The Gohan Society

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Interview with Brooklyn Brewery Brewmaster Garrett Oliver

On October 4th The Gohan Society’s Annual Fundraiser, ‘Aki Matsuri 2012′ will be held at the Brooklyn Brewery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.  The theme of the evening is ‘NYC Chefs Celebrate Japanese Ingredients’.  Throughout the evening, Brooklyn Brewery will be serving a variety of their craft beers, brewed on-site, alongside food featuring Japanese ingredients served up by eleven of New York’s finest restaurants.

A week before the event, Gohan Society Executive Director Tamio Spiegel and Brooklyn Brewery Brewmaster Garrett Oliver chatted briefly about beer, Japanese food, and pairing the two.

Tamio Spiegel: How many times have you been to Japan?
Garrett Oliver: I was only in Japan once.  That was two-and-a-half years ago.  I had an amazing time.  I was doing some brewing with the brewers at Hitachino Brewery.  I spent most of my time up there in Ibaraki and Tokyo… and it was amazing!

TS: So much of your history is tied to European beers.  What is your impression of Japanese beer?
GO: Brooklyn Brewery is now in 17 countries. Japan was our first overseas market, in 1990, only two years after the brewery started.  Japan is actually the first place we went. When I look at Japanese craft beers, the one thing that stands out is the overall high level of quality and extraordinary sense of balance in the beers.  They may not be as broadly creative or as wacky as the beers you see in places like Italy, but, you almost don’t see any bad Japanese beer.  That’s unusual.  Normally, when you get a burgeoning craft beer industry, there are a lot of good beers but there’s a lot bad beer and beers in between, as everyone gains some knowledge and starts to have enough experience.

It seems to me that Japanese breweries are often trading on quality as their Number One priority, and then starting to branch out to bigger and bolder flavors, etc.  I have a lot of respect for that.

TS: At the Gohan Society, we have done a lot in the last year pairing Japanese beverages with non-Japanese foods.  At ‘Aki Matsuri 2012’, we will have food that features Japanese ingredients.  What advice can you give people when pairing beer with Japanese ingredient-based foods?
GO: It’s important to keep an open mind about these things.  Many people are familiar only with certain aspects of Japanese food. So, for a lot of people, sushi, sashimi, and ramen are as far as their Japanese palate goes.  As we branch beyond those areas, people find a lot of umami character in things that beers can engage particularly beautifully.  There are a lot of caramelized flavors that certain types of beers are able to grab on to, like in a pork broth, which is not easily accomplished with other drinks. Beer can be spectacularly versatile.

TS: At ‘Aki Matsuri 2012’, one of the special treats will be that the Brewery will be serving Sorachi Ace.  Can you tell us more about this unique beer?
GO: This is a hop variety developed by Sapporo, from Hokkaido. It was never grown commercially in Japan.  Interestingly, I was the guy that brought it back to Japan.  When I went to Hitachino, I brought American-grown sorachi to the Hitachino brewery and they had never heard of this hop.  It’s a very unique hop with flavors of lemongrass and dill.  It’s very herbal.  It’s a coincidence that it happens to be a Japanese-derived hop and it works so well with sushi and sashimi, but, it does.

It was actually developed in the 1970s, but, It was so strangely flavored with its lemony, lemongrass flavor that no one used it.  It was only when it was grown in the United States in the early 2000s that it started to take off.  It’s a hop that is derived from Japan, but, I’m not sure anyone in Japan is commercially growing it.

It was part of our Brewmaster’s Reserve. Not very often do we permanently release a new beer.  But there really is no other beer that tastes like Sorachi Ace.  It is a completely unique thing.  And, as a brewer in a beer industry which has so many wonderful flavors, to be able to create something which really has unique flavor and people enjoy so much, is great.

TS: What are the suggested pairings for Sorachi Ace?
GO: The ‘go-to’ pairings are oily fish, like salmon, sushi and sashimi, across the board.  You can do some great pairings with shellfish…  It’s a pretty broad thing.  You are looking at overall bright flavors as opposed to, say, the earthy caramelized flavors of a steak.

TS: This is the second year in a row that Brooklyn Brewery has hosted ‘Aki Matsuri’ the Gohan Society’s Annual Fundraiser.  How do you see the relationship between the Brewery and the Gohan Society?
GO: I would love to see our relationship expand…

Among food people I know, including chefs, but among people who are particular enthusiasts, Japan is looked at as the sort of ‘mecca’ that France, Spain, and these days, Scandinavia is looked at…but there’s always been Japan. And, perhaps, it does not, in America, get the same sort of play, so to speak.

Hopefully we can do more together, over time…

Thank you, Garrett!

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