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Interview with Prof. Charlie Bamforth.

On the occasion of the release of his newest book we chatted with Charlie Bamforth. Anheuser-Busch endowed professor of malting and brewing science at UC Davis. Our interview follows:

In your book, you talk quite a bit about the British brewing industry as it used to be ...

When I started in the British beer business, you had the "Big Six" brewers [Bass, Allied, Whitbread, Grand Met, Courage & Scottish & Newcastle] and there were a great number of smaller regional and local brewers. There was tremendous diversity and choice, and these brewers paid great attention to quality. There was vertical integration, of course, with the tied pubs. In the 1980s, Prime Minister Thatcher became obsessed with the idea that this was monopolistic. And it all unraveled. Today, there are quite a few new small breweries, but their production adds up to very little. There are only about 40 British brewers left who predate 1970. And the wonderful cask ales were decimated. You can still get them, but it's a style prone to problems, so you have to know what you are doing. In the old days, the brewers had a lot of outside QC people to ensure that the cask-conditioned pub beer was superb.

If we didn't have a monopoly back then, I'm confident there is one now, with these big retailers and the power they have. They are calling the shots to brewers, and squeezing the margins for the brewers to be low-cost producers. We've gone from a perceived monopoly in Britain to a very real monopoly. The whole ethos of beer has gone.

There were many regionals, but Thatcher thought that the tied pubs caused a limit on choice. This was nonsense. When I was a student in Hull, it was like a beer drinker's paradise. You'd start at one pub drinking their ale, and then you'd walk down the street, and have 7-8 pubs to choose from, pouring the ale of different brewers. How was this a monopoly? If you look at the list of brewers in the UK today, there are still a large number of brewers, but you can't sample their beer easily, since they are very localised. You have Greene King and so on, but many of them are very small. The regionals are consolidating as well.

You also discuss your association with Anheuser-Busch, through your role as an endowed professor ...

I joined UC Davis in 1999, and became the first A-B endowed professor. Doug Muhleman [former vice president of brewing at A-B, now running a winery in California], who is a wonderful guy, invited me to visit the brewery in St. Louis. A-B as a company is so committed to quality, the consistency of their beer has always been amazing. So they had set these samples of Budweiser before me, and what could I say? So I tried to be smart, and find a little fault [see anecdote recounted at right]. I had no idea of the repercussions! August Busch III tasted every day. He was absolutely committed to quality. He made sure things were done right, and the breweries were pristine. People would tell me how tough he was, and all the questions he would ask! But I would tell them, that's a high class problem to have. It's better to have someone with passion that's running a brewery than a bean counter. At Bass, my old boss was just the same. He'd come round, and we'd clean up the route through the brewery that we planned to take him on. And he'd always go a different way.

As these companies get bigger, is that personal commitment to quality in danger of being lost?

I hope not. I hope the commitment still exists in these companies. I hope whoever runs these companies, they will respect beer and what goes into making it. Typically that is what I see.

You make mention in the book of the fate of Schlitz ...

Schlitz took their eye off the quality ball. They accelerated fermentations, and started to get flakes in the beer. Turns out this was unrelated to the faster fermentations, but was the result of a process change downstream, when they had changed their stabilization regimes. And then they ignored it! It was so bizarre, in retrospect. They make a change, it has an effect, and they choose not to respond to it. We were even seeing that product in the UK, it looked like a snowglobe when you'd pour it in the glass, they called it "Schlitz Bits."

Hard to see that happening today at a big brewery. Any responsible brewer would be extremely conscientious about making a change. Decisions about product and processes are only made after a great number of trials.

In the book you talk about potential future process changes, including a switch from malting barley to raw barley broken down with enzymes ...

That idea sticks in my craw. It wouldn't pass muster at the moment. Sure you can make beer from raw barley and enzymes, but it would be hard to make existing beers that way. Not a brewer I know would make that transition.

You seem to have little patience for the "extreme" beers we are seeing today ...

It's become a question of who can pee highest. I like whisky, and I mix it with water to bring the flavor out. At the higher alcohol levels, you get suppression of volatiles, and suppression of the flavor. The flavor delivery for regular strength beer, at 4 or 5% alcohol by volume, is greater than that for wine at 12%. At 11-12% you're getting a different character set, a warming character. I suppose beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but to me, beer is the drink of moderation. I don't advocate alcohol-free beers, but equally I want beer that satisfies in the middle range. The high hop levels that we see in many of these craft beers are detrimental to drinkability.


"Drinkability" is a term recently popularized by A-B, but it goes back a ways ... Sure, at Bass we used that term. We used to have trials, trying three variations on a beer. You'd go into a room, and they'd give you a half pint of each. And you'd pick the one you liked and keep drinking. Drink half pints, and tally them, and eventually they'd pile you into a cab. Unfortunately they didn't have another scoresheet so you could rate the after effects!

Seriously, though, the intent was to promote drinkability. And they looked for anything that suppressed drinkability. Any character that comes back. And strong hops come back, and quell drinkability. You can take it too far. And I think we're seeing that today, with some brewers putting ludicrous levels of hops in their beer. That suppresses the tendency to have another one. Don't get me wrong, I love hops. But I like them in balance. At some point, you get beyond the solubility limits, and some IBU claims are an impossibility. And it's not only the bitterness, it's the intense hop nose on some of these. I just don't think it's clever or smart. There is no correlation between intensity of flavor and quality. You can have a gently-flavored product that is excellent.

What is your favorite beer style?

When I go back to visit in the UK, I'll be hunting down cask-conditioned ales, that's what I'll be looking for. It's the most drinkable beer in the world, in my opinion. Perhaps because it was the traditional beer of England when I was growing up, that was our beer.

How do you see the prospects for cask ale in the U.S.?

As long as they do it properly, as long as they try to respect the genre, and do it properly, and don't go to ludicrously high hopping levels. Beyond that, they need the skill to bring it into condition, to get the clarification, so it's nice and bright. You can easily end up with vinegar if you don't do it properly. You also have to judge throughput, and find out if an outlet can handle the throughput. And that they are keeping the lines clean, and handling the barrels correctly. And clarifying, getting the Isinglass working the first time, and it has to settle out again. It's a very skilled operation.

You could recreate that in the U.S., perhaps, but you'd need the education in place. And at bottom, cask ale belongs in an old-fashioned English pub, a pub with no razzamataz. It's a more cerebral drink, that speaks to a more civilized time. But perhaps I'm just getting old. Now you have 52 pubs closing a week in the U.K., the whole thing is changing. You have to step outside to smoke now. And now many of them are eating establishments, and they've got TVs, so people can watch the soccer games. The pub, as it was, was not noted for its food. They might have a dart board, but the center of attention was on the beer. That is almost lost now.

You have advice about introducing beer to people who say they don't like it ...

Don't like beer! It's like saying you don't like food! There is such diversity of flavor in beer. How can anyone not like every single beer out there? When people say "they don't like beer" they are not articulating well what they mean. If you don't like beer, you simply haven't found the one for you, but it's out there. For those people, I usually suggest a kriek, or a framboise. If you like cherries or raspberries, you'll like those beers. A lot of women think they don't like beer. But have they had a kriek? Or maybe a gently flavored product. That's what I try to do, because there is such diversity in beer now, there is something for everyone. Thanks for your time, Charlie.


Book review: In his new book "Beer is Proof that God Loves Us," (Financial Times Press, publishing date November 2010, $25.99, available through Professor Charlie Bamforth describes his life-long love affair with beer, from the smoky Lancashire pubs of his youth to the hallowed Fifth Floor tasting room at the Anheuser-Busch St. Louis Brewery. It's an entertaining ramble through a life spent in beer, but as befits Mr. Bamforth's current job description--A-B endowed professor of Malting & Brewing Science at UC-Davis--it is chock-a-block with useable information on everything from the brewing process to the health benefits of beer.

Mr. Bamforth starts with paean to the breweries of yore (The Big Six of England, and the old pre-2008 Anheuser-Busch) and laments the changes wrought by consolidation. He recalls sitting in the A-B tasting room for the first time, tasting samples of Budweiser from all over the world. Although the beers were remarkably consistent, he felt he had to make some kind of critical judgement, and remarked that one sample tasted a bit sulfury. "A hush fell over the room, and I felt all eyes on me," Charlie writes. "And then I heard someone tapping into his cell-phone, as the journey of investigation started into what it was that the esteemed professor had discovered in the brew. I had visions of airline tickets being purchased, jobs being lost, and brewers consigned to the Siberia of the company, wherever that was. Newark, perhaps? And in an instant I knew that would be the last time I would pass critical comment in that room."

Mr. Bamforth is an engaging writer, and manages to insert many useful facts amongst the anecdotes. For example, he describes research (by himself and others) on the silica content in beer, and its potential benefits in fighting osteoporosis and Alzheimers.

This book is an ideal companion for an afternoon in a quiet pub, with pint at hand. You'll emerge feeling like you've just had a conversation with a very entertaining fellow, and reinvigorated about the importance of beer.
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Publication:Modern Brewery Age
Article Type:Interview
Date:Sep 10, 2010
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