Legendary Brewmaster Garrett Oliver Talks About Diversifying The Brewing Scene

Plain and simple, Garrett Oliver helped invent modern craft beer in the U.S. Oliver has three decades of brewing under his belt, a James Beard Award, and has been the brewmaster at the much-beloved Brooklyn Brewery since 1994. There are few people with more experience in beer than Oliver. He’s seen it all, as they say. Now, the industry legend is spearheading a foundation that aims to get more Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) into brewing and distilling.

The Michael Jackson Foundation for Brewing & Distilling will fund technical degrees and career advancement for BIPOC students across the country. The foundation is named after Oliver’s close friend and champion, the late, great booze writer Michael Jackson. Oliver was the first Black man to judge the Great British Beer Festival competition (way back in the ’90s), thanks in part to Jackson’s vehement insistence. The two remained very close friends after that powerful moment in beer history.

The aim of the MJF is to help balance the racial disparities in brewing and distilling that Oliver himself has experienced over the past three decades. Oliver — an African American brewer — never once in 30 years had another African American apply to be a brewer at his brewery. Eventually, he decided to take matters into his own hands — creating an environment that nurtures new talent from the BIPOC community.

I spoke with Oliver right around the time the fundraising for the MJF hit $75,000 (it’s at $91,000 now!). We talked the costs of an education in brewing, the critical importance of diversity in the industry, and how racism and alcohol intersect.

Brooklyn Brewery

One of the things that I think people always need to be reminded of is something you mentioned a couple a weeks ago on Instagram. You said that in over 30 years of running breweries, you’ve never had a Black person come up and ask for a job brewing.

Can you walk us through the barriers that were keeping Black, Indigenous, and People Of Color away from the brewing community?

I think that you have to start off with economics. So a lot of people are not aware that in the United States — and anyone can look this up anywhere that they like — African American families, on average, have one-tenth the family assets of white families. So that is a place to start because to some extent — even though it’s not expensive — craft beer is a luxury item, even if you’re talking about yes it costing 50 cents more per bottle. It’s slower to come into communities of color or people who are economically disadvantaged. So that’s one.

Then you have this falsehood — generally promulgated by society — that beer was created by and for people of European background. And that it was created by and for men. So this is the image that beer has put forward certainly during my lifetime. And of course, none of these things are even vaguely true.

There’s not even a whisper of truth to any of it. It’s interesting to note that not only does every traditional society in Africa have its own beers, but at the outset of the United States until the end of slavery, almost all the beer in the United States was made by Black people. This is true of distilling, too, or any other physical work that you care to name.

Of course, women were the people who traditionally made beer in a lot of households. So this is where we are from a societal point of view. And then on top of that, and I take my full responsibility for this part, we get to the level that Brooklyn Brewery is at. We’re operating like a Michelin star restaurant. We are very serious about what we do. We are serious about quality. If someone is inexperienced in the brewhouse, and they don’t know what they’re doing, they’re not going to ruin a piece of fish, as they might in a restaurant kitchen. They could kill somebody. Or they’re going to ruin a $50,000 tank full of beer. We are not joking, this is a profession.

Therefore, the people that I was looking to have come through the door were people who were very well qualified, who had a few years under their belt or had coursework behind them that would say to us, “this person knows what they’re doing. They’re not going to make these rookie mistakes in your brewhouse.”

And that’s prohibitive in-and-of-itself, right?

Yes, there is a cost for that. When you look at the fact that only 0.6 percent or so of brewhouse personnel in the United States are African American, maybe a little bit more might be Latino and other people of color, then you start doing the math about the family assets. These are people who have one-tenth of the amount of money in the family. Then you look at the prices of the courses.

What’s the average price tag there?

So the course is anywhere from, say, $3,000 on one end to $16,000 on the other end. So how exactly then would you expect an African American to show up with the qualifications or the coursework?

The realization that I had was that old saw about a definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. There would never be a different result because this is the way things are. Also, let’s face it, we live in a segregated society — especially at the higher end of things — that we like to think is not a segregated society. Chris Rock had a great joke one time, he’s like, “Have you ever noticed that every Black person has four white friends, but every white person has 1.2 Black friends?”

It’s a joke, but it’s kind of true. You don’t necessarily notice when you go to a high-end restaurant, or wherever else, that there may be no people of color in the room: either as servers, as bartenders, on the line cooking, or as patrons. As humans, we get a little worried when we look around and we don’t see anybody who looks even vaguely like us. That is part of the background of craft beer, too.

Brooklyn Brewery

There are also huge stigmatizations around alcohol towards people of color across the U.S. I’ve lived my whole life under the shadow of whites thinking Indians are all “drunks,” and that sort of keeps a lot of Indigenous people out of alcohol in general. It’s still very real. Of course, you also see these stigmatizations towards the Black and Latinx communities as well. How does one overcome that mentality?

People who have been economically disenfranchised — especially with Native Americans — of everything are going to have, as a result, societal problems which have nothing particularly to do with alcohol. These are mental health issues — whether it’s violence in the home, whether it’s all sorts of things that are endemic — that were not endemic in society before all this happened. As it turns out, most people if left alone will be fine. But if you take everything away from them, turns out that they start drinking a lot, or turn to drugs. What a surprise!

Certainly, whether it’s true or not, this was a common tale among African Americans. It turns out during the last century that you had a certain amount of families in the community with what was called “Indian blood.” In my family, it was Narragansett. And we had people in the family who died of alcoholism. But even my grandmother — who at least was said to be half Narragansett — did not oppose the fact I became a brewer. In fact, she was very proud of me. I was really thankful for that because nobody ever put a stigma upon it. We were looked upon as people who could make our own choices, make our own way through the world, and not be held back by any sort of societal thing that had happened in the past.

With that, I don’t feel that it’s in any way incumbent upon African Americans to take on broader psychological problems that have been put upon us by history. These are things for all of us to overcome. And when we have a more equitable society, we’ll have less abuse of everything. People will have balanced lives where it’ll be easier to be happy.

That plays into an answer you had for a writer a few years ago when they asked if brewing had a race problem and you poignantly pointed out that that’s the wrong question. I’m paraphrasing but you said, if you’re not looking at the American system, you’re not seeing the big picture. Which brings us back to the Michael Jackson Foundation for Brewing and Distilling. Walk us through what the foundation aims to do?

It’s actually, by design, very simple.

You’ve heard me talk about what we look for as qualifications, as kind of a higher-end brewery and the fact that we did not see many people who would even approach us. We did have many people from other countries. I’ve sent Gambians to brewing school. I’ve sent Iraqis to brewing school. But these were people who came through a different pathway into the brewhouse. Some of them were refugees. One guy came in as a forklift driver, and kind of way worked his way up on the bottling line and became so good that we sent him to packaging school. But the normal walk in the front door applicant who would like to work in the cellar or the brewery … no, we’ve had none.

So what I am doing is “making” the sort of people that we want to see. There are people out there who want these jobs, but they don’t have the qualifications. They may be working already and learn by rote. So if someone says, “Okay, you do this, and then you do this, and then you do this”, but you don’t know exactly why you have an outcome scientifically, it’s very hard for you to move up. It’s very hard for you to be a person who’s going to say, “Hey, let’s change this, and then that will happen.” Because you don’t know.

We’re going to backfill all of that knowledge, through accredited courses, and give people the underpinning that would allow them to confidently walk up, say, “Yes, I went to the American Brewers’ Guild course”, or “I’ve been through these few Master Brewers’ Association of the Americas courses”, or “I went to UC Davis and got this certificate, and I’m prepared to be a junior brewer in your organization.” Those are the people that we want to see. I’m not saying that this is the only pathway into the brewhouse. It isn’t by any means, but it is one path. Just like going to cooking school is one path into the kitchen. Therefore, we are basically giving people a tool that we can absolutely know will work.

This seems like an easy win for anyone looking to take the next step.

There’s no real possibility of failure unless the person fails to finish the course, or not take in the information in the course. So the fact that it has a low probability of failure, they know they’ll get that job.

Look, I don’t think that at the average brewery when someone walks in the door and says, “Hey, I’m looking for a job,” that the person sitting there is like, some sort of avowed racist … in most cases. They’re looking for people who can do the job. So proof that you can do the job is the thing that we need to boost in this situation.

What does your foundation cover?

People will make an application to us, and the successful scholarship awardees will then have tuition and other expenses at their chosen institution paid directly by the MJF.

Brooklyn Brewery

That’s fantastic. So after someone gets this certification, what the occupation process like afterward?

Another part of the scholarship is that as the person goes through their course, they’ll be assigned a mentor. That mentor is a person of color within the industry who’s got a few years in, at the very least. If you don’t get along somehow, or you don’t vibe with this person, we get you somebody else.

They’re going to be somebody who can understand where you’re coming from if you have a bad day or whatever else. Somebody to talk to who’s been in your shoes. Then that person can ask, “Well, I’ve completed the course, can you help me out.” Plus, we will publish a list of the people who have just finished their courses for the breweries to see. We will also promote them in the industry.

Then as these people make their way through their careers, we will come back to them like the Godfather. We’ll ask them to be a mentor to somebody else who’s coming up and pass that knowledge back down the line so that we build a community.

Who are you looking for in a candidate? Would this work for someone walking in cold off the street or is more for someone already with their toe dipped in the pool so to speak?

To a certain extent, it’ll be a combination of what the educational institutions look for: Someone who shows that they have a lot of initiative in their life. We will start off with people who are already kind of at 30,000 feet and then put them into orbit, rather than trying to start from the ground up. Which is great — and much more exciting — but actually much, much harder.

If you have somebody who’s been brewing for a year, they likely started somewhere else in the brewery — maybe they were a tour guide or something like that — but they don’t actually have any real background besides what was taught on the brewery floor. Which might have been great for doing this one particular job, but not necessarily applicable in a broader way. We’re going to say to that person, “Okay, your employer supports you and thinks you’re doing a great job. We’re going to attach a rocket booster to your career by putting you through this program. And when you come back from it, you will be a much more valuable employee. You will be more employable anywhere that you want to go, and your career will take a different trajectory as a result.”

So we have to be mindful of what are we trying to do. What we’re trying to do is increase representation within the industry. What is the best way to do it? The best way is the quicker, stronger path first. We have to gain our skills at doing what we’re doing, and then build the organization from there.

I think this is sort of the elephant in the room. You’ve been around for 30 years. You’ve seen ups. You’ve seen downs. What would you say to someone who’s getting into brewing and wants to follow this path in 2020?

Well, my feeling is that brewing has almost exactly the same chances of success that most industries in the United States have right now. Whose situation is not in peril by a pandemic? Unless you’re manufacturing PPE, or insurance, or something like that.

We are hopeful, though, that it’s not going to be forever. By the time we award our scholarships in the first quarter of next year, then you complete your course and you’re available on the market, it’ll be next summer. And hopefully, we’ve stemmed this thing. Places will be open and people will go back to bars. Yes, it’s going to take a while. And yes, breweries will close. But if you have an interest in getting into this, or almost anything else, you’re going to need to have a leg up.

I think that brewing has as good a chance of success as almost any other industry. Everyone’s taking a hit. If anything, I see that as the best reason to go for it.

The Michael Jackson Foundation is currently accepting donations to help send BIPOC students on the path towards becoming professional brewers and distillers right now, you can donate here.

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THREAD: 10 FRAMES. As brewers, we are part of a river, the River of the Art and Mystery of Brewing. Do you hear it? This river flows down through 10,000 years of human history. This River connects us to our ancestors and our descendants. You and I have just arrived at the River’s edge. We will only be here for a moment. And over our decades, we build our breweries and brew our beers, and we throw our little rocks into the River. We make splashes. And in those splashes are friendships, love, and marriages, and businesses and partners, and everything that makes life worth living and makes us human. Yet, in a moment we are gone. Our beer is gone, our breweries are gone. But the River still flows down the years. None of us is individually important to the River. The River itself is the only thing. And it requires headwaters to feed it. Today we feed the headwaters so that the River can keep flowing towards a better future. Black people invented brewing. Brown people invented distilling. We are all part of the River. This is an important day for me, and I’m excited to join the Work. Thanks to @blackbrewculture, @freshfestbeerfest, @jnikolbeckham, @brooklynbrewery, @partnerspod, @crownsandhops, @beerkulture, @blackbeertravelers, @daybracey, @joeybear85, @seamusbranch, Hopa Mountain, @copperandkings, @thecollectress, @osayiendolyn, @otherhalfnyc, and so many others that have inspired me to get moving on this. Thanks also to @fabianvhv for helping a digital Luddite do graphics. Thanks to @rto_oliver and the Partridge Invitational Scholarship Foundation for hosting. And above all thanks to Aaron Foster of @fostersundry for so much work, the fortitude, the architecture, and the friendship. Now let’s all gather up our superpowers and go be the good guys we want to see in the mirror every day. Please donate now. Thanks, and Peace.

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