It all started with a bottle of Corona.
This might sound like the beginning of many a drunken varsity tale, but in fact, the beer that could be said to epitomise the “fizzy yellow lager” epithet was also the inspiration for John Palmer’s brewing career.Well, if not inspiration, then inspiration’s mother – desperation. When John moved from Michigan to California he quickly found himself missing the darker, richer, more flavourful beers from home. He just couldn’t take one more bottle of Corona and so he took to brewing his own.
“My first batch was crap,”
says John, with what I quickly work out is a characteristic humility. “It really was miserable and I wanted to know why it happened. As an engineer I wanted to understand so I started researching the process.” The fruits of that research were 12 pages of tips and advice for upcoming homebrewers. How to Brew – the original version – was first published in the early 90s. “This was before the world wide web,” recalls John. “We’re talking FTP servers here! I uploaded this 12-page document to the main beer server and I became quasi-famous in beer circles.” Little did he know then that this would set his life on a whole different course.
When asked how he feels now, if he ever thought the whole homebrew manual thing would take off in the way it did, he admits that it’s all a bit surreal. That first document was all about extract brewing but people quickly started to ask about all-grain. John studied up and began work on an e-book – probably before the word e-book actually existed. The virtual version hit the web in 1999 and is still up on John’s website. He raced to the top of search engines with his homebrewing advice, but despite taking up untold hours of his time, he was doing it all for the love of beer. “This is such a fun hobby,” John says, by way of explaining why he gave away his advice for free. “People deserve to learn how easy it is, how fun it is to do.”
Urged on by his wife, Naomi, John went on to write a complete book on the topic – the book that you most probably have on your shelf; the book that most homebrewers consider the bible of their hobby – How to Brew. With two existing homebrewing books already on the market, John couldn’t raise any interest from publishing houses, so decided to self publish the book back in 2001. Fourteen years and 400,000 copies later and John has given up his day job (a metallurgist who has designed parts used on a space station – so yes, he literally is a rocket scientist) and having written the bible is essentially a prophet of homebrewing. He travels the USA – and increasingly the rest of the world – to talk to homebrewing groups, beer enthusiasts and loyal fans.
With all the travel (he’d just spent some time in Argentina and Brazil before heading to Johannesburg for Beer Boot Camp), does he actually have time to brew any more? “In the four times I’ve brewed this year I’ve not actually fermented anything,” he explains, somewhat sheepishly. “They were all experiments to get numbers for an article or for the next book update.” But I think his fans will forgive him for that, since they are the ones who will benefit when the fourth edition of How to Brew comes out in 2017.
This was John’s first visit to Africa and in between a hectic sightseeing schedule, I was lucky enough to join him for a few (too many) beers. You’ll be pleased to know that he was impressed with our local brews. “The scene here seems farther ahead than say Argentina or Brazil,” he admits. “They’re shackled with old hops – y’all can grown your own,” he adds, later sharing that he found South African hops to be of export quality (which is interesting as Modern Times have just scored a shipment to play around with in their brewhouse).
Before we headed out to The Foundry to try and share with John the best of South African beer, there was just enough time for a few quick fire questions:
What’s your desert island beer?
Pliny the Elder
Your favourite hop?
A beer style you’ve never brewed?
Hefeweizen (I’m not a fan of phenolics)
Ever going to open a brewery?
Nope – it’s too much work!
The only question remaining is to ask if it has all worked out as he would one day have hoped. “Way back when I was writing the e-book, my wife asked me ‘what do expect to get out of this?’ I said, ‘well maybe one day I’ll walk into a bar and someone will say ‘hey John!’ and give me a free beer!” So if you ever happen to bump into John on your boozy travels, you know just how to make his day 😉 .
Brewmistress’s note: I know that some of you, via Facebook, shared questions that you wanted me to put to John. I did whip out my phone and ask several of the technical questions you posed, but I was no longer taking notes and alas, I had one-too-many IPAs to be able to fully recall the answers. I apologise for this. If it helps at all, I had a great night out…