"Stand your ground and pour": How Brooklyn Brewery's Garrett Oliver saved GABF

GarrettOliverGabf.jpg
Brooklyn Brewery Flickr page
Garrett Oliver mans the booth at GABF 2011.
Aisle after aisle, table after table, there was one thing about the 2012 Great American Beer Festival that was different from the event in previous years: There were brewery reps, brewers and, in many cases, brewery owners themselves staffing their booths, hanging out and answering questions. It was a refreshing change that may have come about because of a letter from Garrett Oliver, the brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery.

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The issue has been a sore subject for years at the Boulder-based Brewers Association, which organizes the festival; the BA has beseeched its members to stick around and interact with their customers, rather than leaving everything to the volunteers who work the GABF. Meanwhile, many brewers have traditionally used the festival as a way to socialize with colleagues, try other beers from around the country and generally have a good time in a great city.

Arguments on both sides make sense. But the lack of brewery representation has always bothered Brooklyn Brewery's Garrett Oliver, who is well-known for maintaining a strong (and well-dressed) presence at his own booth year after year.

This time around, however, he made his feelings very clear by posting a message on the BA's private message board for brewers.

"In my 21 years, I have worked my booth for hours of every single session of GABF," he wrote. "I'm older than most of you, and I'll be honest -- this doesn't get any easier. At the end of each session, I know that my knees are going to hurt and my voice is going to be shot, and I'm going to be starving. That's the way it is. It's once a year, people, for a few hours. It's time for you to pay back the devotion that's given you the opportunity to do the very best thing in the world, in the very best place, and at the very best time. SO PLEASE STAND YOUR GROUND AND POUR." (You can see the full letter below.)

Shortly after this year's GABF ended, we asked Oliver to elaborate on his feelings and the experience. Here's what he said.

Westword: Why is it important for brewers and brewer reps to be at their booths?

Garrett Oliver: I often make the point that craft beer is about people, not just about liquid. It's the passion of America's brewers that makes the GABF and the American craft-brewing scene as wonderfully vibrant as they are. So to have a GABF where the brewers aren't present defeats the entire spirit of the enterprise. Even if you're a brewpub brewer from 1,000 miles away, if you're making great beer, the people who are trying your beer still want to meet you and talk about you. It's not just about the one ounce of beer in the glass.

Are you actually able to find the time and space to talk to people about the beers during the crush of GABF?

It's not easy, but you can make the time, yes. I'm hoarse now from all the talking I did last week. But it's all good! As a brewer, you're also there to listen. I've had home brewers tell me about Brooklyn beers they've cloned, younger craft brewers tell me that we inspired them to go into brewing -- there are so many wonderful stories. It would be a real shame not to be there to hear them.

What was the feedback you got from your letter?

It was actually tremendous. I had dozens of brewers either tell me directly or e-mail me to say how much they appreciated the sentiments expressed. One young brewer told me that he'd abandoned his booth early last year, but that I was right, and that this year he was going to work the booth hard. And he did -- I saw him there pouring. The GABF crew was so appreciative that they actually got me a rubber mat to stand on!

Did you get the feeling that it worked?

According to people I've talked to, they seem to feel that it had a definite effect, which is certainly gratifying. It's hard work, no doubt about it, and for those of us used to sea-level air, it's particularly tough. But I also think that everyone who stayed and poured enjoyed feeling the energy of the beer fans. If you ever get tired of talking to your own customers and fans, you need to do some soul-searching about whether you're in the right business.

Do you have any suggestions for improvements to GABF that would result in more brewery/customer interactions?

That's a good question, and I'm on the Events Committee, so we're always looking to see how we can improve things. But the action really is at the brewery booths, so if the brewers are there, the interactions will happen. Next year we'll focus on asking the brewers to actually physically pour as much beer as they can. People love having their beer poured by the person who made it. It's pretty much what this whole thing is about.

Continue reading for Oliver's full letter.


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22 comments
Michael564
Michael564

This year was an incredibly different experience than any of the previous 8 that I've attended GABF. Working behind the tables as a "Beer Geek", I met with every brewer and bewery rep in my aisle. Great people, all of them, and they enjoyed taking the time to instruct me about their beers and anything else they thought special about their breweries. I carried a notebook and pen, took notes, and then passed those notes on to the volunteers pouring, so they were informed as well. We rarely had an instance where 'customers' came up with general questions about the beers that we, the volunteers, were not able to answer.So, thank you Mr. Oliver, for rallying the troops and helping change the atmosphere of GABF from Frat Party to Beer Tasting. And maybe, just maybe, after meeting 10 times over 8 years, you'll remember me next time.  But maybe not... :-)

 

Lumbergs_lackey
Lumbergs_lackey

I was so thrilled to meet Garrett Oliver and have him pour me some of my favorite beers. Great piece of writing by Mr Shikes and great interview. I couldn't agree with the points any more. While many are attending GABF to drink as much beer as possible and enjoy the friends and revelry, there is also a huge contingent of beer geeks who are there to try unavailable-in-their-hometown beers and learn about their favorite breweries. I cant tell you how disappointing it is to arrive at one of your favorite brewery's tables only to find a clueless volunteer who knows nothing about the beers they're pouring.

ladybeerlover
ladybeerlover

Also - might I suggest to Mr. Oliver that when pouring he try some of those gel kitchen mats.  My knees and back kill me standing in my kitchen, but those gel mats help tremendously. 

 

He should think about buying some and using them when he is pouring.  I think you can even get them at Costco now.

ladybeerlover
ladybeerlover

Thank you Mr. Oliver!!  I haven't been able to attend the GABF since 2010, but it was awful.  So many people at the booths who knew absolutely nothing about the beer.  Nothing worse than asking a question and getting a vacant stare and "uhhhhhhh" in return. 

 

And aside, the BB Chocolate Stout is very, very tasty.  One of the first that I could easily get in the area I lived in pre-2000. 

cerna348
cerna348

LOVE IT! Thank you so much Garrett Oliver. I found that to be not just the biggest difference, but also a huge improvement from last years GABF. Last year I saw Jim Koch walking around and of course Sam Calagione, but I only talked to two owners and I left a little disappointed at the end of the night last year from so little interaction from brewery representatives. This year I met many many more owners, brewers, and general brewery representatives. I love the ability to not just receive a pour but interact and talk to brewery representatives. I feel much more connected with many of those beers and breweries because they advocated to me. That connection is much more valuable than any advertising. 

Reinkster
Reinkster

@CharliePapazian He makes a good argument, but that makes it difficult for brewers to taste other brewers beers!

EZembeck
EZembeck

@adamnason Yah I agree GO can b a pretentious self-serving prick...but I agree with him here. Premier fest in the US needs more brewer rep

craftbeercoach
craftbeercoach

Garrett mentioned "The Purpose of Beer is People" back in July at the US Beer Bloggers and I set out to get him to explain that further here- http://craftbeercoach.com/?p=456.

 

As for the message, I wholeheartedly agree. Craft beer is more than beer. It is community and the people that make up the community. Without the people bringing the innovation, passion, self sacrifice, and tireless energy beer would be stuck where it was about 20 years ago.

 

Personally, the hands-down best beer festival experience I have had was The Festival US this past June. 300 brewers came from all over the world to personally man their table for much of 3 sessions. If they were not at their own table, you could find them sampling beers at other brewer's tables in a rather intimate venue, or hang with many of them at after parties. I talked directly to dozens of brewers over the course of 2 days. I really hope it becomes a repeat festival but I can imagine how hard it was to coordinate 300 brewers being in the same place.

 

There will always be a need for primarily drinking oriented events but I hope we keep adding more intimate, interactive, and educational events directly involving brewery staff.

beermamaC
beermamaC

@ColoBeerMan @brooklynbrewery this was a fantastic change to see this year! I loved talking to so many people directly related to the beer!

millerjam1
millerjam1

I agree with this man totally. As a beer geek myself, I didn't enjoy going last year and not getting to talk with any brewers themselves. Wasn't really a fun time. But this year was totally different. I was able to talk geek to the folks that made the beer and listen to their passions around their product. Thanks to this man for sending this letter!

Mantonat
Mantonat topcommenter

A great brewer and a great writer. Check out "The Brewmaster's Table" for a great book about beer and food.

 

Next year, I plan to wear a t-shirt that says "Stand your ground and drink."

milleralexjames
milleralexjames

Great article, and very cool of Mr. Oliver to be there for his beer - I'm bummed I didn't make it by BB's booth, but I have been lucky enough to get to the actual brewery in Brookyln before, they make a great beer!

Brews_Up
Brews_Up

@ColoBeerMan @brooklynbrewery @craftbeer Great article. Thx for posting. Garrett is great example for all brewers and drinkers alike.

NJBeerNerd
NJBeerNerd

@ColoBeerMan @BrooklynBrewery thats' awesome. It was pretty impressive seeing Sam @dogfishbeer w/ a sign saying "Lost my voice"

joshmishell
joshmishell

@ColoBeerMan It's stilly that a long letter should make people pour beer. When I worked at a brewery, we had it staffed the whole time!

adamnason
adamnason

@EZembeck think you misread my tweet. not calling Garrett anything. just think headline claiming he "saved" fest is overkill.

Mantonat
Mantonat topcommenter

 @millerjam1 Mr. Oliver can perhaps take credit for getting brewers to spend more time at their booths, but I think I remember reading that this is also the first year that the BA required breweries to have representatives at the booths for a minimum of an hour for each of the four sessions.

ColoBeerMan
ColoBeerMan

@NJBeerNerd @brews_up @exposurebrewing Thanks for reading!

EZembeck
EZembeck

@adamnason True. Tho GO can b a polarizing figure. I like half his views & hate half of them myself.

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