Photo by Morgen Schuler
Annie Johnson may have chosen a male-dominated hobby to pursue, but the decorated homebrewer has no problem going up against the guys. And winning.
“I’m mostly brewing against guys, and I’m usually the only gal that wins,” says Johnson, who eventually earned the respect of the men in her Sacramento community. But she had to start over when she moved to Seattle last year. Male hobbyists have often been hesitant to take her advice on brewing-community message boards, but they shouldn’t be—because Johnson knows everything there is to know about beer.
Johnson’s encyclopedic knowledge of hops varieties, beer styles and history, yeast strains, and barley types has earned her a high rank in the rigorous Beer Judge Certification Program, and her brewing chops have brought home more than 100 awards in 13 years of competitive brewing. In perhaps the biggest testament to her skills, Johnson also won the 2013 National Homebrewer of the Year award, beating 8,200 beers in the world’s largest such competition. Johnson, you could say, is a beer savant.
Her most recent victory came when she was tapped as brewmaster for PicoBrew, the Seattle startup whose compact, sleek Zymatic automated brewing machine allows homebrewers to make beer with just the touch of a few buttons. Purchasers will have access to Johnson’s vast library of original recipes as well as her “clones,” recipes made to imitate popular commercial beers. Johnson is able to replicate beer from taste.
“I have a real knack for tasting something and breaking it down,” she says. “If I like it, I can immediately go home and make it.”
“Some people play music by ear, just hearing it once,” says PicoBrew co-founder Bill Mitchell. “She does that with beer.”
But Johnson’s success hasn’t come without trials, and her path to Seattle, she says, is the result of “a lot of personal tragedy.”
An African-American born in Germany, Johnson is a far cry from your average beer geek. She was adopted by globe-trotting parents who worked for the Department of Defense and relocated to Abu Dhabi when she was 15; Johnson found herself in boarding school in Alexandria, Egypt, where she learned Arabic. She finished school in California, where she lived and worked for much of her adult life. There, she and her best friend became interested in the craft-beer scene and eventually homebrewing.
“It wasn’t very good, but we kept at it,” Johnson recalls. She entered her first amateur brewing competition, the California State Fair, in 2001, and won first place for her American Amber. She later won the Queen of Beer award in 2004, with four first-place awards and best of show. Johnson rose to prominence in Sacramento’s homebrewing community, and was encouraged to take the difficult exam for the Beer Judge Certification Program, which tests for knowledge of beer styles, history, chemistry, and even specific breweries. She passed with flying colors.
Johnson’s Sacramento chapter came to an end when a failed attempt to reconnect with her biological father in Philadelphia resulted in her quitting the job she’d held for 20 years as a business analyst at the California state legislature and left her jobless in Philly.
“I was devastated,” she said. And just a few months later, she became seriously ill. Johnson says she had double vision for months, swelling in her legs, and so much muscle weakness she could barely get out of a chair. Her range of symptoms stumped doctors for months; after a battery of tests, she was finally diagnosed with Graves’ disease, an autoimmune disease that affects the thyroid, leading to muscle weakness, heart problems, and behavioral changes. She had half her thyroid removed in a surgery that left a large scar across her neck.
While suffering the worst of her symptoms, Johnson entered a Pilsner Urquell brewing competition. “But I could barely brew,” she says. “I was like, ‘How am I going to get this done?’ I couldn’t drink anything because I had no taste for alcohol.” But Johnson won. “I could barely get out of the chair to accept the award,” she says. A few months later, she won the 2013 National Homebrewer of the Year award.
Still without a job and on the mend from her health issues, Johnson moved to Seattle for a fresh start. “I love Seattle and I used to come here in the ’90s a lot to visit friends,” she says. She’s enjoyed getting to know the local brewing scene: Fremont Brewing, Maritime Pacific Brewing Company, Reuben’s Brews, Stoup Brewing, Georgetown Brewing Company, and Big Time Brewery.
Johnson’s PicoBrew chapter began when she noticed a Seattle Times article about the Zymatic during a plane ride to visit her adoptive father, whose ailing health had put him in a nursing home.
“I thought ‘This is a bunch of crap,’ ” Johnson says, echoing a common reaction among brewers skeptical of the machine’s ability to make great beer. Johnson’s brother encouraged her to write to the PicoBrew team, who invited her to visit their offices and taste their product. “The beer was good, it was pretty good! In my head I thought, ‘This is better than I wanted it to be.’ ” One thing led to another, and Johnson is now the company’s head brewer.
“There were so many struggles,” she says of her journey. “But I’ve made it to the other side.” Lucky for her—and for Seattle.