Sir Geoff Palmer

From his ground-breaking work on barley abrasion to his role in setting up the International Centre for Brewing and Distilling (ICBD) at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Sir Geoff Palmer has had an immeasurable impact on the worlds of whisky and beer. SMWS spirits educator Dr Andy Forrester caught up with the Professor Emeritus and human rights activist to discover more about his remarkable life and the magic of the humble barley grain


How did you end up becoming a scientist?

I was born in Jamaica in 1940 and my mother left for England in 1951. I went to join her in London when I was 14. I’d never travelled more than 10 miles before, and I arrived 5,000 miles away at Liverpool and then had to find Paddington. I had no idea where it was! Eventually somebody told me how to get a train to Paddington, where I met my mother.

The next morning, she woke me early, fed me, and told me to get dressed. A man was standing at the door, he must have been from the immigration services. He said to my mother: “Where are you going?” and she said: “We’re going to work, my son and I.” The man said I couldn’t go to work, because I was 14 years and 11 months old, so I had one month to finish school, he insisted.

My mother took me to the local school, where I was designated ‘educationally subnormal’. On a test they gave me, one of the questions, I can remember it clearly, was: “What is Big Ben?” And I must have written, “It’s a big guy.”

Well, that designates you as ‘educationally subnormal’. So, I was told to go to another school, and that school took me for the summer term, thankfully. If it were winter term, I wouldn’t be talking to you, because being summertime, I played cricket. And I was very good at cricket, and I got picked to play for London School Boys cricket team.

And that’s why I’m talking to you, because I went to the secondary modern school, played cricket for London, and the grammar school saw it.

Then the headmaster had me transferred to the grammar school, on the basis of my cricket. I stayed at Highbury County from 1955 till 1958, then left and got a job at London University Queen Elizabeth’s College as a lab technician. That’s when my name changed, because at the interview in 1958 Professor Chapman, the head of biology, said: “What’s your name, young man?” I said: “Godfrey Henry Oliver Palmer.” He said: “Can I call you Geoff?” I said: “Yeah, if I get the job,” and he said fine.

“That’s why I’m talking to you, because I went to the secondary modern school, played cricket for London, and the grammar school saw it”


Were you already interested in science by this point, or was it just a job?

It was just a job. I wasn’t interested, because I didn’t have the background. But I worked there and Professor Chapman was one of the good people that I met. In 1959 he stopped me one day while I was running about and said: “Somehow I think you’ve got some ability, and I’m going to give you some time off to do your A-levels and O-levels.” I also went to night classes, and by 1961 I had four A-Levels and six O-Levels.

But I applied to every British university and couldn’t get in. I was an overseas student, and they had no facility for taking an immigrant who’d just arrived and lived in the community.

When Professor Chapman asked me: “Which university are you going to?” I said: “I’m not going to any, I’m going to stay here.” He made me wait outside his room for about 15 minutes then said: “You’re going to Leicester University.”

He had obviously telephoned his friend or whatever. And so I went to Leicester in 1961, and that’s where I met my wife.
She gave me a dustbin full of barley. I said: “What am I going to do with that?” She said: “Get on with it. That’s your research material.”

What did you study at Leicester University?

I did an Honours degree in Botany then went back to London in 1964. But the only job I could find was peeling potatoes in a restaurant. I peeled potatoes from June to December in ‘64 and felt I was going to peel potatoes all my life. So I applied for a Master’s at Sutton Bonington at Nottingham University. I had an interview where one of the most senior politicians in the country was there, and he told me I should go home and grow bananas. I told him it was difficult to grow bananas in Haringey. So I didn’t get that position.

Then I saw an advert for Heriot-Watt University for a PhD. I applied and the famous Professor Anna Macleod [the world’s first female professor of Brewing and Biochemistry] interviewed me. After about 10 minutes she said: “I’m going to take you.” She gave me a dustbin full of barley. I said: “What am I going to do with that?” She said: “Get on with it. That’s your research material.”

I then went and read up as much as I could about barley and malt. Those references are still in my head because I went to the library at the Royal Botanic Garden, next to where I lived in Edinburgh, and tracked their barley research, right back to the 1800s. After three months, Professor Macleod sent me a letter asking: “Are you still doing this PhD?”, because I never went in the lab. I told her I was ready. I started the lab work in January ‘65, and I got my PhD in ‘67.

When I finished the PhD, I did a post-doc between ‘67 and ‘68. I left Edinburgh in ‘68 and looked for a job but Professor Macleod said I should go into research. Between 1965 and ‘68, that’s when I developed the concept of malting. Some of it was controversial but it is now part of the science of barley and malt.

What did that involve?

The first thing I did was to look carefully at how the grain digests itself and changes itself into malt. I looked very carefully at the grain modifying itself microscopically. And I came up with the concept that the grain digested itself asymmetrically, not symmetrically. And if it was asymmetric, it’s the aleurone – the bran – that was producing the enzyme. Because my anatomy wasn’t bad, I pointed out for the first time that an excised embryo is contaminated with aleurone. The aleurone goes over the scutellum for this purpose. So therefore, if an excised embryo is producing enzymes, it’s not the embryo tissue that’s doing it – it’s the aleurone contamination.

Then I thought how could I develop that concept? Because if the aleurone is responsible, then what I needed to do was to stimulate the aleurone even before the germ does it, and that should make the grain malt faster. I took a pin and stuck it into the back of the grain, then stuck the back of the grain in gibberellic acid, and it malted. You had to stick a pin in because the pericarp, or fruit wall, kept it out, so it’s impervious to chemicals getting in.

If I could get the gibberellic acid directly in from zero, then it should increase the malting rate. And I now knew that the pericarp kept it out, so I had to develop a process which would scarify the pericarp. I found a pearler in the attic, but instead of pearling the barley completely, I only gave it 10 turns. With those turns you’ve lost less than two per cent of the husk, but you had scarified the distal end of every grain. Then we malted them and they malted from both ends. And that’s what’s called the abrasion process.

The first was 10 grams, then I got the workshop to make it into 100 weight an hour. We published a paper in ‘69 on it, and by 1970 it was patented – by the industry, not by me.

Sir Geoff explains his barley breakthrough to Dr Andy Forrester at The Vaults

What was the impact of your discovery?

It meant that a five-day malt had the same modification as a seven-day malt, so it took two days off the process. Over the course of a year in terms of production time, it was enormous. And it told us a lot scientifically about modification. But the malting industry wasn’t interested, because it was going to make malt faster and they had the capacity for production.

The people who were interested though were the brewers or people making their own malt. Watney Truman were the first people to apply it, and that increased their production because they were floor maltsters, then Allied breweries.

Tell me about your role in the founding of what’s now the International Centre for Brewing and Distilling (ICBD) at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, and the impact you think the ICBD has had on the worlds of both brewing and distilling?

It’s a big privilege to have taught lots of students who have gone into the brewing and distilling industries, but their success is down to their ability, not my input.

The ICBD started in the late 1980s. I came into work one morning, and there was a letter from the government questioning the validity of brewing as a subject, and whether it had to go. I panicked, because I was thinking: “I don’t retire till 2005!” So out of pure self-interest I drove to United Distillers, where [board member] Ronnie Martin worked. I said: “Mr Martin, we have a problem. I think they’re going to close the brewing school.” And of course, very Scottish in his response, he said: “They can’t close the brewing. That’s a Scottish institution. Come to my room.” We discussed it, and he asked me to write a page of what I thought the future of the brewing course should be.

I thought about it. Of course, we didn’t have distilling in the name, so one of the things I put in was that. And that we should also have an Honours degree, because it was just a general degree. And I took that back to him with one or two other points, and he said: “Okay, I’ll run with this.”

He came back after about a month and said: “We’ve got a million pounds from the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA).” When we got that, the brewers came in with smaller contributions.

Then we discussed the title, and we concluded that it had to have ‘international’ in it. And it’s got to have ‘distilling’ in it, and it’s got to have ‘brewing’ in it, and that’s the ICBD. And all the students who’ve been educated in that place have Ronnie Martin to thank. He’s passed away now, but he was the man who took it up and ran with it and delivered it. And we now have students from all over the world. I was honoured to be a part, but ultimately it was out of self-interest!

The ICBD now has a global reputation.

The international aspect is important because in my day there weren’t that many overseas students. But Scotland has always been an international country. Therefore, the fact that we have an International Centre for Brewing and Distilling brings more people in from abroad, especially for the post-graduate course. Our international image was bolstered by the ICBD.

If you want to come and learn about whisky, you come to the ICBD. You’re not only getting the best education in brewing and distilling, you’re getting access to the Scotch whisky industry, and that to me is a critical thing to market: if you come and study here, you’ll learn about whisky and brewing but you also get access to the craft beer industry, which is strong in Scotland. Now what better education can you have anywhere?

You were appointed Chancellor at Heriot-Watt University earlier this year. What does that appointment mean to you?

It was a surprise, but a great honour. I started at Heriot-Watt in December 1964, so I’ve been at the university most of my working life. I hope that I can do everything I can to promote Heriot-Watt as a place where there is education for all. I believe in the concept of one humanity, and in education for all.

Do you have a favourite style of whisky?

People who have known me for long enough would say, it’s the one I get for free! But I’ve always said that people should drink and eat what they like.

For example, there were great prejudices against blends. If you didn’t drink malt whisky, then you were inferior. But I think we belong to an industry where nobody makes bad whisky.

I was in Japan, doing some work on the raw materials for sake, and we had a great debate about Scotch whisky one day. One of the Japanese said that they imitate Scotch, they think it’s a wonderful product because it reflects the people of Scotland. He said: “Scotch whisky reflects the truth about a people, it contains no unrequired additives. It is simply produced, with no unnecessary complexities. And the raw materials are known and clear. That’s what people abroad value.”

I’ve never forgotten that. So Scotch whisky reflects the people. It reflects the truth of the product, the simplicity of the raw material, without unnecessary complexity to hide anything. There is an honesty and truth in that.

You're also an ambassador for the Robert Burns World Federation. Where did that connection come from?

Yes, the first ambassador! I started with Burns in Jamaica when my Scottish teacher got me to sing My love is like a red, red rose and I went and told my aunts. They got me by the neck and said: “What’s that you’re singing, boy? What’s that sort of thing about sex? At your age, at 10?”

When I came [to Scotland], I read Burns a lot. At the end of John Barleycorn he writes: “Then let us toast John Barleycorn, each man a glass in hand, and may his posterity ne’er fail in old Scotland.”

The whole poem, it says ‘do not underestimate the apparently insignificant’. It’s about a barley grain. It’s about barley being harvested, that’s like trying to kill it. That’s the metaphor. You harvest it, then you take it in and you’re trying to drown it. Stupid! And then you beat it during germination, turning it. And then you put it in the fire. But nevertheless, it triumphs by producing Scotch whisky. That’s what the poem is about.

It’s about trying to stop and defeat the apparently insignificant, which then turns out to produce something glorious.