Charles Bamforth is a professor at UC Davis. He’s been involved in brewing and beer research for about thirty years. You can read about his career and research here.
Bamforth notes in the beginning that this book is autobiographical, a personal memoir. And so I applaud him for not lying. Be prepared for opinion, not always evidence, on many subjects. Be ready to wade through nostalgia and lengthy anecdotes (which are smartly included as endnotes).
That’s not to say the book is bad. It’s mediocre. He claims to seek the soul of beer. But, as noted, it is just his philosophy on the state of brewing and popular views of beer. You’ll have heard some of it before. You may agree with some of it. It’s better if read through a pint. Or a growler.
The Good And The Bad
The book is titled after a misquotation of Benjamin Franklin. Well that does not bode. Verily, Mr Bamforth explains this with a preface giving the beer lover’s interpretation of his words. Still, it’s a common quote that’s been explained for many years.
Another thing to consider is that Bamforth tells his story from a very British point of view. He discusses British politics, his experiences at Bass. I don’t mean that this is bad, just something to be aware of. The societal commentary still holds up.
Occasionally he seems sympathetic to large brewers such as Budweiser and its cronies. In his sympathies he mentions points the home brew and microbrew world has been talking about already; essentially the stability and consistency of the product. He says good things about the corporate goons who run these companies.
For example at the conclusion of his book he says:
“I would hope they [the craft beer types] would tolerate the skill devoted by the big brewers to making bland lagers so consistently well … Let us recognize that the self-same humanity resides in a president and panhandler, in a CEO and a janitor.”
I suppose I can accept that there is skill involved, though it’s not a particularly impressive skill. But when he tries to assert that there is some kind of latent humanity residing in a corporate brewery CEO? Nay, I must resist this. Corporations remove humanity. And, really, why must Bamforth search for the “soul of beer” to begin with? Because of the rise of corporate brewing.
The author laments the decline of the pub. He chants a dirge over legal issues that affected pubs. He writes a diatribe on the advent of that can widget that mimics draft texture in canned beer, thus reducing pub visits. The decline of pub visits mirrors the decline of social groups.
“And so off troop the shoppers back to their central-heated homes, with their 60-inch screen televisions to eat their pre-packaged fast food and overly cold canned beer as they watch wall-to-wall soccer (so much cozier and cheaper than visiting the stadiums with their extortionate ticket prices). No dropping into the pub at any time.”
Culture and Diet
Bamforth writes: “For someone so enchanted by and adherent to the notion of traditional values, with my adherence to cask ale, am I hypocritical in supporting the march of beers into cultures where it was not historically a norm?”
In other words (in my interpretation, at least) the Japanese have sake, the French have wine, etc. Are the evil corporations being evil by forcing beer into places where there was never beer, or very little beer? Pretty good question, really. I questioned myself on this and I think I am some kind of beer purist. Beer should be made by those who know beer. It does not need to become a global phenomena. Preserve culture. That’s enjoyment of diversity. Or as the Vulcans put it, “infinite diversity in beer and brewing.”
Of course, that sounds selfish and stuffy and is based on my perceptions. Perhaps I am totally off. Discuss.
I also appreciated this sentence about beer culture: “Beer is customarily a drink of moderation and to my mind remains a product that should be free from ludicrous displays of gung-ho excess such as outrageous alcohol content and foolish ingredients.”
Hear, hear. This is what beer should be viewed as, by drinkers and brewers alike – a drink of moderation. Foolish ingredients, indeed. Caffeine? Pshaw! Most fruits? (Insert raspberry, and not the fruit). Tea? I’m on the fence, there. High alcohol content is appropriate for some beer styles, of course (bbarley wines come to mind) but the recent obsessions with imperial wits and pales and everything, which include lots of alcohol by volume, is ridiculous.
One last note – as my age and weight continue to rise, I consider my diet. Many people mention silly things to control weight gain, such as eliminating beer consumption. I laugh. So I couldn’t help but love this sentence from Bamforth’s tome, and I shall conclude my review with it, both as a personal triumph and one last shot at corporate brewers who make light and low calorie beers so important.
“There is nothing peculiar about calories in beer; if they are counted among the daily calorie intake, provided the latter level is in balance with (or less than) the calories burned off,then there will be no body fat accumulation,in the belly or anywhere else for that matter.”
Check out the book here.