There’s a recent Instagram post by Garrett Oliver, the venerable brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery.
The photo is of Oliver with Sir Godfrey Henry Oliver Palmer, OBE at a recent awards dinner in Edinburgh and the caption reads:
“Sir Godfrey Henry Oliver Palmer, OBE, PhD, Professor Emeritus of Heriot-Watt University, foundational figure of brewing science, Freeman of Lothian, human rights activist, and the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award 2017 at the Scottish Beer Awards, Edinburgh. Such a pleasure to spend some time with this total badass of brewing.”
Praise from such a respected industry figure is all in a day’s work for Palmer, who has made an indelible mark on the brewing industry and the wider human landscape, too.
Geoff, as he is more commonly known, migrated from to London from Jamaica in 1955 aged 14. And he has gone on to have the most decorated of careers. Following the completion of joint PhD in grain science and technology at Heriot-Watt College and Edinburgh University, and a post-doctoral fellowship at Heriot-Watt University, he joined the Brewing Research Foundation.
It was here he discovered the Barley Abrasion Process in 1969, a process patented and used by the British brewing industry. He was also the first person to utilise the Scanning Electron Microscope to study malt production in detail. In the late nineties he was granted the Distinguished American Award for his research on cereals and in 2003 he was awarded the OBE for scientific and charitable work. Palmer was knighted in the New Year Honours list in 2014 for services to human rights, science and charity.
“I’m supposed to be retired but I don’t feel that way. I know my wife wouldn’t feel that way, either!” Palmer enthuses with his contagious laughter. If he’s not being asked for comment by the press on a myriad of different issues, Palmer is delivering talks, presenting awards or, indeed, collecting them. And he wouldn’t have it any other way.
Although he cites 1964 as the start of his career in brewing, Palmer is as enamoured by it now as he was back then, 53 years ago. While the industry has changed greatly, his views on what makes UK brewing unique have remained the same.
He explains: “One thing we have always had here is high quality barley malt. The industry has strong tradition in that, and I was fortunate enough to be part of that in my research at the start of my career.
“Therefore, British brewers have always been blessed with good quality malt so if you are going to make good ale, you are talking about good ale malt. And much of my time was spent researching how I can produce a better modified malt. I needed to understand the principle and also then, to get the industry to understand.
“You need to understand what the industry’s needs are. You can’t talk about it if you can’t understand it. Technology is science that works. So if you are doing stuff in brewing that isn’t working, the science is wrong. Simple as that.”
Education and Experience
“When it comes to brewing, there can be the perception is that a lot is left to chance. It isn’t. You may not understand the science but if it’s working, the science is right. The clever brewer and the clever maltster understand that.
“Of course, you can gain that knowledge without a degree in brewing as you can acquire that knowledge through experience, but I have even higher expectations of brewers and maltsters that have studied it. I’m fortunate to have taught many of them.”
Alumni of Palmer’s teaching include respected figures such as John Keeling from Fuller’s and Palmer takes great pride from seeing former students enjoy long, successful careers.
But he takes greatest joy from even simpler pleasures.
He explains: “I’ve been able to teach many people, I have been given awards and I have even been given an OBE which are all great, great, privileges.
“But to be honest, the best feeling is when I go into a supermarket and see someone struggling when it comes to the choices available to them on the beer aisle.
“So I go up and ask what are they looking for. I don’t tell them I have studied and taught brewing, I just listen to what they say and make a suggestion that they will hopefully enjoy. I’d like to think they will do something with that knowledge.
“But in reality, they will probably just go home and tell their family about the old Jamaican that was rambling on!”
Going forward, Edinburgh-based Palmer is optimistic about the UK brewing industry, evidenced in the changes he sees before his very eyes.
“The brewers I know now are the craft brewers. They are no longer part of massive corporations. They are independent, doing things their own way and making a go of this industry. I have seen that change and I am very proud. They are picking up the baton, meeting the challenge head-on and producing world quality beers,” he says.
Palmer concludes: “In life people talk about the cyclical nature of things. Sometimes there seems to be disconnect between the smaller breweries and the larger ones.
“But how did Young’s start? How did Guinness start? I have full confidence that some of the breweries we see today will go on to be the next one of those. They can only get bigger and better, contributing to this industry and to the economy.”
Sir Geoff Palmer delivers the keynote at the Brewers Congress in London next month.
Photo Credit: Used with permission of Garrett Oliver. Photo taken by Chris Williams.