Fall 2020 The Bookshelf

In Praise of Beer by Charles W. Bamforth

At around 140 pages, In Praise of Beer by British biochemist Dr. Charles W. Bamforth is one of the slimmer tomes about beer available. At that length, you might expect a pocket guide that covers only the very basics of malt-based beverages. Instead, you’ll find a concise analysis of every angle of the industry, from the history of brewing to packaging and selling, from food pairings to our perceptions of beer as a culture.

But just who is Charles Bamforth, and why should you read his book when you’ve already read so many other beer books? Good question.

The simple answer is that Dr. Bamforth has devoted his life to understanding beer. Just a few of his bona fides: he holds a PhD in biochemistry and has worked in the beer industry since 1978, holding senior positions with Brewing Research International and Bass Brewers in the UK. He taught at UC Davis for nearly two decades as the Anheuser-Busch-endowed Professor of Malting and Brewing Sciences and was appointed Distinguished Professor Emeritus in 2018. He has published more than 300 papers and written or edited over 20 books about beer, and since 2019 has been the Senior Quality Advisor to Sierra Nevada.

But the really simple answer? Bamforth knows beer better than almost anyone. And after over 40 years in the industry, he has a few thoughts on the subject.

In 10 short chapters, Bamforth breaks beer down to the bare bones and builds it back up again, with an investigation of the chemical process of brewing all the way to the myth of the beer belly, with plenty of delightful anecdotes along the way (Bamforth was once called upon to pair beer with bugs, which you can read all about in the Dining chapter).

And despite what his academic background might suggest, this is not a chemistry textbook. In Praise of Beer is full of moments of levity and insightful comments (one might even say gossip) from Bamforth’s career that make the technical details approachable and entertaining for any beer fan.

It’s not all fun and games, though. Throughout the book, Bamforth almost gleefully broaches the most controversial topics in beer. Do bigger breweries produce lower quality beer? Bamforth says, “of course not,” citing the high quality of beer produced by such breweries as Yuengling and Boston Beer. What type of glass should a hefeweizen be served in? “A clean one,” is Bamforth’s cheeky reply, but certainly without a slice of lemon.

But ultimately, Bamforth is the live-and-let-live type, uninterested in the typical zealotry of the beer snob. As a chemist, he may argue against nitrogenating most beers, and as a traditionalist, he may reject the entire class of hazy IPAs (crazy, we know), but as he repeatedly points out, it’s only his opinion. After investigating the subject for nearly half a century, Bamforth’s ultimate conclusion is simple: “There are no hard-and-fast rules about what is or is not a good beer.”

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Draught Lines

Draught Lines is a seasonal magazine dedicated to the craft beer experience.