If you were to imagine the world's foremost beer expert, you probably wouldn't come up with Garrett Oliver. This sharply dressed, black New Yorker has a beard but it's finely trimmed and looks unlikely to have ever harboured any stray pork scratchings. And not only does Oliver, the editor of the recently published The Oxford Companion to Beer, look smart but he talks a great game, too – say, on the relative merits of beer and wine. "Beer has a much, much wider range of flavours than wine," he says. Oenophiles in search of a scrap should join the queue.
Oliver, the brewmaster at the Brooklyn Brewery in New York, has become the face of good-quality beer's worldwide resurgence over the past 10 years. Having written perhaps the definitive book on food and beer pairing (The Brewmaster's Table), this 49-year-old was a natural choice to edit the OCB. Not that he was that keen when the idea was first put to him four years ago: "I think any reasonable person would go running and screaming in the opposite direction at such a thing," he says. "It struck me as a fairly unimaginable task."
He eventually relented, and anyone with more than a passing interest in malt and hops should find something to interest them between the pages of this hefty book. Ever wanted to know about fobbing (the foaming of beer during dispense, of course) or proteolysis (best get the book)? It's all in here, and even if not everyone is pleased (the book has been accused by some of perpetuating certain beer history myths, Oliver is phlegmatic: "There was never any way you were going to get away with something this big and not have some people have a tilt at it," he says. "I think the book will stand the test of time." The book's publication is a sign of how beer is being taken increasingly seriously.
Oliver has been involved with beer in one way or another for close to 30 years – ever since, in fact, he landed in London in 1983 to take up a one-year posting at the University of London Union. "My first pint of what I would call real beer was at some pub behind Victoria station, literally minutes after my arrival in London," he says. "I never expected this to be my life; I had a degree in film."
After that spell in London – and a quick trip around Europe's beer hotspots, including the still-Communist Czechoslovakia and Germany – Oliver went back to the US. It was a dispiriting homecoming: "I was like, 'Oh, no. We have one kind of beer and it tastes like water.' So I started making beer at home." Things since then have changed, and how. Beer aficionados now recognise that American craft brewing is the most innovative and lively in the world.
It's been quite a turnaround, as Oliver accepts: "When I first started to go travelling, about 20 years ago, I was like a Labrador retriever, the classic American abroad: 'Hi! How are you guys doing? I'm an American brewer!' and they'd basically say [adopts mocking tone], 'Oh yes. We have heard of your American beer.' Sometimes they were openly derisive; sometimes there was a twinge of pity. They didn't realise what we were doing."
Most beer lovers realise now. A movement that began on America's West Coast has spread across the world. Oliver knows better than most what is going on, as he spends much of his time travelling the globe spreading the craft beer gospel. Among the most interesting emerging beer nations, Oliver says, are the likes of Italy (which now boasts 350 breweries) and Brazil – and there are others on the way too.
"I'm in touch with people in India who are starting craft breweries because there are more and more people with disposable income there," he says. "China, too; these are going to be really fascinating places. I think it's amazing. There aren't that many places in the world that don't have something going on. Russia is pretty slow but there's talk even of that. It's pretty cool."
The next battle is to convince the world that beer can be just as good a partner to food as wine. "In a way it's one of the most important things about beer and it's one of the things that people tend to miss," Oliver says. Such is his passion in particular for cheese (the entry on cheese (pairing) in the OCB, written by Oliver, is long and satisfyingly comprehensive) that he frequently speaks at events that pitch beer against wine in a cheese-matching contest. "That's one of my favourite tastings to do, in front of an audience, toe-to-toe," he says. "It's really good fun, everyone learns a lot – myself included – and beer always wins."