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Beer brewed in Brooklyn is local to Philly. Garrett Oliver is determined to make that case.
The Brooklyn Brewery brewmaster is world-famous, but he wants in on the Philly beer hustle. At the end of August, the pioneering craft brewery will descend on Philadelphia with its music-food-beer “Mash” tour, one of just nine stops around the globe. Among the 2016 Philly Mash events are a beer festival in a Fairmount Park mansion, a beer dinner on East Passyunk and a free rock concert at the Fillmore.
Oliver himself isn’t making the trip. “Most of us in the brewhouse have never seen the Mash,” he says. “Part of the original idea of the Mash was for the brewery to be able to showcase our beers and our culture without sending our brewers all over the place.”
But integrating Brooklyn Brewery into the Philly scene is not about him, not directly.
To really become part of the ecosystem, Oliver realizes, he needs to convince Philadelphians that his beer has as much local soul as anything in the Delaware Valley.
Tapping into Philly pride
“I’ve never seen a place that’s so much about themselves,” he observes with honest fascination.
“Philly’s like, ‘Philly pride!’ New Yorkers, we never do that. It’s part of that classical New York cool. We just don’t do it.”
Born and raised in Queens, Oliver did not have a typical NYC upbringing. His father took him game hunting on Long Island, and after the pair brought home and dressed their quarry, his mother would cook it for dinner. But he’s lived and worked most of his life in the Big Apple, and these days he’s as hip and cosmopolitan as they come. Witness his signature hat, which has its own Twitter feed, or the best-selling reference guide he authored, The Oxford Companion to Beer.
Philadelphia still beckons, but the local-booster attitude has made it tough. “As soon as you’re not from Philly people are like, ‘Oh. Well.’ It’s like your genetics are already 50 percent deficient.”
Oliver maintains geography is on his side. “Here’s the thing,” he continues. “I know you might not see it that way, but we are local beer in Philly. When I was going to middle school and high school, it took me much longer to get to school every day than it takes me to get to Philly. I’m an hour away from you on the train. In NYC, we definitely consider that ‘local.’”
Icing on the cake? “A lot of Pennsylvania breweries are much further away than we are!”
He has a point. Troegs is readily embraced as a local brewery, even though Hershey, Pa. and Brooklyn are just about equidistant from Philadelphia.
There’s that whole state of New Jersey in the way to get the to the latter, though, and — like just about every part of the country, including Philly itself — it’s exploding with more new breweries than ever. A recent Brewers Association count tallied 4,225 nationwide, surpassing the high-water mark of 4,131 notched back in 1873.
Brushing off a ‘craft crisis’
Oliver doesn’t view the record-breaking brewery proliferation as a problem for his 29-year-old company, or for the industry in general.
“I don’t think there are too many,” he says. “I think overall the number will keep growing. I don’t know where it tops out. If you look at overall craft as being somewhere between 10 and 20 percent [of US beer sales] depending on what you say craft is… Well, I want the rest.”
That’s in contrast to prognosticators who warn of an impending crisis, a “shakeout” that could force hundreds of closures.
Other doomsayers cite the recent rush of acquisitions that’s seen many independent outfits get snapped up by multinational behemoths like AB InBev and Constellation Brands. Many craft brewery owners are fearful these giant corporations will use their clout to push other brands out of distribution chains with incentives or threats smaller operations could never match or challenge.
But Oliver sees a positive side.
“I don’t think that it behooves us as craft brewers to spend our time talking in public about this,” he says. “The thing is, it never looks good when you are winning and complaining at the same time.”
“We are winning. They thought they could defeat us in so many different ways. [But] in order to do this we had to give up everything. You’re going to beat that guy? You’re going to beat that woman? Really? You’re going to beat the people who gave up everything? You’re never ever, ever going to beat that. You can’t. This is our life. It’s not their life. Even when the other side isn’t playing by the rules we’ll still win. That’s why they need to buy us.”
Defining “craft beer” has become a big debate, with some pundits and insiders calling the term “useless.” All About Beer magazine generally discourages use of the word.
But Oliver is confident in his interpretation. “If the beer is the product of an individual vision, that’s craft,” he says. “To me that’s the only definition you need.”
By that he means the beer didn’t emerge from a focus group or get handed to the brewmaster in a directive that emerged from a boardroom meeting. Not that collaboration isn’t involved. Oliver views connecting beer-makers and beer-lovers as central to craft brewing’s identity.
“The first time I threw a big party/tasting in Oslo, Norway,” he says, “we had 200 people there, including a lot of brewers. And it turned out that most of them had never even met each other before!”
The Brooklyn Brewery Mash is designed to do the same thing — bring people together over a shared love of food, beer and musi
“The Philly beer scene is already among the tightest in the country, so our role is different there,” Oliver admits, “but I’ll bet that we’ll show a lot of Philly residents cool stuff and cool people in their own town that not even they had known about before.”
That’s the specific goal of the Philly Mash event on Sunday, Aug. 28. People who snag a $20 ticket to the “Fishtown & Northern Liberties Neighborhood Immersion” will get a tour through some of the best bars in the area — Heritage, Lloyd, Garage, Barcade — plus lunch. Also included are discount coupons to encourage further exploration of independent shops in the neighborhood, from Keystone Mini Golf to Creep Records to Amrita Yoga.
Increasing brand recognition is secondary. “We’re not going to put on a commercial in the middle of the thing and say, ‘By the way just remember to drink your Brooklyn Brewery,’” Oliver says.
“What we want people to know is who we are, which is a lot of different people with a vision going in one direction.”