Saturday 30 March 2013

IPA stories: The John J. Palmer Interview

John J. Palmer was born in 1963 and raised up in Michigan. In 1987 he graduated in Metallurgical Engineering. He now works in California in a lab and has built and designed parts of the International Space Station currently in orbit around our planet, that's enough for me to label him a rocket scientist. He's somewhat of a geek and a home brewer, an excellent combination I would say. He is most famous for being the author of the book "How To Brew", it's somewhat of a home brew bible. Early version of what later inspired the book was posted online on home brewing ftp sites before the Internet back in 1993. And in the year 2000 he self published the first printed full version through a home brew web page. John was nice enough to answer some questions for my recent deep dive in IPA brewing and history. Here we go with the interview...

Photo from:

Haffy: So I understand that you've been brewing for a really long time, when did you start brewing and when did you brew your first IPA?

John: I started brewing in 1992 and brewed mostly pale ales at first: American, English, ESB. But I don't think I brewed an IPA until probably 1994. At the time, IPA seemed to be too much. I hadn't developed my taste for hops yet.

Haffy: Do you remember the first time you ever drank an IPA?

John: I believe my first "IPA" was Anchor Liberty Ale, which is really more of an American Pale Ale today. I thought it very bitter at the time. The second one was probably Vinnie Cilurzo's Blind Pig IPA in 94 or 95. And that's probably when I started brewing them as well. At the beginning, I was very influenced by Michael Jackson's writings and was brewing a lot of English style pale ales and IPA's because I liked the sweeter heavier beer to balance the hops. But by the time I wrote How To Brew (1995-2000), I had switched to the American style without much crystal malt at all.

Haffy: The American IPA, from Bridgeport to Anchor and Sierra Nevada and so on, your view on the rise of the American IPA?

John: I am proud to say that a lot of the rise in craft brewing and IPA happened here in California! Not that I had much to do with it of course. There were many small breweries opening in the nineties, in fact there was a boom and crash because of the sudden glut on the market of craft beer and most of the American populace was not ready for it. But meanwhile, a couple core brands like Sierra Nevada, Steelhead, Russian River, and Rogue, kept producing good craft beer and pushing the envelope with IPA into the early 2000's. Sierra Nevada never had an IPA by name at that time, but their annual Celebration ale was always referred to as an example of an English IPA because of the high hopping. But meanwhile, American IPA was coming to be defined by a lighter malt body and flavor to allow the bitterness to be brighter.

Haffy: Cascade hops was released back in 1971, do you know what/who used it and if there were any home brewer traditions in making typical American IPA before it was commercialized? And what can you say about if?

John: I have always liked the Cascade hop, I like the freshness of it. I did not care for the more oniony Columbus hop which so many early IPA brewers gravitated to. Cascade was first used by Coors, purely for bittering, and then they started moving away from it to other varieties such as Willamette. This left a lot of Cascade on the market, and start ups such as New Albion and Sierra Nevada were the first to use it in Pale Ale. By the time I started brewing in the early nineties, it was synonymous with craft beer. I am pretty sure that craft brewers used it first, and then home brewers picked it up. The home brewing movement had been very small prior to Papazian's book "The Complete Joy of Homebrewing". In many ways, the advent of the Internet was the rebirth of craft beer in the US. I was too young myself to know about Ballentines IPA (Editor: First American IPA brewed from ca. 1890 to 1990) on the east coast, and didn’t learn about the style until Michael Jackson's books and Beer Hunter series around 1990. 

Check out John's old internet page here.

Haffy: I've read How to Brew, actually before I started to brew myself. But where and how did you find the inspiration to write and publish this thing yourself?

John: Well, I grew up drinking dark beer in Michigan. This style is called American Dark Lager today, but it was closer to a Munich Dunkel style back then in the many small breweries in Michigan and Wisconsin. Lots of German and Scandinavian descendants in these states. I learned to brew in order to brew that style rather than the Corona, Dry, and Light beers that were so pervasive here at the time. My first batch was terrible, so I put on my engineering hat and figured out why. And then I wrote that down to help other new brewers, and it was born from there. It took me five years and several rewrites to make it good, and I am still revising it as I learn new things. The self-publishing was because publishing companies don't want to publish YOUR vision, they want to publish theirs. They think they know the market. They wanted a simple 100-page booklet to be easy for new brewers to pick up and try that first batch. Nothing complicated. I proved them wrong, to the point where they came to me and asked to publish it, and by that time (2005), I was tired of shipping books myself and happy to let them.

Haffy: Have you brewed American IPA with European malt? And what do you think is the main difference between that and American 2-Row?

John: Yes, well, what do you define as European? From Europe? (Belgian/German malts?) Maris Otter pale ale malt has long been a favourite of pale ale and IPA brewers for the better richer malt flavor it has compared to typical US 2-Row base malt. US Pale Ale malt is also available and is used extensively, but I think it is really more of an economic decision rather than a stylistic one. Recently my local microbrewery switched from American 2-Row plus Munich to Weyerman Pale Ale malt because of the superior flavor. I tasted the malt myself and had to agree that it was much richer and didn't need the Munich malt boost like the 2-Row base malt did. I don't think US brewers claim that US 2-Row is a part of the style. It is typical, but that is a cost and availability issue. It's lack of malt flavor I think can be directly traced to Anheuser Busch and Miller because they were looking for a blander product and they bought 90% of the malt in this part of the world until craft beer came along. (Now they only buy about 75%) I think the definition of American IPA is the lack of Crystal 60. Keeping the malts lighter with only touches of Munich, Crystal 20 and Crystal 40 to provide complexity. There should be a rich malt flavor, but it’s a rich pale ale malt flavor.

Haffy: The malt base on an IPA? What's your go to base, to make a great drinker that promotes hop flavor but still isn't to dull...?

John: Like I said earlier, the English Pale Ale malts set the basic tone for the beer with small amounts of Carapils, Crystal 20, Crystal 40, and Munich 10 for accent and complexity. The pH of the mash and pH of the beer are very important for this. Alkalinity for this style should be low for the beer to be bright tasting. The mash pH should be 5.2-5.4 for best results.

Haffy: What is your favourite hop combo for an IPA and why?

John: Cascade and Centennial; I like the classics. I also like a bit of Amarillo and sometimes some Citra for variety, but I have never been fond of the heavy cannabis smelling hops (CTZ type) or the super fruity South Pacific hops like Nelson Sauvin in an IPA.

Haffy: American IPA's don't really travel to well, what can be done to improve this?

John: Beer staling is an issue for everyone. It all comes down to the oxygen residual in the bottle, and the storage temperature. Many US brewers are striving for less than 10 parts per billion in the bottle, but that still only give a couple months of flavor stability because the fresh hop aromas dissipate (oxidize) so quickly. Poorly bottled beers will have 100 parts per billion or more, and if stored warm (above 12C, they will only be in peak condition for a couple weeks at most.

Haffy: If I'm not wrong, you're already on the fourth edition on How to Brew, do you see yourself updating and adding to this book indefinitely? (Like a life work kind of book?)

John: Yes, I am working on the next edition now, but don't have a timetable for completion, perhaps next year sometime? How To Brew has been so well received that I would hate for it to become dated and irrelevant. 

1st ed. Pic:

Haffy: Yeast & Fermentation: What are the most important things to remember to make your IPA shine?

John: Pitch the proper amount of healthy yeast and maintain the right fermentation temperature! Use the pitching guidelines in How To Brew or at and pitch a healthy starter at 65-70F (18-21C). Over pitching lowers the esters, and under pitching creates more byproducts.

Haffy: Dry hopping: What to do and what to not do...?

Do not leave the dry hops for too long, they will get grassy or hay-like. Master brewers of IPA's recommend no more than 3-5 days at fermentation temperature, shorter if warmer. Dry hop additions can be staggered to increase the effect, but no more than 4 days for any one bag. Oxygen is still a problem when dry hopping. Start at the end of active fermentation or purge the head space with CO2.

Haffy: Your favourite IPA?

John: There is a couple. ;-) Firestone Walker Union Jack, Stone IPA, Bear Republic Racer 5, Russian River Pliny the Elder, and Sierra Nevada Torpedo, and Sierra Nevada 2012 Celebration.

Haffy: What does the future hold for John Palmer?

John: Fortune and Glory I hope! I am just finishing the Water book and I am proud of our efforts there. I have never been to Europe. Hopefully one of these days I will be invited to speak at a conference there. I would love to try the beers first hand like I have in South America and Australia.

Haffy: Spinal Tap brewing story: Your most outrageous brewing experience...

John: I built a really wonderful digitally controlled, gas-fired, and recirculating infusion mash system that worked great for doing step mashes. It was automated so that I could flip switches on the control panel (built myself) to open and close valves to direct the worth flow between the tuns. The mash temperature control worked beautifully, but grain bits had accumulated in the valves and prevented them from fully closing. My yield suffered greatly, and the beer was a little too bitter for best drinkability. I have since dismantled it and built another that doesn't have automated valves. Much easier to clean afterwards too! Never underestimate how hard it is to clean something, because if it is difficult, it won't be done as well as something that was easy.

Haffy: I read that you were involved with making and designing parts for the International Space Station, anyways brewing in space, when will it happened and how would you make it possible?

John: Brewing in space has been tried to some degree. The yeast fermented the sugars, but without gravity the CO2 did not vent, and the yeast ended up sitting in their waste products. There is no advantage to brewing in space other than the novelty of it. And there is no yeast flocculation either. So it really is a terrestrial activity, like bungee jumping. 

Check out these links for more info on brewing in space: 

Follow this link to buy this great book.

More articles on the IPA subject coming soon, next one up will be Norwegian Champion home brewer Gahr Smith-Gahrsen and in that interview we're gonna get very technical. I recommend that all you home brewers and beer geeks out there check that out. If you subscribe or follow my blog you will receive an automatic E-mail when it's posted. (You do that under the comment field below this article) And if you like this blog don't forget to share it on your social medium of choice. Spread the craft beer propaganda...

- Haffy

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