Brew your homework

Getting academic with UC Davis brewing science professor Charles Bamforth

UC Davis professor Charles Bamforth helps you major in beer.

UC Davis professor Charles Bamforth helps you major in beer.

Photo By ryan donahue

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Yes, it’s possible to major in beer. UC Davis is one of only two colleges in the country offering a graduate degree in brewing science, which makes Anheuser-Busch professor of malting and brewing science Charles Bamforth something of a celebrity among aspiring brewers. Every year, more than 1,000 students crowd into his Introduction to Beer and Brewing class, the third most popular course on campus. Last October, Playboy magazine chose Bamforth for its Honor Roll, a list of the top 20 professors in the country. Students have invented a bingo game based on his frequent sayings and even started a Charles Bamforth Quote Appreciation Society on Facebook.

Still, brewing science is not all fun and drinking games. Bamforth has 33 years experience in the brewing industry, and has published 11 books on the subject. His students train hard at the campus’ small-scale brewery and research beer and health in a lab endowed by Sierra Nevada.

In honor of 2011 Beer Week, Bamforth agreed to share his hard-earned beer wisdom with us. The only topic he wouldn’t discuss was his favorite beer. Instead, he urged everyone to keep tasting until they find a beer they love.

“That’s the beauty of beer,” he said. “There are so many different types. People say to me, ‘I don’t like beer.’ I say that’s nonsense. You just haven’t found one you like. You might as well say, ‘I don’t like food.’”

You wrote a book called Grape vs. Grain. Is there contention between the UC Davis beer and wine departments?

No, we’re great. I’m here to keep them honest. One thing I would say is that beer is more complicated, and every fair-minded person knows that. The route from grain and hops to beer is much more convoluted and complex than from grape to wine.

They’re both great drinks, but somehow beer is perceived as being less sophisticated and less complex, when in reality the opposite is true. Beer is perceived as being less healthy, when in reality, it’s more healthy—or at least as healthy. There’s a hugely greater diversity of beers than there is in wine. So with some degree of justification, I can say beer is the more interesting beverage.

Do you convert students from viticulture to brewing?

I pride myself on having at least one person every year who sees the light.

Does beer have a PR problem?

Beer has lots going for it. There’s real theater in the pour, and all the foam, the color and the clarity. There’s such diversity. And yet beer is perceived as being sort of cheap and mass-produced. When I start talking about responsible drinking, beer and health, and mindfulness, I’m confronted by some of the jokey [television] advertisements, or people playing beer pong, or a brewery in Scotland coming out with 55 percent alcohol beer just to say they can do it. They sell the bottles stuffed in dead animals. Beer doesn’t do itself any favors sometimes.

You’ve mentioned beer is healthy. What about beer guts?

The beer gut is a complete myth. It has to do with your lifestyle, with calories in and calories out. If you take in more calories than you burn off, you’re going to get fat. Too many people don’t count the calories in alcoholic drinks, but they need to. There’s nothing magical about the calories in beer.

Is there a proper way to serve beer?

Absolutely. First of all, it’s got to go into a glass. It’s uncivilized to drink beer straight out of a bottle or a can, so why would you do that? The glass needs to be washed in nice soapy water and thoroughly rinsed to get rid of all the detergent, and then allowed to dry naturally. Pour the beer with vigor into the center of the bottom of the glass so you produce lots of foam. That will take away some of the surface carbon dioxide. As the foam subsides, it will start to stabilize. Then you top the beer off, and what you end up with is a beer with beautiful foam on top of the glass. As you drink it, it will lace the sides of the glass. It’s just, hedonically, a delight. It’s theater.

Is brewing an art or a science?

A few of my colleagues would say categorically it’s a science. We apply science and technology to get a really consistent product. I would argue there is beauty and poetry in beer—in the design of new beers, in the presentation of the beer. In my book Beer Is Proof God Loves Us, I talk about beer in the context of holistic lifestyle: sensible drinking, savoring the beer, beer as a part of conversation. I talk about the Inklings, which was a group of famous writers in England [including] Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. They’d go down to the pub. They’d drink beer, quite a lot of beer, and talk about literature and art and writing. That all speaks to the art of beer.

I’m not into drinking games. I’m not into drinking for drinking’s sake. Beer needs to be an accompaniment to the good things in life, whether it’s watching a ballgame, reading a book or conversation.

I hear the phrase “slow beer movement” tossed around. Is there a “fast beer” threatening quality beer production?

To go from barley to beer is a lot of steps. You put a lot of water in and then you take it all out again. There’s a lot of heat and energy involved. [Some people] say the most logical way to do it would be to identify the cheapest source of alcohol you can find—maybe corn alcohol? Then you add the elements of beer. You add color from a bucket, bubbles from a bucket, flavor from a bucket. A chemistry-set approach.

Now, nobody’s doing that. But logically, that would be the way to do it. Anyone in the brewing industry is mortified by that concept, but environmentally, it’s the logical way. … I argue you can’t make an existing brand of beer that way, but you could make new products that way. In Japan, there are such products made from pea starch and soybeans and so on. They’re packaged like beers and perceived as beers. Flavorwise, they’re not as good, but they’re sold much cheaper. To my mind, those sorts of things are “fast beer.”

I predict in 30 to 40 years time, depending on tax laws and environmental constraints, there will be a whole sector of products made in radically new ways. And then there will be the slow-beer movement making beer in time-honored ways—and that’s what I’ll be drinking.