An Interview with Brewing Author John Palmer

by Brad Smith on October 13, 2008 · 1 comment

This week we are happy to have an interview with John Palmer, the author of a How to Brew as well as Brewing Classic Styles. John first published his ebook on the web as a home project, and only later found a publisher. You can find the full text of his popular book online at Howtobrew.com

How did you get started brewing?

I enjoyed the dark beers of Michigan during college, like Stroh Dark and Michelob Dark, and when I moved to Southern California twenty years ago, everything was Corona and limes. So, I went to the library and found some old books on home brewing, and then found a local homebrew shop in the yellow pages.

What made you decide to write a book?

My first batch was cidery swamp water, and as an engineer, I was determined to find out why. My second batch was quite good (Cincinnati Pale Ale), and so I sat down and wrote out a electronic document that was posted to the Gopher and FTP sites called, “How To Brew Your First Beer”. That was in 1992 or 93. The internet was in its toddler years then. I got encouragement from other brewers to write a book that split the middle between Miller and Papazian, and I wrote the first draft in 1995. It was going to be published by Brewing Techniques. It took five years to get it edited, and rewritten, and edited, and rewritten before I published it to the web at Howtobrew.com.

How did you later go about finding a publisher?

After the ebook had been out for a few months, my wife encouraged me to publish a hard copy, so I learned the ins and outs of self-publishing. Self-publishing is merely a matter of raising money (home equity loan), finding a book printer, and finding buyers. Initially, getting the big beer distributers interest was hard. They all felt that there was not room in the market for another brewing book. Fortunately homebrewing is a focused community, and it was relatively easy to contact homebrew shops via email or phone and send them sample copies to review. Out of hundreds of shops, only a couple didn’t want to carry the book. Once I had a year of sales under my belt, and had ordered a second printing, the distributers were happy to carry it. After a couple years of storing books in my garage and making daily trips to the Fed Ex dropoff, I decided to get out of the distribution business. Ray Daniels had mentioned to me that Brewers Publications would be interested in picking up my next book, and I proposed revising How To Brew. This has proved to be a very good idea; it doubled my sales the first year.

How do you feel about the reaction to your first book?

As I mentioned above, the market was not very encouraging in 2000 and 2001, but the shops and the online homebrewing community were very supportive and helped me be successful. It is difficult to run a small business though, advertising is expensive, and most years I just broke even with it. On the other hand, the books popular success has enabled me to do all the beer brewing activities I could hope for! (family permitting…) I really enjoy going to the National Homebrewers Conference every year and the GABF, and several clup sponsered competitions and such. The success of the book is the perfect rationale to go to these things!

You have co-authored several other books – has it been any different than your first?

Well, I have only done Brewing Classic Styles so far with Jamil. It was a lot easier than How To Brew because most of the content came from Jamil. We hammered out the direction and organiztion together, and I did quite a bit of work on hops and small scale mashing for the book, but really it was easy. Ray Daniels said it was the best, most-ready-to-go manuscript he had ever received.
I started to work with Chris White on his Yeast book, but as they say, “creative differences”. It’s Chris’s work and I have no problem with that. It’s one reason I self-published How to Brew initially, because I didn’t want anyone to tell me how to do it differently.

What are you working on now?

Mostly home improvement projects, honestly. I have been converting a carport into a new brewery over the last couple years and building a RIMS. I had hoped to have it done a year ago. Bookwise, I am working on a complete Water book for home and professional brewers, and I need to knuckle down and get busy on that. But I am headed to Melbourne Australia in a couple weeks for their first National Home Brewers Conference and preparing for that is taking up my time now. That and our Brew Strong podcast on the Brewing Network that Jamil and I do. And the column that I write for Brew Your Own.

How has “home brewing fame” changed your life?

Frankly it is very cool to be recognized for an achievement for something that you are passionate about. I am extremely gratified by the emails I get thanking me for writing the book, and to be able to answer their questions. Like I said above, it has enabled me to attend conferences and events that I would not have been able to otherwise. The extra income has allowed me to keep my home computer up to date. (3Ghz iMac). Finally, and the enormity of this is hard to adequately describe, Fame in brewing means that I have one aspect of my life in which my wife will never completely win an argument. I wish all men could be so fortunate, but I like winning arguments with my wife, so there you are.

What do you enjoy most about home brewing?

Geeking out with friends. And building things. And sharing great beer. One thing I have learned in my quest for brewing knowledge is that brewers around the world are very giving people. I can’t think of another subject where people so readily share information for the common good.

Is there anything you would like to add?

I am not the best brewer in the world, nor the best beer judge. I am a jack-of-all-trades, master of none, whom has had the will and perseverance to write one of the better books on the subject, but I fully expect to be eclipsed one of these days. Meanwhile, I will continue my pursuit of understanding of brewing science and sharing it to the best of my ability.

I would like to thank John Palmer for taking the time to do this interview. I encourage you to take a look at his web site and books – they are both outstanding resources for the homebrewer. Thanks again for visiting the BeerSmith Home Brewing Blog. Don’t hesitate to subscribe for more great weekly brewing articles.

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