Founded in 1988 and celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, Brooklyn Brewery is one of the borough’s very biggest success stories. Brewmaster Garrett Oliver has been with the company since 1994, and he’s witnessed massive changes—in the Williamsburg neighborhood they call home and in the craft-beer world for which he’s been such an outspoken advocate. We spoke to Oliver about those early days, as well as what the future holds.
Can you talk about when you first started at the brewery? What the community in Williamsburg was like and how it’s changed?
I would come to Williamsburg every once in a while for parties, particularly for raves, because they were happening in the abandoned buildings and places like that. One that I remember was called Praying Mantis, and it was run by some people out of Berlin. This was like 1993, maybe. It was in the old mustard factory that was not far from here. They only knocked it down a few years ago. There were hundreds and hundreds of people, and they had watermelons with fuses hanging from the ceilings down to the floor, and people would light the fuses and then 20 minutes later, all the watermelons would explode, Of course everyone was completely out of their mind, so it was a good time.
But mostly, Williamsburg was a real outpost. When you walked from the brewery back to the subway at night, if you saw somebody on the same side of the street as you, you crossed the street. There wasn’t anybody walking on the street who was likely to do you any good. To give you some idea, at the time there were already ATMs on every corner in Manhattan. There was no ATM anywhere in this neighborhood. If you ran out of money, you literally had to go to Manhattan. Which was just as strange in ’94 as it would be now. There were only a few restaurants… two or three restaurants, you know, the Polish restaurants.
What were the other businesses you guys felt a kinship with at the time?
Certainly the first was Teddy’s. And that was the first customer Brooklyn Brewery ever delivered beer to. That was way before I came on. But it was places like that. The Waterfront Ale House down on Atlantic, that was one of the places that took on serious beer before people knew what it was. They don’t crow a lot, but they were way ahead of things. They’re old school and I love them for it.
Any businesses that have closed that you miss?
I miss Planet Thailand, who I remember when they were back on Bedford, at a time when they were just about the only decent restaurant aside from the Polish places. And I’m not hating on the current incarnation, but I really miss the old version of Joe’s Busy Corner.
Were there other challenges that you faced being in Brooklyn?
If I was going home late at night, I’d get in a cab and say I was going to Brooklyn, and it’d be like, “Oh, I’m off duty.” And this was not a long time ago, even like seven or eight years ago. And this would happen four or five times before someone was willing to take you to Brooklyn. It was considered the boonies to an awful lot of people. So when you said that you were from Brooklyn Brewery, it was like, “Why would you name a brewery after Brooklyn?” Most people who live here don’t know that this was one of the great brewing capitals of the world. We had 48 breweries in the late 1800s into the early 1900s, and they made 10 percent of all the beer in the country. So Brooklyn used to be famous for beer.
It’s been interesting to watch the brewery grow from a tiny brewery that nobody knew to a small brewery that a lot of people know. It went from “Brooklyn Beer? What the hell is that?” to, “Brooklyn Beer? Why is it amber? What’s wrong with it?” to, “Brooklyn Beer? I heard that it’s good” to “Brooklyn Beer? Ok, I’ll try some.” And that happened over the course of many years, and now it’s, “Of course we’re gonna have Brooklyn Beer. What are your new specials that are coming out?”
What I like to say is that these days Brooklyn Lager is the beer that, if somebody’s having a party, you bring Brooklyn Lager and you know everyone’s going to be happy with it. It used to be you brought Brooklyn Lager, and it was the weird, fancy beer. We’re getting out of that period.