Aleheads who feel the same way I do find themselves in. We NEED people like Oliver and Calagione and Koch and Bell (and not just because they make great beer). But we also worry that by absorbing all of the media attention for the industry, they make craft beer more about them than the actual beer. So while I respect Oliver tremendously and I will be purchasing the Oxford Companion as soon as the 2nd run comes out (they’ve already sold out of the 1st), I can’t help but feel a little concern about the self-proclaimed “world’s foremost beer expert”. Has he earned that title? Maybe. Do we need to hear it every time he’s interviewed? Nah. Plus, wouldn’t you rather the guy that everyone goes to for quotes and analysis of craft beer WASN’T the brewmaster for one particular brewery? Wouldn’t you rather hear from an American version of the late, great British beer writer, Michael Jackson? Someone who doesn’t have a horse in the race, so to speak?*
*Of course, it would help if America actually HAD a highly respected beer writer in Jackson’s mold.
As for the rest of you brewers out there, keep on wearing your t-shirts and jeans if you want. It doesn’t bother me at all. But if you’re doing a tasting at Eleven Madison or an interview for the New York Times, I suppose it couldn’t hurt to put on a tie. Garrett Oliver may be a little douchey at times, but that doesn’t mean he’s wrong.