Hoppy days for a New York brewer

Garrett Oliver loves English beer. Indeed, he's made a career out of it - in the US. Michael Jackson joins him for a pint
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Indy Lifestyle Online

In his latest rampage through the world of food and drink, A Cook's Tour, New York chef-author Anthony Bourdain calls British ales "some of the finest alcoholic beverages in the world". Indeed, the New York foodie world embraces beer. The local chapter of the American Institute for Wine and Food has, despite its name, run beer-tastings as fund-raisers. So has the local convivium of Slow Food. Not only do American chefs appreciate and serve good beers more than their British counterparts, and often favour our beers – the United States has celebrity brewers.

When the city gained a new brewery in Brooklyn a few years ago, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was there to pull the first pints. The brewer, Garrett Oliver, admired by peers and by devoted beer-lovers, is one of America's celebrity brewers. He's an eloquent broadcaster, currently producing a book for HarperCollins on beer and food, though this particular Oliver's media exposure doesn't mean he's mobbed in the New York streets by autograph hunters. But his world-beating beers were originally inspired by British ales, and he likes to return the compliment, by acting as a guest brewer here.

His work is currently featured at one of his favourite breweries, John Willie Lees, of Middleton, in Greater Manchester. Lees recently won attention for its wood-finished Harvest Ale. Now, Brooklyn Best Bitter will be available in Lees' pubs in the Manchester area from next week. In an imaginative exchange, Lees' own brewer, Giles Dennis, will brew in New York later this month.

Oliver is an all-round creative type. "I got a degree in film-making, then discovered that it qualified me to drive a cab," he muses. "If life was this puzzling, I might as well be confused in style." To an American fresh out of college, that meant coming to Europe. "I finished up stage-managing rock bands for the University of London Union."

What did he learn in Britain? "The notion that beer was worthy of attention. When I went out with friends, it was the first topic of conversation." I wonder whether this is still true, while he rehearses lines I have heard a thousand times: "The beer was brilliant tonight... it was cracking tonight... it was spot on."

This testifies to enthusiasm, but does not describe what is good about the beer. "The brilliance of the British brewer is his ability to coax a lot of expressive flavours out of not very much alcohol. These beers are designed to be consumed by the pint all evening, and still to taste wonderful at closing time," argues Oliver. "There is a subtlety that keeps your attention throughout the evening. To brew like this is an art form." In a pub in Suffolk, Oliver was served a pint of Adnams. "The aromas of sea air and new-mown hay – I thought it was the most miraculous thing I had ever stuck my nose in. I was enjoying the aromas when they brought the food I had ordered. I wanted to savour the aromas a little longer, so I asked them to take away the food."

After learning to home-brew, then turning professional, he worked for a year or two at a New York brewpub in the late 1980s. In 1996, the Brooklyn Brewery opened, with Oliver manning the kettles. One of the founders was Steve Hindy, a former Newsday reporter who had been briefly kidnapped in Palestine and decided that New York was a safer place. As a one-time newspaperman, Hindy knew how to publicise a new, full-scale brewery in a city that had only brewpubs.

Oliver's beers for Brooklyn have included a Brown Ale with richer flavours than anything from Tyneside; an India Pale Ale as aromatic as bison-grass; and a Black Chocolate Stout that tastes as good as Sacher Torte.

Last year, he came to Britain to produce a guest brew at Brakspear's, of Henley-on-Thames. This was a bitter made with English malts and Washington State hops: the grapefruity Cascade hop and the more lemony Chinook, which reminds some tasters of the Riesling grape.

The bright American hop character was well received, but perhaps the leap was not too great. Drinkers of Brakspear's are accustomed to hefty hopping, albeit with more subtle English varieties This time in Manchester, he used a third hop variety: Willamette, in which you'll find a hint of aniseed. The intention is to round the beer out a little more. It will still be very hoppy, I am assured, but Oliver has sought not to frighten drinkers who are accustomed to the maltier style of Lees' regular ales. The beer will be called Brooklyn Best Bitter. One for Manchester United fans? Probably too tasty for them.

Oliver, now 39, looks more like a jazz musician than soccer fan. The impression is topped by his current favourite hat, like the one Lester Young wore. "I designed it myself; had it made," he grins. For this recent trip to Manchester he packed a Purdy – which turned out to be a waistcoat, not a sporting gun – and a Beretta shirt. He believes appearances matter. "If I wore a baseball hat backwards, would that inspire confidence?" he asks. "Would people want to buy what I produce?"

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