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The color of wheat is at the heart of so much in life.
You see it in a sunset and in a field, or the fall leaves that change, die and return the same to teach us that you should always remember your roots, but never fear of reimagining them.
Wheat is the signature color of Timberland and the color of the eponymous beer. We sat down with Garrett Oliver, master brewer at Brooklyn Brewery to talk about the spectrum of wheat in beer, why quality still matters, and how he’s trying to bring nature back into brewing.
Oliver knows a thing or two about nature. Although he grew up in Queens, his dad routinely took him hunting from the time he was 10. These trips provided the makings of an aesthetic life that reaches from boots to beer.
What did you wear when you went hunting with your father?
When we were out there in November and December scouring treelines for pheasants, we wore the full thing. We had Timberland® boots, cowboy hats, guns, whistles, khakis and wheat-colored clothing.
Did you have an appreciation for quality at that age?
My dad took me to high-end clothing stores. He worked on Madison Avenue at an ad agency. I remember him showing me how to buy a suit, what showed good fabric and what showed cheap fabric. This was in the 70s when polyester was king, and my dad insisted upon only natural fibers.
Let’s step back about 20,000 miles. In the taxonomy of beers, the two biggies are lagers and ales. What are the broad flavor profiles of each?
When you taste lagers, they’re very straightforward. With a pilsner, for instance, you’re basically tasting malt and hops.
In the case of an ale, you get all these fruit and spice flavors. Take a German wheat beer. It tastes like bubble gum, bananas, clove and smoke. And they’re pretty distinctive.
So wheat beer is considered an ale?
Most wheat beers fall under ales. There are two types of wheat beer you see most often. One is the German side I was describing earlier, what’s called Weissbier. We make a beer called the Greenmarket Wheat. The Weissbier yeast we use gives it the spicy, clovy, bubblegum flavors. The second type is the Belgian type which is spiced usually with coriander and orange peel.
Now these days, there are a lot of variants. If you go down to Florida, they have developed a whole new modern way of wheat beer which is kind of sour, but then they’ll add semitropical fruits from Florida. Like say, mangoes or really fresh citrus.
What gives wheat beer its color?
The color of the wheat grain itself has some effect. You have white wheats and red wheats. The color of most beers made from malted wheat is going to be kind of a dark yellow trending into orange. And then if you’re looking at the Belgian wheat beers, those tend to be pale gold.
Is wheat found in all beers or really only in so-called wheat beers?
It’s used in a variety of beers but usually in relatively small proportions. There are lots of beers that don’t have any wheat in it at all. The main ingredient in most craft beers is barley. Corn and rice are widely used in cheaper industrial beers.
Is that to keep cost down?
Cost has something to do with it, but really it’s to make a product with as little flavor as possible. The more flavor something has, the more people either like it or don’t like it. If you can make something with almost no flavor then you can pretty much sell it to anybody because they’re not going to care about it one way or the other.
Like a bad Hollywood movie. Offend no one, capture everyone.
Exactly. It’s all the money and all the science, but no art and no soul. On the other hand, if you don’t have actual skill, if you don’t have the science, you can’t put a film on screen.
The great blend really is to have the art and the science. Whether it’s a beer or a boot or a jacket. You make a jacket that zips and maybe keeps you warm. But how do you feel when you put it on? Will it be something you’re still going to wear in 10 years?
I think beer is very much like that. You can make an okay beer; it’s not very hard at all. But to make great beer that people will go out of their way to get, that’s really really hard.
So with wheat beer, what makes you go out of your way to get it?
In general, I’m looking for a lightness on the palate. Wheat beers are not heavy beers. There’s an almost pasta-like flavor that wheat gives you in the background that is really pleasant. You also have a slight acidity which makes these beers really thirst quenching.
Hearing you talk about the Florida beers earlier made us think of the adage, first you learn the rules, then you learn how to break them. How are modern wheat beers honoring tradition and how are they reimagining it?
Here’s a good example. Probably the most common German Weissbier you can get is called Schneider Weisse. In 2007, I worked with them to make a new type of wheat beer. I was the first guest brewer in any German brewery in centuries.
We combined the flavors behind the stronger type of traditional Bavarian wheat beer – all that bubblegum and banana – with the traditional American IPA, which has very high bitterness and a big aroma. The result was the Brooklyner Schneider Hopfen Weisse.
Some thought it was an abomination, but a lot of people thought it was really cool, and it started a bit of a revolution of creativity in Germany that hadn’t really happened there for hundreds of years. So what you’re saying is absolutely right. We knew the rules first and we followed them for many years, and then we knew how to break them.
You seem to see beer through an aesthetic eye, as an art to study and appreciate. Does this all go back to your childhood and your dad’s instruction?
Yeah, it’s all part of an examined life. He was an artist so we grew up with a certain aesthetic that we have applied in our own ways whether in clothes or the way our houses look or the way we cook or the way that I make beer. I guess it’s the avoidance of carelessness.
What I’m interested in now is bringing nature back into brewing, using funky yeast strains, local ingredients, that kind of thing. It’s something we lose touch with. I know what a cut cornfield smells like in a rainstorm, and that sense memory plays into everything that a chef does, everything that a brewer does. The brewer is trying to exert a certain amount of control but there are times where you have to allow the funkiness of nature to return. For me, some of the aesthetic of what Timberland does is about getting you back to all of that.