The woman behind the MASH: 10 Questions with Brooklyn Brewery's Gabe Barry
INTERVIEWED SEPTEMBER 15, 2017
Brooklyn Brewery is on the eve of its 30th anniversary, and much of its success can be credited to founder Steve Hindy and Brewmaster Garrett Oliver. But, when you peel pack the surface of this world-renowned beer maker, you begin to reveal the stories of lesser known stars–like that of Gabrielle 'Gabe' Barry. As the self-initiated 'Brewery Education & Community Ambassador', Gabe has spent years educating drinkers about the entire sensory experience of what makes a good beer–and doing so in the most creative ways possible.
A major piece of her role is coordinating the Brooklyn Brewery MASH and Beer Mansion–a traveling beer festival that is anything but conventional. We grabbed a few moments of Gabe's fleeting spare time to ask her 10 questions that best exude the personality and reputation of Brooklyn, help paint the picture of what 'Brooklyn' means outside of the borough, and overall how her path has led her to building her own unique niche in beer.
From Taproom Manager to Brooklyn Brewery's "Beer Education and Community Ambassador." How did you find yourself in that 'new' role?
I started working in the craft beer industry in 2008; a year that was really big for beer in a lot of different ways. It positioned me to have a bit of a unique perspective on not only the state of craft beer on the East Coast but the general impact of the way beer affects community in a social construct as well an economical situation. I’ve worn a lot of different hats within the industry over the past 10 years–managing a small brewpub, sales, festival production, endless hours of my life bartending–and in 2013 a friend who worked for Brooklyn Brewery called me and said they were creating this Evening Tasting Room manager position and she couldn’t think of anybody else but me for the job. I was brought on board immediately, it was a bit of a whirlwind. But even on my very first day of training, it was clear I had made a decision that would change my life in a really important way.
A long time ago someone said to me that if you ever see something that SHOULD be a position within a company–or something that needs to be done that isn’t being done–do the best version of your current job but also, write the description for the other job. That was a bit of what happened for me. As of 2017, our company is 29 years old, but still young in many ways. And when I joined the team it was clear they were at a point of growth and transition. I asked a lot of questions about stories from the past, how things were in the early days, what had changed and in what ways and spent a lot of time getting to know different sides of the Brooklyn community; bar & restaurant owners, local politics, etc., and tried to use my role with the company to support the neighborhood. Being the tasting room manager, I had a lot of one on one time with our production crew. After all the office folks had gone home, I spent a lot of time getting to know our beer. I started to further what I already knew about making beer, history, sensory engagement and started thinking about how we needed someone who could serve as a bit of a liaison or a conduit to help bridge the gaps of beer knowledge in the fast growing industry. I started offering to help our NYC sales with staff trainings for bars and very quickly it was clear that the need was bigger than we had anticipated.
So, I wrote the description.
One city other than NYC that you have a close connection to is New Orleans. Explain how that city shaped who you are today.
In 2005 I was studying “Peace Through Performing Arts” at Antioch College in Ohio when Hurricane Katrina happened. I remember feeling somewhat out of touch with my made-up-libera-arts-college-major and overall really questioning if I was where my 19-year-old self needed to be. My mother had lived in New Orleans when she was about my age then and my godmother–her traveling partner during those days–had actually ended up living there. I didn’t have a great track record of listening to my mother but when she suggested that I go down there and do some volunteer work, something inside of me listened.
So, I went. I initially was just supposed to be there for a month but pretty much as soon as I got there I knew there was a reason I needed to be there. It was about six months after the storm when I first went down and I ended up staying for a little over two years. I worked on a lot of different projects that independently contributed to certain parts about who I am now–but the big picture with me and New Orleans isn’t really about the storm. It’s about New Orleans. I remember one of the first houses I gutted in the lower 9th Ward and having the residents come by having driven all the way from Houston just to meet the dirty punk kids who were gutting their house for free. They insisted that we take a break and chat. Even more of a shocker, they pretty much demanded we drink a beer with them. And simply put: that’s New Orleans. It’s not about drinking to be drunk, it’s embedded in the magic of bars often serving a cultural hub, the ritualistic side of what brings people together...what makes people gather. Thinking back on that hot, sweaty August afternoon, I think about how so much of the culture of New Orleans is actually very similar to what I try to bring to the table with the way I educate about beer and experience.
I moved back north in early fall of 2008 and had no idea what was next for me but it was another one of those ‘right place, right time’ moment in my own story. I picked up a bartending shift at a new brewpub and right away I realized that ‘craft beer’ was ultimately the intersection of art, science and community and I could potentially feel fulfilled in the same way I had by ‘Defending NOLA’–we’re ultimately defending beer.
Ending the Brooklyn MASH tour last year in New Orleans was a wild moment of blending some different aspects of my life and getting a chance to see what an incredible beer scene has popped up down there over the past seven years. I will always love New Orleans in the way you might feel about ‘the one who got away,’ but, I’m a New Yorker. I made the right choice.
Brooklyn has an impressive footprint not just in the US, but also overseas. What was it that led the brewery to explore international markets so long before other peers in the industry?
I had lunch with our founder Steve Hindy yesterday and it never ceases to amaze me how many things in our story are very clearly ‘right place, right time’ scenarios. Of course balanced with decades of incredible hard work but there is a bit of ‘spooky magic’ that comes to mind when I think about how our brand has built itself. The people that make up our team have always been big influences on the direction of the company and if you look at Brewmaster Garrett Oliver, Steve Hindy & the Ottaway brothers, there is a strong connection to the global perspective that has always existed. Steve Hindy was introduced to ‘good beer’ in the Middle East while he was stationed there as a war correspondent in the early 80's and Garrett’s point of origin traces back to pub culture in the UK which would position him to essentially change the game for how the world talks about beer. Brooklyn is our home-base, but I also think over the past 10 years or so, Brooklyn as a borough has almost transitioned in some way to a bit of a state-of-mind. And it contributes to why the rest of the world is drawn to drinking our beer. I’m on the road a lot for work and when I go to a new place people always want to show me the neighborhood 'that is like Brooklyn’ and it’s usually a place with a very chill vibe full of cool creative people doing fun things. This is not something we invented; it’s just one way to foster strong community and I think the word 'Brooklyn' has become synonymous with that. I think it helps people feel connected to our beers even if the borough of Brooklyn itself is on the other side of the world.
Garrett Oliver is often credited with building not only the recipe and beer reputation of Brooklyn Brewery, but also the culture. What's it like to work alongside such a notable craft beer personality?
Haha. The best.
No, in all seriousness though. I even get a little verklempt as I start to think about putting into words what it’s like getting to work with Garrett… To begin, he’s one of the most intentional people I’ve ever worked with. I think his aesthetic identity–the hats, the fireman's jacket, the overall swagger that radiates off that man–is a good example of what I mean by 'intentional.' Thinking about that level of intentionality translates into every beer he dreams up, every meal he eats and also for how he works differently with each of us that work closely with him. I run an internal education program called Beer School with Garrett; a two-day structure with curated education based on who the group is and what their needs are. The program always starts with Garrett cooking dinner for attendees with our Barrel Manager, Eric Brown, and usually a few other production folks. Some of my favorite moments with him are cleaning up after the dinner, the stories he pulls out, and just laughing a lot, being silly and usually listening to LCD Soundsystem.
Then there's the reality of his level of knowledge about not only just beer–but spirits, wine, food, music and more. He’s literally a walking encyclopedia. Folks these days can go to school to learn to be brewers, there’re homebrew shops in every community, the internet and countless specialized books of resources–but Garrett comes from a different class of brewers where you generally had to learn from someone who already knew how to do it. When we only learn things from books or in classroom situations we can become a little defensive to real life teaching moments and with something like brewing. You gotta make some mistakes and learn masters of the craft. It’s amazing that we do have all these resources for folks to learn how to become brewers these days but we have to keep a balance of reminding ourselves that the ‘craft’ industry as we know it today is really only about 30 years old and it was built on the backs of a bunch of people who decided they didn't want to go to work the next day [amongst other things...]. It’s really important to respect the greats like Garrett and the work they put in. Anyone can make a good beer one time, but making it the same way for 29 years and getting it safely all around the world? That takes some skill, patience and a truly being a creative professional.
You have an interesting take on how all of the senses play into one's beer experience and ultimately, memory. Can you describe that a bit?
I think context and acknowledgement of sensory experience is something we don’t really culturally pay enough mind to. Our sense of smell, sight, touch, taste and sound are essentially our most primal way we physically keep our bodies safe. It’s totally fine to just leave it as that, but I like to look a little deeper into how does the relationship of your sensory experience actually inform so much about what makes us happier people–even beyond our beer drinking moments. Our sense of smell for example, actually has it’s own ‘track’ to get to our brain; it’s called the Limbic system and that’s where we store our memories and emotions which is why certain senses of smell can be so triggering to memory. I get asked everyday what my favorite beer is and I generally say, “The next free beer I’m going to drink!” because I like to use it as a teaching moment to talk about context. But in truth, my 'favorite beers' generally are more about the situation in which I was drinking and those are the details that contribute to my feelings about the beer.
Over the past few years I’ve started dabbling in multi-sensory art installations focused around a certain beer, style or part of the brewing process and it’s been really fascinating to see what people absorb or take an interest in when you removed the context of a classic classroom and make teaching a bit more experiential. There’s a pretty decent amount of research out there regarding how most of the senses affect our perception of beer, but this year I’ve been playing a little bit more with introducing the idea of how sound affects taste as well. Our lab manager Scott Simpson also happens to be a music tech and he got me started on playing with frequency generators to explore that idea more. Maybe someday we’ll collect the data, but for now it’s just fun.
Describe Brooklyn MASH/Beer Mansion to someone who's never been before.
Beer Mansion is simply not your average beer festival. For us, we see beer as a cultural connector of a lot of different kind of communities, very often with a creative overlap. I always say that nerds are double dippers and if you’re passionate about one niche subject, you can get down on other fun stuff too if it’s presented to you in the right way. Beer Mansion takes elements of a beer festival–special beers, multiple breweries, food trucks–and basically flips it upside down.
We’ve taken an approach of letting the flavor guide us and using some amazing artists who travel with us and help guide us creatively and assist in translating flavor into vibe and ultimately bringing it to life. There are a five different zones to be explored and experienced; think the ‘choose your own adventure’ of a beer festivals. Wandering through The Forest you might find beers with flavors of pine, resin, earthy or nutty; style-wise we end up seeing a lot of IPAs and Pale Ales, but it could be a great place for spicy saison or something more botanical. The space, of course, transforms you and you’re welcomed to pick chips from our Garden of Eatin chip wall...or maybe take a moment to sit on some stumps and warm your hands by the fire.
I won’t give away all the secrets, but Beer Mansion is a wild party and it’s always better when you are there. I’d say be open to a lot of different potential moments while also not being afraid to go right for something you know you’ll like. If you are jammin' on the sour train, don’t miss Tart of the Tropics. If malt-focused beers are more your thing, check out The Darkness. And don't miss hanging in The Playhouse with Chef Andrew Gerson.
The MASH isn't just about Brooklyn beer – it's a way to highlight the hosting city and better yet, that city's beer scene/breweries. Why is this approach so important for a brewery so large?
Before ‘craft’ and really before we had the language to talk about styles [thanks Michael Jackson] beer was often more of a sense of place. The water, the ingredients, the people making the beer, the people drinking the beer all helped to shape what that beer was. With the evolution of technology brewers have been able to replicate certain flavors and styles with adopted methods–transference of skill and new practices but the balance between beers as regionality and the ability for beers to share and cross cultures has to remain strong. When Beer Mansion comes to town, it can’t just be about us. To approach a place with an attitude of ‘let me show you how to party’ is usually a pretty colonialist approach and it’s really something as a global brand that we try to stay away from. We like to roll into town and be like, ‘Chicago. Show me how you party.’
This approach is important today in a time where we have more breweries in the US than any other moment in history and it’s super important for us to be a unified front as independent breweries. Think about music. Most of us have some form of music we like to enjoy in different moments in our lives, sometimes I like old school funk, sometimes I really like to listen to crappy radio pop music but it all depends on my vibe. I compare music and breweries because there’s so many different kind of breweries out there. I work a lot with the NYC Brewers Guild when I’m here in Brooklyn and we all do our best to stay connected so we can help eachother out as we grow as a community. We all need to be building relationships with our farmers, the drivers that are trucking in ingredients and carrying out beer, the quality of life of our teams and not letting ourselves burn out. Obviously we also like to drink beer and laugh together. It’s very important that larger and smaller independent brands are unified because we’re all playing a different role in this. Take the time to look for the Brewer’s Association's new seal of independency on your label. It’s happened before and I think we can do it again. Beer can change the world.
This role has allowed you to travel quite a bit – Brooklyn MASH events and otherwise. Tell us one story from your beer travels that really sticks with you...
That's a hard one.
One of the best parts about my job is that I’ve actually met some of my best friends through working at the Brooklyn Brewery. A very real part of our company culture is rooted in dancing together and that’s become one of those things that even when it takes you a second to think about what city you are in or when you have those moments of homesickness on the road...there is always dancing wherever you are.
Last week we were in Sweden for Gothenburg Beer Mansion. And after the load-out on Saturday night, we all just wanted to go back to our Airbnb with a case of Bel Air Sour and relax. For a bit of context, a Beer Mansion takes usually two to three days of unload and build time, and is a really intense physical undertaking. So by 2am when it’s all over, you are beat but we somehow we always find energy to dance. Even when we’re not in Sweden, we have this tradition of dancing to Robyn–'Dancing On My Own' and 'Call Your Girlfriend' are our biggest jams–and it’s become kinda embedded in the way we close out, not only just a Beer Mansion, but a lot of nights pretty much anywhere in the world where you'll find us.
That night, we had a hella global and epic dance party with members of our team literally from all over the world, and felt the pain for everyone on our team that wasn’t there with us. Traveling around the world talking about beer is a pretty sweet gig, but it’s even sweeter when you get to do it with your best friends.
You recently moved from Brooklyn to Queens. Where could one find you, in either borough, on your day off?
I actually spend very little time in Queens due to work and travel.
But, one of my favorite bars in Brooklyn is a spot called Spuyten Duyvil. The draft menu is small but always very intentional and the staff is helpful without being pretentious which is something I think is really important. As a city dweller, being able to hang out in a backyard and drink beer is a treat–and Spuyten's backyard is spot-on.
My 'second work family' is one of the best beer bars in the world: The Blind Tiger in the West Village of Manhattan. I’ve picked up shifts there for years whenever I can and I truly love to hop behind the sticks and spend sometime with regulars, washing dishes and loving what it feels like on that side of this world. These days I don’t have so much time to pick up shifts but if I’m in the neighborhood I’ll always try and swing by for a grilled cheese and tomato soup, and let the bartender decide what I’m drinking.
When you're not at work drinking Brooklyn Brewery offerings, what are you drinking?
I’m a really big seltzer water drinker, which is actually hard when you travel a lot! It’s okay in Europe, they like the bubbles too, but it’s funny to see what regions of the country just don’t really care about seltzer. It’s a very ‘New York’ thing.
In terms of cocktails or spirits, I’m open to a lot of things but it’s gotta be balanced. I love a classic Whiskey Sour and Negronis are kind of my go-to. The Negroni is a hard thing to mess up and if you are behind a bar and don’t know how to make a Negroni...then you shouldn’t be behind the bar.
When it comes to beer, it’s really all about where I am. Style-wise, these days I have a taste for a solid Kellerbier or a helles lager; something clean and not a style that people generally make unless they know how to make it. In Chicago, my first beer will probably be something from Hopewell Brewing [former Brooklyn family who we are epically proud of!], followed shortly by reaching for an old favorite: Half Acre Daisy Cutter.
Truthfully, I'll dig on anything with a story that fits the moment I need to have.
Photos of Gabe Barry, where noted, provided by the NYC Brewers Guild. Photos of the brewery, 2016 & '17 MASH taken by The Hop Review's Jack Muldowney.