Friday 26 April 2013

Beer Hunter: The Movie - Interview with the filmmaker

The John R. Richards Interview

So Haffy is been working on his IPA stories and I haven`t written anything in particular for some time. We`re sitting at the pub and talking rubbish as usual when he says: You know that Michael Jackson movie we have hear about for some time now. It`s finally getting released very soon. Why don`t you get in contact with the producer and fix an interview?

Good idea. I`ve heard about this movie in the making for years now. I scan the Internet, find the info and cook up some questions that I think sounds smart. I send the mail, grab a homebrewed wheat IPA with loads of rye and oats and think I`ll never get an answer back. How stupid to think that they`ll bother responding to some jerk in Norway with smelly socks and a bad attitude. The next day I get a response. Wow, it`s the director, producer, writer, himself, John R. Richards. We correspond for some time. They`re busy. Very busy, and why not. They`ve just had their first screening of the movie, and tons of work to do. But in between he is kind enough to take some time off to chat about the movie and the process of making it. So here we go, but first a little bit of info for the newcomers to the beer scene about Michael Jackson "The Beer Hunter!"

According to "The Oxford Companion to Beer" by Garreth Oliver: "Michael Jackson, (1942-2007) was arguably the single most influential voice in food and drink of the 20th century. Through his writings, lectures, and television appearances he tirelessly promulgated the idea that beer, far from being the simple fizz most people are familiar with, is in fact a fascinatingly diverse and complex drink worthy of great respect and perhaps even love. In spreading this message, he became the spiritual father of the early microbrewing movement and the greatest champion of the craft brewer."

Michael most famous works includes the books "The world guide to beer" (1977) & "The malt whisky companion" (2004) and of course his Beer Hunter series that aired on Discovery and Channel 4 back in 1990. 

This is the director of the movie Mr. John J. Richards

Kjetil: First of all, tell me a little bit about yourself?

JR: Not much to say, I’m just a guy that is addicted to travel, food, photography, music, and lots of other things. I have a hard time focusing, you could say. I’ve worked in all sorts of jobs, too many to count, and have lived in many different places. I’ve always wanted, in the back of my mind, to make documentaries, so basically my life’s experiences has been leading up to this.

Kjetil: How did you enter the world of wine and beer, and did the passions for both these drinks emerge simultaneously?

JR: I got my first taste of good beer as an exchange student to Germany when I was 16. In college back in the U.S., I purchased whatever decent “micros” were available at the time (there weren’t many). After graduation in 1992 I moved to Crested Butte, a small mountain town in Colorado to pursue a career in ski bumming. My roommate, Ashton, was an avid homebrewer, and he set up a home brew supply store in our house. We brewed constantly, our bathroom was the fermentation and bulk extract storage room, it was great. The first beer that I brewed myself was a coffee-hazelnut stout. It took two years to carbonate. That’s when I became familiar with the books of Charlie Papazian, he was our guiding spirit. Ashton and I started attending the GABF in Denver I 1994, and I was blown away by the beers and the scene there. Ashton eventually went on to become the head brewer at our local brewery, and won a gold medal at the GABF for his English style bitter. To us, it was like he had won a gold in skiing at the Olympics. The place where I bartended in town served Bass, Guinness, and Pilsner Urquell, which at the time was quite an assortment of good beer. My signature pour was a black-and-gold, Guinness layered on top of Pilsner. I became addicted to these. After I went on to bartend at a German restaurant that served mostly Spaten and Paulaner, and developed a deep fondness for those malty, strong brews. I left Crested Butte in ’95 and bounced around Thailand, Ecuador, and back to Colorado to work and study in wildlife conservation, then ended up in Boston in 2000 to work as the editor of a web start up. We were located next to a huge liquor store called Marty’s, and after work we’d go over and peruse their selection. We made friends with one of the wine salesman, Mark; he taught wine appreciation classes and classical guitar. Great guy, and he introduced us to some outstanding and affordable wines, notably from Europe. We started obsessing about wine, and produced the first (to my knowledge) online wine appreciation class. I shot a bunch of video for it at local vineyards, and that’s where my filming career began. I moved to Aspen, Colorado, in 2002 to run a café franchise. I had always wanted to make documentaries, so on the side I entered local video contests and took a couple second-place awards for our skiing and kayaking videos. I decided from there to start a company. My old friend and business partner Eric and I bought a Panasonci DVX-100 and set out to conquer the world. It wasn’t long before we got our break. Eric who was the CFO for a venture capital company, showed our videos to the brother of the guy I worked for in the restaurant business. That was Rob Imeson, and he had started two unique clubs: the Vineyard Wine Club and the Rare Beer Club. He wanted to make videos of the wines and beers in the club, to have a visual record and story behind each one, which at the time was pretty advanced. Eric showed him my work, and he hired me on the spot. A couple months later I quit my job in restaurant management and was on a round-the-world trip, starting in New Zealand, to shoot vineyards and beer tastings. That’s when I met Michael, in London in 2004, between South African and Argentina shoots. I had kind of heard of him, but to be honest I wasn’t that familiar with his books or reputation, which was probably a good thing at the time. I was able to function, you know? But right away I realize that this guy was special, and almost immediately starting telling Rob that we should be doing a documentary about him. He agreed, and started sending me out on forays with Michael. For the next two years I travelled constantly between vineyard shoots and beer tours with Michael. I was introduced to the best beer and wine in the world, met and travelled with top winemakers and brewers, ate at the best restaurants, and worked my ass off. I was blown away by how exciting and fun this world of craft beer and wine was. I spent hours and hours and hours editing through interviews with wine makers and Michael, extolling the virtues of finely crafted beverages. I learned a lot, needless to say. It was a life-changing experience. I learned to love beer and wine equally, and never created this bizarre division of “I’m a beer guy, wine sucks” that so many craft beer lovers embrace. It’s about location, context, mood, and choice, more than pointless taking sides on behalf of your favourite beverage, as though it defines your very identity. Anyways, I’m digressing.

Kjetil: He gained a lot of respect from both whisky and beer lovers. Did the two “camps” know that he was an expert on both fields? I am also curious of how he approached wine and other beverages of the world.

JR: I don’t get the sense that either camp did know how influential he was to each. There did not seem to be much overlap, although nowadays, with so many brewers starting up their own micro-distilleries, I think his significance in the world of whiskey is beginning to become more widely known. I have heard on many occasions that Michael’s financial success derived primarily from sales of his whiskey books. In regards to wine, he teased the beverage gently from time to time and certainly preferred beer, but he did love good wine and not surprisingly, was very knowledgeable about it. Since the sister club to the beer club was wine, we had a number of wine dinners with Michael and his palate was equally acute in discerning flavors in wine as it was beer. I think Michael just appreciated any beverage that was made with quality and character first in mind, anything that was made with passion and integrity, for the purposes of enjoyment first and not profit and marketability. 

"Hello my name really is Michael Jackson, but I don't sing or drink Pepsi, I drink beer!"

Kjetil: The Beer Hunter the Movie has been talked about for some time. Tell me about the idea behind the movie, and how it came about?

JR: As I mentioned before, the idea came about right away. My inner documentarian was like, “hey, this guy had a TV show that’s been shown around the world. He tried to make another season but no network would bite. We’re making these little tasting DVDs for members only. Shouldn’t we be thinking about a bigger picture? This guy is a legend!” It wasn’t until after our first trip to the U.S., when we realized that Michael was just a rock star here, that we really nailed down the idea. So I was sent out with Michael on trips outside of the beer club tastings, whenever I could accompany him Rob was generous enough to send me along. We had a loose idea of doing a documentary, but I made the same mistakes that most inexperienced documentarians make, I just followed him around and hoped that “the story would jump into the camera.” It was very guerrilla, gun and go all the time. We rarely knew exactly where we were going or what we were doing. It was just me the first year, no extra lights, no audio guy with a shotgun. I learned a lot, but I made a ton of mistakes, mostly along the lines of pre-production. I rarely got Michael introducing where we were going and what we were doing, or getting some parting thoughts to wrap things up. I guess you could call it cinéma vérité, but really it was just amateurish mistakes. But at the end of the day, I had the footage, hours of it. Random footage that took me a few years to go through, over and over, until I could tease themes and story lines out of it. I’ll never do that again, it was a time-consuming mistake. The very last trip we made together, to the mid-Atlantic region of the U.S., we had a long breakfast and spoke at great length about doing another Beer Hunter series as well. I was working at the time on my own television series called The Wine Travelers. Michael chided me for that, but I had the connections, I loved the visual element of the vineyards, the culture and food that went along with the great wine regions of Europe, and quite frankly didn’t want to compete with Michael on beer or step on his toes. I was simply learning the trade and hoped that at some point, I could produce a show with the Beer Hunter alongside the wine show. After that meeting, we didn’t speak for a year or so, and that’s when he had his heart attack and went public with his Parkinson’s. It was a tough year for him. The last we spoke we talked again about doing the Beer Hunter, and releasing it on the Internet until we could get some network traction. We were so close to making it happen. And then, I got the news that he had passed away. The documentary slowly emerged from that very sad period.

Kjetil: Were there any difficulties and obstacles along the way, and how did you overcome them?

JR: More than you can imagine. It was a tough slog, and at several points I thought, “Fuck this, why is this my responsibility?” But at the end of the day, I had the footage, and no one else had stepped forward to tell Michael’s story. So onward we go. Making a movie is expensive, and I didn’t have any money, or really, I didn’t have the time to devote to such a huge undertaking. Plus the recession hit, my job with the clubs ended for lack of funding, and my wife and I struggled tremendously for a while trying to find work, and find sponsors for the film. I thought for sure that once word got out, sponsors would come out of the woodwork to help make this film. But they did not, not by a long shot. It was incredibly humbling and discouraging. The project languished for a while, and I was ready to just give up until I had the personal resources to do it somewhere down the line, but then all of a sudden we hear about this thing called Facebook, and then Kickstarter. It took me about six months to finally put that Kickstarter campaign together the way I wanted (I’m a bit obsessive about details) but it was an incredible success. People then, did come out of the woodwork, literally, from all over the world. Within a month we had enough funding to get something done. But still, most of the funding went straight into the film, equipment, travelling to interviews, licensing music, all that stuff. And it was a full-time job, going through all the footage and new interviews, so I couldn’t work that much on the side. We made huge sacrifices, we lived out of our office for a time, my wife had to carry much of the financial burden while I edited. I’m a restless person, I prefer to be outdoors and physical, I feel trapped if I’m not travelling, so the sheer hours of sitting in front of a computer editing through footage for hours, days, months on end was the biggest challenge personally for me. And while Kickstarter was great, suddenly you have 577 people that want this thing to be done immediately, and they don’t understand the time that goes into it, I didn’t understand all the time that were to go into it, so it took much longer than expected, and that was incredibly stressful dealing with their expectations. T-shirt fulfilment was a nightmare, the screening strategy is proving to be difficult, there are licensing issues, format issues for different parts of the world, and now we also have to figure out subtitles. It never really ends, there are so many details it’s overwhelming. But it finally has come together, more or less, and that night a few weeks back, on Michael’s birthday, as we premiered the film in D.C. and saw the crowd react with cheers and tears, it was one of the most rewarding moments of my life. And at the end of the day, it sure beats an office job. I can’t complain, it’s been the greatest honor of my life to tell Michael’s story. I’m still not quite sure how or why it fell on my lap, dumb luck I guess. And the fact that my wife – bless her - and I can get by with very little, we were able to see this thing through some tough times. We always had the mountains to escape to, and that helped as well.

Kjetil: Having followed Michael around, when and where was he most comfortable, and what would he be having in his glass?

JR: Undoubtedly Michael was most comfortable in the pub, after the work was done. He was not comfortable in large, tumultuous crowds of people clambering around him. And as far as pubs go, he was most comfortable in his local, the Andover Arms, a few minutes walk from his house. In his glass would inevitably be a Chiswick Bitter, it was kind of his signature beer, his homing instinct, the center for him when he returned from his long and arduous trips abroad. There was nothing like having a couple of pints and a meal at the Andover Arms with Michael. I’ll never forget those moments with him.

Kjetil: How was he private? Did he have any other passions besides drink and food, which I assume already, must have taken up a lot of time?

JR: Michael was a private person, I think very private in some respects, but also public in others. He had Parkinson's for 10 years and didn’t tell anyone, even his closest friends. At first we very much had a professional relationship. I was the videographer, I was “the crew.” It was very businesslike. He would speak more candidly to brewers and beer friends, but it took a year or so before he opened up to me about his personal life. He had a great many interests, he was just an absolutely brilliant man. He loved politics and history, and could tell you more about your own town or city than you knew yourself. He loved jazz, very much, and was an encyclopedia of knowledge on the subject. Most people now see Michael as an older, professorial Englishman with tweed suits and disheveled hair, but Michael was a cat. He was very hip, and very visceral, evidenced by his love of aggressive sports such as rugby league and boxing, which would come as a surprise to some. He loved these two sports very much and made frequent metaphorical references to them while tasting. At his heart he was a journalist and a foodie, really. That’s what made him tick; beer and whiskey were stories. He loved to cook, apparently, though I never ate a meal he had prepared. But writing took up the bulk of his time, he worked and travelled constantly. Somehow he still managed to keep up with other things, I don’t know how he did it. I remember one of the few times I was in his house, it was in a bit of a state, since he had been travelling so much. In a room off the kitchen was another small nook that usually would serve as an eating area. It was completely, entirely full of newspapers, probably going back years. He had read every one of them. He had a voracious mind.

Kjetil: Was he a traditional man when it came to beer (I know he appreciated Belgian beer very much), or was he very enthusiastic and excited about the new approach to brewing that has emerged in the US the last three decades, and spread all over the world?

JR: He was very enthusiastic and supportive of the new, creative direction that beer was taking, so much that he was often criticized in his native England by the traditional real ale movement for spending too much time promoting non-traditional, keg beer. I think this was one of his greatest contributions, encouraging young brewers to think – and brew – outside the box. He was very supportive of their more adventurous brews, because he loved the idea of choice. In many cases his encouragement is the sole reason they continued to brew their more unusual beers. I think Sam Calagione at Dogfish Head owes a great deal of his success and direction directly to Michael and his constant encouragement. That brewery really broke down walls. People would criticize beers that were “too” big, or not balanced, and Michael would have none of it. One of his favourite expressions was, “I love food and drink that fights back.” To him it was all about diversity and choice. Don’t like it, don’t drink it, but don’t criticize it just because you don’t like it. 

Kjetil: There is no denying the legacy and impact Michael has had on how we drink and what we drink, not to mention the countless new breweries popping up. Does the “younger” generation of beer drinkers see this or is the Beer Hunter something of the past?

JR: I worry that many of the younger brewers and drinkers do not understand Michael’s importance and his role in shaping the craft beer movement that we kind of take for granted now. I worry that they see him as outdated. I worry that craft beer is becoming too “hip”, too full of itself, that it may devour itself in coolness and its reject its history and humility. As someone who knew Michael very well said during an interview, “Michael had an ego, but he was also very humble.” That’s a big reason for doing this film, to remind people that not so long ago we didn’t have these choices and this movement and this culture. Then along came this one guy, a journalist, and he blew the doors off this whole secret that was right under our noses. You have to understand the history and story behind the things you love, it makes it a much richer experience. And you can also chart your future much better knowing your past. I want “newcomers” to understand that it’s not just about the beer, and the ratings, becoming obsessed with finding the rarest, most sought-after beer. That’s all bullshit really; Michael taught us that the history, the people, the context of the beer and the community is really the important thing. Beer is just the glue, or the excuse, that brings these things together with some sort of structure and purpose. We can’t loose the soul, and Michael is a big, big part of that soul. I think people should know that. His work will always, always be the definitive inspiration for the craft beer revolution, and his legacy is very relative. People should know that.

Kjetil: What has been most rewarding working on this movie?

JR: Definitely corresponding with fans of Michael and craft beer. Several times over the years, when I thought that no one really gave a shit and I was wasting my time, I would get an email from someone, say, in Norway, or in Brazil, and they would write something like, “keep up the good work, this is an important and worthy project. Michael inspired me to become a brewer and needs to be remembered.” It would just make my week, and that is what kept this project moving forward. The people of this community have been amazing. Bringing Michael back to his friends and fans, if only in a small way, is very gratifying.

Kjetil: Tell me a little about the production side, I know you have your wife Ali as producer. How did you work together as a team on this production?

JR: While I handled all the production and editing side, my wife, who is also an aspiring screenwriter, was tireless in helping me form the story and structure of the film. She has a great understanding of how movies should evolve on screen. She listened to hour upon hour of ideas, concerns, fears, and always helped keep me on track. She took over second camera on our interviews and helped with sound and audio. She’s also great with people, everyone responds well to a husband-and-wife team, it immediately puts them at ease. Every night towards the end she would sit and watch through the footage again and again, offering advice and direction. She is now switching over to PR and promotion mode, sending out emails and coordinating screenings. She is my best friend, and it’s just amazing to be able to work side by side on a daily basis with the love of my life. We feel very lucky.

Kjetil: Any pressure on getting a release date, or have you taken your time with it?

JR: Lots of pressure, I like to work hard, but I also want a quality of life. So I take breaks from the production, clear my head, get some exercise or go for a ski, and it helps maintain that quality. I never want to be a workaholic, that’s why I am an independent filmmaker. I’m not one of these guys that just sit in front of their computer all day, every single day. I think in some ways this approach has made for a better film. The project has changed and evolved over time, the story has fallen into place. But I think for a team of two we’ve done a pretty good job of getting this thing out in good time. So we never set any hard fast dates, just the March 27th premier so I at least had some sort of deadline. But as any filmmaker knows, it’s never done in time!

Kjetil: Where do you see this movie going? Any plans for television, dvd releases etc?

JR: We’ll do the usual route, release to theatres and breweries first for screenings, then release the DVD in July or August. I really think it’s important that people see this is a bar or pub, to enjoy the energy of a crowd of people cheering for Michael, crying for Michael, and remembering Michael. I have no plans whatsoever for television, I’ve been down that road and it’s a bit of a racket, but if someone comes to us with a square deal I’d certainly consider it. I have plenty of footage to do another DVD as well, a series, a web library. Ultimately all this footage needs to be out there. I find it fascinating and illuminating; it tracks the nascent history of craft beer through the eyes of our hero. But for now, we just want to release screenings and let it take its course. This is my first time down this road, so I’m learning as we go.

Kjetil: There is going to be a celebration at the Reginal Food & Drink in Washington where you will show a screening of the movie. Any thoughts on this day and what it will bring?

JR: I apologize for not getting to this interview prior to our premier at RFD, but the event was a huge success. We had a sold-out evening, tons of great beer donated, we raised a bunch of money for Parkinson’s research. Many of Michael’s closest friends and colleagues were in the audience, and there were many, many stories, laughs, and tears shared. But the most remarkable thing was, when the lights went down and the movie began, the audience went quiet. One hundred and seventy people who had been drinking beer for an hour went totally silent. And this continued throughout the entire film. They listened to every word Michael said, laughed at all his jokes, and responded exactly the way I had hoped to the movie. It was incredible.

Kjetil: Any plans on showing it over in Europa?

JR: Oh, absolutely! We are very much hoping we can financially come up with a plan to attend and organize some screenings in Europe. Not to jeopardize our chances of that, but the film is currently available for screenings – the English version – to whoever wishes to purchase a license. Anyone can order a screening from our website here: It will actually be screening at the Holmworth Film Festival in Yorkshire in early May, which is great. But we’d love to put together, with some sponsors perhaps, some theatre or brewery screenings in Belgium, London, Germany, Czech, Norway, Sweden, anywhere we can. We’ve had a lot of support from Italy, so we’ll no doubt do some screenings there. We also have to figure out the whole subtitling thing, that’s daunting. We have been locked down with this project for the past five years, and haven’t left the country during that time because of it. That is far too long for us. So we’re hoping that this will be a nice excuse to travel and get back to Europe and points beyond. We have other film ideas of course, too, that will require some research overseas.

Kjetil: Final words?

JR: Well, thank you very much for the opportunity to discuss the film with you, I really enjoyed putting some of this down on paper now that it’s almost done. The support from all corners of the world, the reach Michael has, never ceases to amaze me. It really is a global community, and a wonderful way to communicate and learn about, and from, each other (not to sound too cheesy!). There is a lot to Michael’s story that I couldn’t cover in the film, obviously. It’s just a starting point to discovering more on your own. But my biggest advice would be this: read Michael’s books. Watch the Beer Hunter. I learn something profound and new every single time I read a passage from his work. He was just an astounding writer. There will never be another Michael Jackson. Once you read his works, you understand that.


The first thing Haffy said to me after I sent him the interview was, lets send the link with info about the screening to all the good bars in our district. We did, and even got a quick reply. The first one to show interest was of course Sandnes pride and best bar; Melkebaren, Mikal the boss there is now planning a screening and a beer tasting to accompany the movie. I would like to thank John R. Richards for taking the time to make this movie and to persist even when things seemed hopeless, and off course for taking time during his busy schedule to talk to us here at Die By The Beer. I can`t wait to see this film! Talk to your local pub, get them to organize a screening, more info on how here: And support independent media!

For those of you who are interested in wine as well, check out Johns fabulous work here! If you support this blog please subscribe, you can do so under the comment field below, and share. Spread the magic of craft beer!

- Kjetil


  1. You have done a good, very good piece of work!
    I have a handfull books written by Michael Jackson about beer and whiskey in my "library" and I really enjoyed reading this interwiew.

    1. Thank you for your feedback! Please support the filmmakers by getting your favorite pub to have a screening! :) Skål