Reviewed by Tom Becham
Beer is Proof God Loves Us
by Charles W. Bamforth
I recently received this book as a gift from my wife. And after reading it, more than once, I’m still not sure if I like this book or not.
To be sure, it is filled with useful information regarding recent mergers and acquisitions in the large-scale beer business. And the technical qualifications of the author are peerless; Mr. Bamforth has been in brewing for 32 years, including 13 in research, and 11 as a Professor of Brewing Sciences at University of California, Davis.
However, like many hard-science types, Mr. Bamforth seems to believe that his expertise in one scientific field confers expertise in ALL scientific fields (he is a Chemical Engineer), and informed opinions in all other fields. As well, for a man who states an affinity for Buddhist thought, and admits to being shy and reflective, Mr. Bamforth seems remarkably uncontaminated by self-awareness.
I know that sounds harsh. But this book is filled with some bizarre contradictions.
First, Mr. Bamforth states that in terms of beer, quality is measured by consistency. While that is largely true, there are notable exceptions which the author never cites or even acknowledges. Beer geeks around the world eagerly await new releases of things like Stone’s Vertical Epic series, or Fuller’s Vintage Ales, or even the Anniversary Ales made by Unibroue for Trader Joe’s, simply because they are a bit different every year. And okay, I admit it is a startling technical achievement for Budweiser to taste the same whether it’s made in St. Louis or Pleasanton, California. But whether or not that makes Budweiser a good beer is debatable and subjective.
Secondly, Mr. Bamforth bemoans the death of small breweries in Great Britain, but he doesn’t make the connection between his virulently anti-labor union attitudes (he applauds Margaret Thatcher’s draconian measures against unions) and the gobbling up of small breweries by large conglomerates. It doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to see that companies who can take advantage of their labor will also try to do anything with/to their stockholders and other companies as well.
Mr. Bamforth also buries the needle on the hypocrisy meter in one other story he relates. Mr. Bamforth’s professorship at UC Davis is endowed by Anheuser-Busch. But when Mr. Bamforth states that he believes Budweiser to be one of the world’s top beers, he says he feels insulted when his integrity is questioned. Really? Really? It is NOT REASONABLE to extol the virtues of a company’s product while benefitting financially from that company, and expect to not have your integrity called into question. It’s simple professor; it you want to stop such questions, stop taking AB-Inbev’s money. Oh, and you might want to stop claiming that the use of rice in Budweiser is all about brewing requirements rather than cost, as any knowledgeable home brewer is aware of how much cheaper corn and rice adjuncts are as compared to malt…
Lastly, the author states that there is room for difference of opinions in what constitutes good beer. But then he proceeds to slam companies that make extremely high-alcohol brews, or ultra-bitter hop bombs, or other forms of extreme beer. He even questions why anyone would do that, and doesn’t believe it’s really beer. To answer him, I would say that sometimes you do things simply to see if they can be done. The experiments of Brewdog to see if they could beat a German competitor in creating the world’s most alcoholic beer don’t need a purpose, any more than climbing a mountain, crossing an ocean, or flying into space requires a purpose other than the doing. Secondly, the soaring popularity of extreme beer seems to belie Mr. Bamforth’s assertion that it is not beer, or that it is a flash-in-the-pan.
After thoroughly eviscerating this book, why would I say I’m uncertain about whether or not I like it?
There are some things to recommend it. First, the author includes much evidence of the health benefits of moderate drinking. He contemplates the potential social, economic and spiritual benefits of beer. In one spot, he even muses upon the connection to God through brewing. He states that unlike wine-making which depends on the vagaries of nature, brewing is a conscious, controlled act of creation, and therefore connects us to the mind of God.
While I am a person whose belief in God depends on the day of the week on which I’m asked (or how you define “god”, for that matter), that is an appealing notion to me, as I home brew.
Mr. Bamforth also confirms my long-held opinion that Guinness is The Devil. In tracking the death of cask ale (or “real ale” in Britain, which the author accurately describes as being “like angels crying on your tongue”), the author draws a direct line between the adoption of nitro taps in bars and “widgets” in cans – largely an innovation of Diageo, parent company of Guinness – and the decreasing availability of cask ale in British pubs.
I’m sure Charlie Bamforth is a decent guy, and I’d probably be more than happy to tip back a pint in his company, and learn a few things from him. But he’d need to also be willing to learn a few things, or there would be loud, vociferous argument. I tend not to lose such arguments.
In short, whether you should buy this book depends on your threshold for being pissed-off by your reading material. If you are a beer geek and easily angered, I’d give this one a miss. If you think you’d like to hear what Mr. Bamforth has to say, go for it. But buy it at less than list price.