A  spirited  life

A spirited life

The father of modern brewing who almost wasn’t

People | 17 Jul 2020 | Issue 168 | By Mark Jennings

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Behind every great problem lies a question, and for Geoff Palmer it led to one of the greatest brewing innovations the world had ever seen.

Sir Godfrey Henry Oliver Palmer OBE, or Geoff to those who know him, is many things: The first European to be honoured with the American Society of Brewing Chemists Award of Distinction (considered the ‘Nobel prize’ of brewing); Scotland’s first black professor; and founder of the International Centre for Brewing and Distilling at Heriot-Watt University (alma mater of almost all the new generation of distillers and craft brewers in the UK). 

I sat down with this spirited octogenarian to ask him about his life, the industry and what really matters to him now. 

Sir Geoff, how would your friends describe you? 

Easygoing, for life in general, not so easygoing when it comes to matters relating to my work, and that includes scientific work and my community work. I think about whether I can pass on knowledge - knowledge in one person is pointless. That’s why sometimes I can seem to be a little intense...because I don’t think I have a lot of time left! 

You came to Britain aged 14, is that right?

My mother left Jamaica in 1951 to work in London. It was my aunts that told me “your mother is going to England and you’ve got to stay with us!” – and that was it. I arrived at Liverpool dock four years later and had to meet my mother in London. I had to ask around, “Where was Paddington?!”

I didn’t recognise her and it was she who came up and grabbed me by one shoulder and said “I’m your mother, come on” – not even a hug!

Was science in your genes – were you destined for this career?

I went to school only for one month, because I was just under 15. I am the product of that one month. 

My mother was taking me to work and was stopped by a gentleman at the door who said I had to go to school and finish my education. I wouldn’t be speaking to you today if my mother, with great reluctance, hadn’t taken me to school. Fortunately it was near summertime and I was very good at cricket, I was probably the first black kid to play for London Schoolboys. I was transferred to the grammar school at Highbury and that was my first experience of anything called “science”.

The general concept was the germ did the digestion and produced enzymes. I came along and said the germ did no such thing. The world was in consternation

Why grain science? Did you have an interest in it?

No interest. My mother had no idea of any direction – my direction came from myself to try and avoid being arrested by the cops.

I didn’t know what I was going to do [with botany] and it was just luck I saw an advert for a PhD and I applied. A lovely woman at the University of Edinburgh, Professor Anna Macleod, took me. She took me because “I didn’t look keen” and she wasn’t great with keen people! She took me as well as she thought I didn’t “look English”, and she was quite a Scottish Nationalist! She just gave me a bag of barley and said: “Get on with it”. 

Can you tell me more about the revolutionary barley abrasion process that you discovered at the Brewing Research Foundation and why this matters so much?

When I started my PhD, I read a lot, and the first thing I found was the generally accepted concept that ‘the germ digests the food in the grain because it needs to grow’. The general concept was the germ did the digestion and produced enzymes. I came along and said the germ did no such thing. The conclusion I came to was when the grain is being cut and turned from barley to malt, the digestion didn’t do it, it was the bran (hard outer layer of the grain). That was the first scientific change I made. The whole world was in consternation.

And what about the abrasion?

I looked at the grain, and a five-year-old could work this out. If the grain doesn’t do it, and it’s the bran that goes around the whole grain, if I then damage the grain at the back, away from the germ, and I put a natural plant hormone on it, the grain then starts to digest itself from both ends because it’s the bran that does it. 

What did this mean for the brewing and whisky industry?

I discovered this and it was patented in 1969. I was whisked off to a solicitor to sign it away to the industry, who were paying my wage, so that was fair enough really. 

In terms of speed – ‘68-69 for the development work, patented in ‘69. That’s an extremely quick development for food. It went from one grain to 10 grains with a little machine, to 10 tonnes an hour when we developed the big machine. By 1972 the industry was using it on an industrial scale The irony of that technology was the maltsters, who usually make malt, didn’t like it because it increased production.

You were also one of the founders of the famous International Centre for Brewing and Distilling at Heriot-Watt – tell me how this came about.

One day there was a letter from the government saying they were going to look at the University and it having brewing as a subject. That gave me the idea that they were going to try and close it, and my job would be gone.
I got straight in my car and drove to The Distillers Company (now Diageo). I knew one of the bosses, Ronnie Martin, not well, but I went and stopped him coming out of lunch. I said, “I think they’re going to close the brewing at Heriot-Watt” and he said, “they can’t do that, you go away and write me a document convincing me that you need it”. 

The thing was I hadn’t told my boss, that’s Jamaican intuition and Jamaican deafness in one ear! I went and I wrote it, and to cut a long story short, Ronnie Martin took the concept to the Scotch Whisky Association and they gave him one million pounds to help Heriot-Watt develop the ICBD. 

So you secured your job then?

Oh yes, the brewer self-interest is a great motivator. 

I read that Dr Bill Lumsden (Glenmorangie’s long-standing whisky maker) described you as his mentor, saying, "He took me under his wing and introduced me to the distilling industry. Through him, I developed a love for single malt whisky". Can you tell me about some of your famous students?

I’m so proud of them. They’re all over the country, women and men, in the industry both in the malting and the brewing and what I would like to say is there’s no greater feeling than going into Tesco’s and seeing the products that they make, and I buy it – they don’t give it to me! 

(Writer’s note - I tried several times to get Sir Geoff to name famous students but he was keen not to, lest it elevated one above the other; a sign of the man he is.)

Let’s talk about your human rights work. Is this something that’s always been close to your heart?

This is something I’ve thought about a lot since 2007, which is the 200th year of the abolition of the slave trade. I had an interest but ignorance is no good if you are going to understand the situation. I’d retired in 2005 so I had time, so like I did with my research, I read a lot about it. 

One of our historians, I won’t mention the name, wrote in the 70s about the Tobacco Lords (Glasgow’s merchant class). You have to hunt to find the word ‘slave’ in that book. I said to him, who the hell do you think picked the tobacco? He has written more books recently, one has a chapter that’s titled “Did slavery make Scotland great?” - the answer is yes. 

You had a very early experience of prejudice from a future Tory grandee, is that right?

In 1964 when I finished my first degree I couldn’t get a job – there wasn’t a lot of opportunities for a botany degree. My mother’s friends used to say, “I think you should get a job in the park!”. 

I saw a job advertised in agriculture research and in the interview I met Mr Joseph (Sir Keith Joseph, later Margaret Thatcher’s intellectual mentor) and he told me to go back to where I came from and grow bananas. I did point out to him it’s difficult to grow bananas in Haringey. 

You received your knighthood in 2014. Given all of this I’m interested to know, did you have any reservations about accepting it?

No, and I think this is so important because I know my good friend Benjamin Zephaniah rejected his OBE. I say, I’m off the streets of Jamaica – I don’t have any middle-class reservations [he laughs]. I am a product of the Empire, remove the Empire, you remove me, and my ancestors. Therefore we are part of this system. 

When I got my OBE I said to my mother, who was dying at the time, “They’re giving me an OBE and some people are wondering whether I should take it” and she said, “You go along and take it – the trouble with us people, they say they don’t get given nothing, and when they get it they don’t want it!”. 

Lastly, what is your legacy?

One of my daughters just had a wee girl in Glasgow. She and my other grandchildren are my legacy and I hope that anything I’ve done they won’t be ashamed of. My legacy is all of my children, students, my friends and relationships and all the people who helped me.

We could have talked for hours. Geoff is a fascinating character, quick to laugh in his Scottish-tinged Jamaican accent, and just as quick to drop into important matters. I wish I could have included more, especially his human rights work, but word count is word count.
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