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Exclusive Preview: Garrett Oliver’s 'Oxford Companion to Beer'

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© PIKE MICROBREWERY MUSEUM, SEATTLE, WA
Sneak peek inside: c. 1933, Prohibition caused a lack of public knowledge of how to serve alcoholic beverages, an issue addressed in this nationally syndicated photograph.

When American Craft Beer Week concludes on May 22, events will have taken place in every state for the first time in the celebration’s six-year history. No one understands the rise of local beer better than Garrett Oliver. The Brooklyn Brewery brewmaster and award-winning author of The Brewmaster’s Table (2005) is finishing up his latest feat as editor-in-chief of The Oxford Companion to Beer. Considering the honor attached to a first edition in the food reference series, it's funny to hear Oliver's take on the publisher's pitch three years ago. "I went quickly sprinting in the opposite direction. The project seemed so overwhelmingly huge, and obviously I already have a job over here as brewmaster," he remembers. With the encouragement of friends who knew he'd regret the lost opportunity, Oliver embarked on the work over a year ago with a preliminary list of 500 topics;1,120 references and 160 additional writers later, the tome will drop in October. Here, Oliver reveals some of the groundbreaking subjects that will be covered and what he thinks you should be drinking (and eating) now.

© PIKE MICROBREWERY MUSEUM, SEATTLE, WA
A closer look reveals various beer glass shapes.

What convinced you to sign on? There are a lot of subjects that we in the craft-brewing community might use every day that are literally not written down. So if you want to know about, say, dry-hopping—adding hops after fermentation for extra flavor and aroma, which is done by 80 to 95 percent of all the breweries in the United States—there is precisely nothing to read.

What other categories are you breaking ground in? Sour beers. Barrel aging:There's a huge movement all over the world now interested in deriving flavors from wooden barrels. You will read about Amarillo, a hop variety: where it comes from, how it developed, what its genetic parents are, how it grows in a field, and how people tend to use it. But then, right before that, you'd read [an entry called] Ale House, about the history of the ale house from Roman times to its development into the modern pub. So it really covers not only things scientific and technical, but also cultural and historic things.

What's the most surprising country making beer? Of course when we think of Italy, we think of wine. But Italy has 350 breweries, and Italian brewers are really excited, creative and using a lot of their background in food to inform what they do on the beer side. Scandinavia is also a big story. We might think of one or two beers, like Carlsberg, but there are many dozens of breweries in Denmark, Sweden, Norway, etc.

Do you cover foods to eat with beer? What's your favorite pairing? There are sections on food-and-beer pairing. I've done about 700 beer dinners in 12 countries, and I wrote a 360-page book on beer-and-food pairings. But this time of year, for example, I love saison, which is a Belgian-style wheat beer. [At Brooklyn Brewery] we have a new one coming out called Sorachi Ace, based on a particular hop variety of that name, and I think it's really great with grilled salmon and shrimp dishes—lighter dishes you might grill in summertime.

How much has beer culture evolved in the last decade? It's really pretty incredible. When I first started traveling, I would go overseas and say, "Oh, I'm an American brewer," and people would just be dripping with disdain: "Oh, yes, we have heard of your American beer." Because they were thinking about just the mass-market beer. We now have over 1,700 breweries in the United States, and we have the most vibrant beer culture in the world, bar none. What's amazing is that now, we go to Germany and Belgium and Italy and, to a large extent, brewers all over the world look up to the United States. Twenty years ago it was exactly the opposite.

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