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Brooklyn Brewery’s Garrett Oliver On Access, Anti-Racism, And Showing Up

A master brewer pays tribute to his own beer mentor and friend by cultivating a self-perpetuating mentorship network.

Garrett Oliver is the James Beard Award-winning brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery in Brooklyn, New York. Author of The Brewmaster’s Table and the editor in chief of The Oxford Companion to Beer, Oliver is also the founding board chair of the Michael James Jackson Foundation, which funds educational scholarships for Black and indigenous people of color interested in working in the brewing and distilling industry.

Many people ask me when they hear the name of the Foundation—”Michael James Jackson, who was that? And why is this Englishman the name of a foundation, which is about diversity and inclusion in craft beer and spirits?” It does seem like a non sequitur. Unless, of course, you knew Michael.

As far as I’m concerned—and I can say this virtually without fear of successful contradiction—Michael was the most important voice in food and drink in the 20th century, period. And I’m somebody who had lunch with Julia Child. I’ve seen many of the great food and drink figures, the Robert Parkers of the world. Michael was bigger than that.

He sold about 15 million books in 20 languages. He structured the world of what became craft beer—everything about its taxonomies, the concept of beer styles, and the way that competitions are judged around the world. We might not have a craft beer industry but for his writings. And he really set the stage for the comeback of an entire wing of a drink across the world. That in of itself would have been an important thing.

For me personally, he was my friend, and beyond being my friend, he was also my champion. We met in the mid-80s when I was running a homebrew club. In 1991, he recommended me as a judge at the Great British Beer Festival to choose the Champion Beer of Britain. I’m like 30, a Black guy from Queens, and this is the inner sanctum of one of the most commercially important competitions in any food and drink thing in the UK.

If you won Champion Beer of Britain, you better hold onto your horses because the sales of your brewery might easily triple. It makes and breaks the fortunes of breweries. It’s a big deal there. No Black or brown person had ever been in those judging rooms, and I’m walking in there, and people are whispering, like, “Who the hell is that?” and “What is he doing here?” Michael took me around, he introduced me to everybody, and he said, “Garrett is one of the greatest experts on beer of all sorts, including our traditional cask beer. He’s a guy that you really want to talk to, and he needs to sit on the final panel of six people to choose Champion Beer of Britain.”

I wouldn’t have been there but for the fact that Michael was essentially considered a god. If he said that I was the guy, then I was the guy, and he would not back down. I’ve heard many instances of him doing that for other people of color, whether they were his friends or not.

There was a Czech brewery that had a big competition for Best Bartender, a sort of service-style pouring worldwide. It turned out that a South African guy won—and he clearly won, but the judges all got together and said, “This isn’t really the look that we wanted in our winner. We need to select somebody else.” Michael said, “Oh, hell no. He won, and that’s it. If you try to reverse this, I’m going to tell everybody.” And they backed down.

My point here is that this is part of what it takes. There is a difference between not being a racist, and engaging in anti-racism. They are two completely different things, and they are only barely related. Anti-racism means you are doing something to counteract the pernicious effects of racism.

What I’m trying to do is use my own access now not just on my behalf, but on other people’s behalf. Frankly, living this social life—it’s great. If I called a restaurant, and they said, “Sorry, there are no tables,” I used what I called “the force.” I waved my hand, and suddenly, a table showed up at a three-Michelin-star restaurant, “Oh, look, suddenly, this table?” It’s a really cute little parlor trick. That’s the way that I was using my access—to go out with my friends to places where we wanted to eat and drink.

But that was serving me, my friends, and my family, and that was it. I was not using it on behalf of anyone else. I was not thinking about it in the way I started thinking over the last year, looking at the privileges that I have. I’m not saying I haven’t worked for those privileges, but working for them isn’t good enough. You have to have some luck.

I think people discount the role of luck in their own lives who have been born to the families they were born to, or to have had a certain teacher, or to have had somebody like Michael in their life to put some wind in their sails and push them forward. So the question for me is, “Well, can I put the wind in somebody else’s sails—maybe more than one? Maybe as a board we put the wind in the sails of dozens of people, and those people can then go become mentors to other people.”

Then eventually, you will see a brewing and distilling industry that looks like America—not only more diverse and equitable, but also more fun and making a lot more money. If your audience is everybody, then your chances of making money obviously go up. I saw a graph recently that looked at interest in high-end cocktails among Americans, and the highest percentage of any demographic group was African Americans. This is why you see ads around for Cognac, because the people with Cognac have figured this out. They’re almost the only spirit ads that I ever see, like billboards for Courvoisier and Hennessy. But it goes beyond that. It’s bourbon and others too.

I’m told by people in the cider industry that the predominance of people who drink hard cider in the United States are African Americans and Latinos. But if you went to a hard cider festival, you would think that this was an industry catering largely to European Americans. All the people at the festival making the cider would be European Americans, and that’s not who’s buying it. So we have basically disappeared, even from the scenes that we spend money on and are interested in.

That’s the effect of the last three or four hundred years that we’ve all lived through together. If you want to counteract that, if you would like to see a different world, then you actually have a push back in the other direction. To be neutral on racism is to perpetuate racism.

I think back to how I ended up not hiring any African Americans in brewing departments for 30 years. If I go back and look at my policy, that policy was completely neutral. I was hoping and waiting for people of color to show up, not realizing that I had set up a catch-22 that almost guaranteed none would.

That’s what an algorithm looks like—you funnel the results down to make sure that you get exactly what you are expecting. That’s the algorithm’s job. If you design that algorithm correctly, it figures out what you want, and then what you want is what you get. As they say when it comes to computer programs, “garbage in, garbage out,” and that garbage contains racism. So by the time it comes out the other end, it’s distilled and particularly powerful.

We had an important moment last summer, after the murder of George Floyd and others—there was a rise in people’s consciousness, and then a lot of people got tired. They got tired, and they got busy. There was emotional work to be done that they didn’t have the capacity for, and the moment by and large passed. Some people are still doing that work, but many who were marching last summer are not going to be marching this summer.

In Washington State, there was a brewery that reached out and said, “We’re starting this brewery. We really want it to have a social justice component. We would love to find a person of color and or a woman as our brewer.” I reached out through my network, and I put these people together. That woman was hired as head brewer with an ownership stake, and they said, “She’s the best thing we’ve ever seen. She’s amazing. She has everything we could ever want. Thank you so much for putting us in touch with her.” I didn’t do anything. I sent two or three emails. But if those two or three emails hadn’t been sent, then these people wouldn’t have this great brewmaster, and that brewer doesn’t have that job. If you have access, there’s a lot you can actually do in 20 minutes. You have to decide during those 20 minutes that you’re going to send emails instead of being on Instagram.

That’s the 80 percent of the iceberg under the water in the Foundation. The 20 percent of the iceberg above the water is what people are donating money for, which is important. We have selected our first slate of awardees, which we have not announced yet. But we’re all very excited to see the rubber meet the road.

Money is only part of the solution because of the technical courses and what they cost. If you were to go take a master’s course at UC Davis malting and brewing department, that is a $16,000 course. Yes, the course is worth it. It’s like the gold standard—one of the best in the world. But if your family has a tenth of the assets of other families, your ability to pay that $16,000 is likely nonexistent. If you go $16,000 into debt—if you can even go into that debt—your chances of being able to pay it off over time are much lower.

What we’re doing here is flipping one switch toggling that particular burden and saying, “Okay, you have the ability, we can clearly see it, we talk to you, we see your background, you’ve already been a bit in the industry, everybody’s behind you. Let’s just do this one thing.”

Then you come out the other end with this degree that can get you a job pretty much anywhere in the world, and that in of itself can change everything. Not just for you, but for everyone who works for you. Hopefully, when that happens, and you are in the chair and you are hiring people, you will remember what it meant that the Foundation did what it did for you. Then you will find a way to do it for somebody else. That’s how change happens.

My greatest hope for the Foundation is that in 15 or 20 years, we can dissolve it because there’s no longer any need. The successful Foundation would be the end of the Foundation.

A lot of people have been doing this work already. I just showed up. There was a part of me for a long time that was like, “Well, I’ve done it, I’ve been representing. You saw me, and I won a James Beard Award.” No, that’s not good enough. Just because you have or haven’t showed up before is not a reason that you can’t show up now. No one’s going to be sitting here judging you about what you did in the past unless you do nothing now. That was a worry for me. I was like, “Well, I can’t just show up out of the blue after all this time and suddenly say I am a social justice warrior.” Well, why not? Why can’t you show up now?

The answer in most cases comes down to your feelings. It comes down to your ego. If you feel bad about only showing up now, fine, feel bad. Feel bad until you feel good.