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Saluting a home-brewing pioneer

Added: Thursday, March 15th 2018

Graham Wheeler, who died in November, was a towering figure in the world of home brewing and he leaves a legacy of best-selling books on the subject.

His first book, Home Brewing – the CAMRA Guide – was first published in 1990 and went on to enjoy countless updates and reprints. When it first appeared, books on home brewing were thin on the ground. The best-known was Dave Line’s Big Book of Brewing but Graham set out to offer recipes, advice and instructions to beer lovers who were keen to make their own real ale at home.

Wheeler guide

At the time I was the one-man band running Alma Books, the forerunner to CAMRA Books. I was keen to publish Graham’s book but had no idea of the difficulties ahead.

He was reclusive. He lived with his parents and spent much of life in the shed in their garden where he kept his brewing kit. His long-suffering mother knew better than to interrupt him – even if his editor was attempting, for the umpteenth time to ask when he could expect his manuscript.

Deadlines were not subjects for discussion but to be dismissed with disdain. Printing and publishing dates were endlessly re-scheduled but eventually, in the early days of home computing, a large floppy disk arrived and I had the text and the beginnings of a book.

Budgets were tight. The man on the cover surrounded by an array of buckets, bottles, packets of grain and hops, and a tantalisingly full plastic cask of beer, was not Graham – who disliked being photographed – but the book’s designer based in Oxford. The black and white line illustrations were done by my child minder.

But what the book lacked in style was easily countered by Graham’s astonishing knowledge. I am not a home brewer but I nevertheless learned a great deal from Graham about different types of malt and hops, the key role played by water in brewing and the action of yeast in turning malt sugars into alcohol.

It was a text brimming with tempting recipes for just about every style of beer known to person kind. Graham had tapped into a rich vein and sales took off. During my tenure it was reprinted in 1993 and 1997 and went on being constantly reissued.

Other books followed, including Brew Your Own Real Ale at Home, Brew Classic European Beers, and Complete Guide to Home Brewing. The last named ran to three editions and in total his books sold tens of thousands of copies.

He was working on yet another update of his original book but he was unable to complete it. But his influence will live on and encourage future generations of home brewers.

I hope that garden shed will be awarded a plaque: “Graham Wheeler Brewed Here”.

*First published in What’s Brewing, March 2018.