Oxford Companion To Wine has long been a must-have compendium for oenophiles, who turn to it for detailed explanations on absolutely everything remotely related to vino. Now the wine companion has a companion: The Oxford Companion to Beer, a thick and thorough A-to-Z collection of beer info, with more than 1,100 entries written by the world's most prominent beer experts. The ringleader of this massive undertaking is Garrett Oliver, who edited the book and wrote a number of its entries. Oliver, who serves as the acclaimed Brewmaster at the Brooklyn Brewery, recently spoke with us about all things beer.
There's so much in here. Is there anything that is part of this book that really surprised you, where you stepped back and said, "I didn't know that, that's amazing?" There's really quite a bit of stuff that surprised me. I mean, there were some pieces that came in and I was literally excited at the fact that we were breaking some new ground. A good example is the piece on traditional brewing in Africa. I knew something about that; I knew that brewing was central to traditional African societies—but there's just all this extra information there, which is fascinating and fun to read.
I wrote a piece myself on adulterations, and we tend to think of the past as being some place where things were pure, but what you find out, for example, is that in the mid-1800s, porter—which was the great beer style of its day, especially in England—was in fact pumped full of drugs. So the same way that you had Coca Cola in the United States with cocaine in it, well, in England, porter was full of a drug called Cocculus indicus, which has a toxin in it that rendered people senseless. That was a standard ingredient for many of the beers of the day, so beer is much purer these days than it used to be.
Is that the same sort of thing on the Bowery in the 19th century, where barkeeps would drug drinks to rob the patrons? No, it's a different thing. We actually quote testimony before Parliament where there's a brewery there saying, "If we were to use so much malt that we would have enough alcohol to have the same effects, our profits would plummet." So it was a matter of basically putting a cheap high into the beer rather than an expensive one.
There are classic old tricks that most people haven't heard of, but I already had. For example, you would take a beer that's 3% and tell somebody it was 10%, and the way you would trick them is to put in a little bit of chili pepper. You would get this sort of warming sensation in your chest and you'd say, "Woah, that stuff is really strong!" and the guy would get paid for this very strong, special beer when in fact, he had been served something quite light.
What fascinates me about a book like this—and it's only when I actually physically had the book in hand that I came to realize it—is that it's very much like the old fashioned encyclopedia where there was a series of books and you could kind of pick it up to any page and just start reading. That's what I used to do when I was a kid; we would read the encyclopedia. And we didn't always have an idea at first what we wanted to read. You would just pick up a letter, like S, and you open it up, and there would be snakes and spiders and space and all kinds of stuff, and you'd just read it. And I kind of think the Oxford book actually works that way, at least for beer nerds.
Do you see contemporary beer producers pulling tricks like those? Not only in mass produced beer, but even in some craft beer—and this is a matter of philosophy rather than quality—there's use of some extracts. There's use of hop oil, for example, to give you extra aroma, and some brewers will say, "No, I don't want to use things like that. I'm going to use only the natural ingredients." And other brewers will say, "Well, this is a derivative of natural ingredients and it's much easier to use, and we can get a pure aromatic from it so why not?" That's really a matter of philosophy rather than a matter of strictly pure quality. We all know we don't want picrotoxins in our beer, everybody can agree on that.
What is that? Picrotoxin is what was contained in the Cocculus indicus, which was that berry they used to put in porter. The book dives into the fascinating histories of the beer industries in other countries from Brazil to India to Japan, etc. And really, Mexico is fascinating. Watch the way beer, especially in the 1800s, started to have its flourishing all over the place. What you really see, in a lot of these places, is a German diaspora in the mid-1800s into a lot of the world. And a lot of places, their beer industry started when they had German immigration, especially in South America. There was huge German immigration into many parts of South America at the same time that we had huge German immigration in the United States. They've had a thriving beer industry since then, and at least back in those days, it was very Germanic, the same way ours was here.
Do you think Germans still make the best beer? They don't make the best beer, but they are extremely good at making the relatively few styles of beers that they make. The problem with the German beer industry is that they make beers of very high quality and very low creativity. So basically, they have a few things they do really well, and there's almost no interest in producing anything else. And these days, that's difficult to do because people are excited about all the new flavors out there. And it's almost like being a restaurant and having the same four or five dishes at your restaurant forever. Once 15 or 20 new restaurants open up on the same block, no matter how good you are at making those four or five dishes, people are going to go get something else sometimes. And so that is really kind of starting to crush the German beer industry, and they're trying to figure out how to look at beer a little bit differently.
What's the worst beer out there? The worst beer out there?
If you could wave your hand and make one beer disappear from the face of the planet? That's an interesting question. I had a Vietnamese beer a few years ago that was called Saigon and it was just, it was really, really ghastly. I didn't remember—though I do realize that beers existed that still tasted quite that bad—it reminded me of one that I had in East Germany in the mid-1980s, when there was an East Berlin. I drank a beer when I spent a day in East Berlin, and I thought, "Boy, Communism is certainly bad but I didn't know it was so bad that it could even make Germans produce terrible beer." And it had. I don't know whether Vietnam is still considered particularly Communist, but apparently it hasn't done anything to their beer industry anyway.
In the foreword of the book, Tom Colicchio talks about this renaissance in artisanal brewing. What are the reasons for this? Why are there so many craft beers now? I think that the main thing that people need to understand when they think about craft brewing is that really, craft brewing is not a trend or a fad. What it actually is, is a return to normality. We had taken beer, which is one of the most diverse and fascinating drinks ever created—much more diverse than wine, by far, and I say that as a wine geek and a cocktail geek—but craft beer is much broader.
In the mid-1800s, America had the most interesting beer culture in the world. We had 48 breweries in Brooklyn alone, and they made all sorts of beer, and then by the 1940s and 1950s, like many other things, we had taken beer and turned it into a commodity. We had taken bread and turned it into Wonder Bread. We had taken cheese and turned it into yellow slices between plastic. So our food culture was basically paved over and plasticized and our food became very bland overall. And so what's going on right now is simply a recovery. I think renaissance is actually the right word in a way, because it's not a complete invention out of thin air. It's really getting back a culture that we lost and then using that as a jumping-off point for more fun things.
So the brewer these days is more like a chef, whereas maybe 50 years ago the brewer was an engineer or a chemist. Somebody might go into brewing as a very technical job—and not that brewing is not technical, and so is being a film director, a technical thing—but it's half art and half science. For a long time, we had all science and no art. So all we're doing right now is we're bringing the art back into it, and I think that's why people are so excited, because beer is now fun and interesting to drink again.
And now you have with the proliferation of craft breweries, you have a lot of competition and there's controversy over what defines a craft beer. At what point of growth do you stop being a craft brewer? I think it's an interesting controversy and I think that there's obviously a lot of politics in it. For a lot of companies, their identification as "craft" is very important to them. You have the Brewers Association, who have their own very finely tuned definition of what craft is. My outlook is a little bit different. My definition of craft is basically an independent company, of whatever size, that is basically producing beers by largely traditional means, to produce flavorful beer.
And what I mean by that is that the mass market beer has generally been about the removal of almost all flavors. That is basically the point. That's what people were trying to do: take the drink and remove so much flavor that there is almost nothing left. Once there's nothing left, then you can sell it to everybody because there's nothing to object to. And that's what Wonder Bread is. Wonder Bread doesn't actually taste like bread, it doesn't really taste like anything, which is one reason it can be popular, because no one's gonna taste it and say, "Wow that's wonderful, that's beautiful." But then again, no one's going to taste it and say, "That's really awful." It's just there.
And so, craft is really a matter of recovering the flavor in all of these things. Basically, craft beer follows the arc of American food. You watch the re-proliferation of those things like bread and cheese, etc., everything is becoming bolder, more spicy, more interesting. There are no areas of food, if you really take a good look, where things are getting blander, or people are going back to something simpler. They're not, and they're not going to. There's only one direction. We had—if you look at American beer especially, but also worldwide beer—rather than being a trend, actually the last, say, 50 years before 1990, that's actually the weird period, the period where we had kind of a monoculture. When I was a kid, sushi was exotic, and now you get sushi at a baseball game. It's the same thing with craft beer.
I know you're on the west coast so it's early, but if you could have one beer right now, what would it be and why? Depending on where I am and what I'm doing, since it is 10 a.m., the right beer to have would be the German-style wheat beer called weisse beer. If it's 10 a.m. in Munich, you'll find all the beer halls are full. They have a big glass of the German wheat beer style called weisse beer, and often with a pretzel or a weisswurst, which is a kind of a yellow sausage. And this is the Bavarian second breakfast: you drink your beer and do your thing and you go back to work. That's kind of the breakfast of champions over there. We don't tend to do that in the United States, but then again, they make very nice cars so I guess things are still going fine if you only have one.
I just want to make one final point, which you may or may not have any use for. I think what's special about the Oxford book is that I'm surprised that this book never existed before, nothing like it ever existed before. And it's only now in this period where we have beer kind of coming back that there's this interest in producing a book that covers beer in its totality. And we cover mass market beer just as thoroughly as we cover craft beer. So if someone wants to know what light beer is—rather than kind of harangue them in telling them, "Well you shouldn't like light beer in the first place"—what we're doing is having somebody who has been making light beer for 30 years tell you where it comes from, how it was developed, how different light beer is from one country to another. Really giving you, what I hope, is real information that's also entertaining.