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Interview with Charles Bamforth (Part I): The "Big Guys"

Rohit Naimpally

Pol Sci, Econ and Cricket geek who loves a good pint


Photo credit: UC Davis

In this, the first part of my interview with Professor Charles Bamforth, we cover the Professor's views on the relationship between big brewers and small brewers, and the role played by the "big guys" in developing beer. The interview was conducted as part of my review of the Professor's latest book, "Beer is Proof God Loves Us". Part II, covering Margaret Thatcher's infamous anti-monopoly beer laws, and responsible drinking, will be posted on Wednesday. The third and final installment, discussing "beer cultures" and the globalization of beer, will be posted on Thursday.
Rohit Naimpally (RN): Thank you so much for giving me this opportunity Professor Bamforth; it is quite the honor to be speaking to you. The book was mighty enjoyable and I had a few questions, the responses to which our readers might have some interest in. First, with regards to the relationship between the "big guys" in brewing and the smaller, craft brewers: you say that one of the things that has annoyed you is that craft beer aficionados often criticize the big guys. How do you see this relationship evolving? Do you think the relationship will largely be one of mutual respect, or can it be a symbiotic one as well?

Charles Bamforth (CB): Oh, I think everybody can learn something from everybody else. The craft brewers have developed and created a market for some very interesting beers, which the big guys have welcomed as an opportunity to diversify. So I think it is symbiotic, a very healthy situation. People criticize the big guys as making bland, tasteless beer, which is simply not true. They are also more than capable of brewing interesting styles, but the profit margin and sales form the the bottom line and big businesses need to be very careful about what they brew. The thing that worries and depresses me is when brewers attack each other; for instance, with the awful marketing regimes that the big brewers have, where they criticize the others' products (both unfairly and sometimes, realistically). I hear some- by no means all- from the craft beer sector using phrases like "industrial beer" and "fizzy yellow liquid", which is both unwanted and unwarranted. It is not mindful of beer, a cheap and underhanded tactic. Beer is the loser when that happens and that is so disappointing. It is lovely to hear people like [Sierra Nevada's] Ken Grossman remind us that when he started, he got a lot of help from the big guys. They really did help him- people like him have learned a lot too from what the big guys have done. There are excellent beers made be both very large companies and small companies as well.

RN: Definitely, the idea that everyone stands to learn from everyone else seems like an attractive idea. For instance, bigger brewers have the capacity to invest in Research and Development; take Sierra Nevada's own proprietary Citra hops, which is a delightful variety. Such developments can only help the beer industry, including smaller brewers.

CB: Right, historically it has been the bigger brewers that have conducted the R & D work and really been able to invest in it. It's interesting that you mention Sierra Nevada, because they have grown into now being a very sizeable company, but they still have the same principles of high quality. They would still classify themselves as "craft", but they have the most sophisticated brewing facility in North America. Technologically, they are at least as advanced as any brewery in the United States and their work in developing hops, understanding flavors of their products, their work on stability...these are excellent examples of what I wish occurred elsewhere. All without compromising their commitment to quality, it is worth noting.
     When I first joined the brewing industry, breweries around the world had huge research programs. At Bass, I had more than 30 people doing pretty fundamental research, all of which we published. Miller, Heineken, Kirin, etc. were all doing the same. All the research was published and all brewing companies could benefit from it. Obviously I am in a research program now, but developing new ideas is challenging since so much fundamental science has already gone into brewing. Brewing is consistent and beer has never been more stable and more excellent. Part of the reason is that there is a fine technology based on excellent science, which comes out of universities, but which over the years came out of large brewing companies as well. That is a healthy situation and I wish more people had that dedication to research, but nowadays- and lets be frank- look at some of the larger companies: their research activities are focused less on basic research and more on the bottom line. Over the past few years, many of the larger companies have trimmed their basic research down, which is sad. Let's hope they can channel some of those resources in my direction and I do the research for them! Sadly, there is definitely less money being spent on research in some areas.



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