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Interview with Charles Bamforth (Part III): Beer Cultures, Globalization and "Real Guys"

Rohit Naimpally

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


Photo Credit: UC Davis

In this, the third and final installment of my interview with Professor Charles Bamforth, we discuss "beer cultures" and the globalization of beer. The interview was conducted as part of my review of the Professor's latest book, "Beer is Proof God Loves Us". Part I, on the relationship between big brewers and small brewers, and the role played by the "big guys" in developing beer, was posted on Tuesday. Part II, covering responsible drinking, as well as Maggie Thatcher's infamous anti-monopoly beer laws, was posted on Wednesday.

Rohit Naimpally (RN): Your book really get me thinking about the societal aspects of drinking, how there are various "cultures" of beer drinking. You refer to the pub culture in England, something that the Guinness brewmaster Fergal Murray mentioned as well. In the US, regardless of the veracity of this claim, the stereotype of beer is of drunken sports fans and frat parties. However, with the craft beer revolution, do you think this can change? Can people start seeing many forms of beer as sophisticated beverages that can be enjoyed in a manner similar to wine (albeit more versatile!) even as some beers lend themselves to tailgating?

Charles Bamforth (CB): When people in a restaurant are confronted with luscious, expensive wine lists, I love to think how great it would be if people could see beer in a similar way. There is more sophistication and effort that goes into making the beer and there is a greater likelihood that one will find a beer that pairs well with a given item of food. I think we can move in that direction in this country.

    You mentioned the pubs, which have been closing at a scary rate in the UK. Again, it is a complicated picture, but it has much to do with a new kind of monopoly: the supermarket. They sell the beer for cheap, you can take it home, etc. With laws preventing smoking in pubs (not that I am against such a ban), it really makes more sense for people to take the beer home. That drinking culture is thus being destroyed and changed. When my wife and I were younger, we would often go for a pint in the evening and it would be the perfect end to the day. In this country, drinking establishments are often hard drinking places, such as sports bars. You don't get as much of the convivial, family-friendly locations where you can have a pint and a pie, play a game of darts and so on. I don't think that will change overnight; it is difficult to change a beer culture. We can't all be like Belgium, where they always use the right glassware and beer is treated with reverence. It is difficult to recreate that, but the craft section in the US can only help in this regard. One thing I would like to see there is the diversity of beers being accompanied with more people thinking of the right establishment in which to enjoy the beer. It's happening, albeit slowly.

RN: Speaking of beer cultures, you also mention that in England, there used to be a culture of consuming beer as close as possible to the breweries (something that is still recommended for cask ales). This ensure freshness of the beer. At the same time, though, it is nice to have beers distributed widely. For instance, I don't have to travel all the way to Belgium each time I want to have a Flanders-style sour ale, or a Lambic. With the entry of these foreign beers, we now also have American brewers recreating these styles. Net-on-net, is the shipping of beer largely a good development then?

CB: It is, although some beers will clearly travel better than others. Generally, most beers are best when consumed fresh and that precludes transportation of some beers. The whole charm of regionality that applies to various foodstuffs also applies to beer; authentic beer from the place where it is brewed is delicious! Some styles, like Lambic, may hold up better than others, but if you want authentic Pilsener Urquell, you're not going to get that in America. For many of the world's global brands, as I point out in the book, brewing closer to the destination is accepted. Kirin brews in Los Angeles I think, rather than shipping from Yokohama for the American market. The brewers try to ensure that the same quality is met everywhere. When you can't get such beers readily, shipping beer is a definite plus. However, with beer being such an unstable beverage, it is important to be careful and to have fresh beer as often as possible.

RN: Anchor Brewing's Fritz Mayag comments on the general air of bonhomie and friendly competition amongst brewers. He says that "beer guys are real guys". Does you experience with brewers and beer people bear this out?

CB:  Absolutely; I have attended numerous meetings and gatherings of the brewing industry all over the world. I have been all across the United States and the world over the past twelve months and wherever I go, I know that I am going to have excellent, interesting beers and share interesting stories. People sharing their concerns, experiences and thoughts. In America, we have the MBAA [Master Brewers' Association of the Americas], the Brewers' Association, the American Homebrewers' Association [AHA] and so on...and it is wonderful to see that. I just don't think they have something comparable, quite in the same way, in the wine industry. Despite what I said earlier about the big guys attacking the smaller guys and vice versa, on a person-to-person level, it is very convivial. For people like me, the Craft Brewers' Conference and the Homebrewers' Conference are just wonderful places to go because there is so much energy and eagerness for information and discussion. Fritz [Maytag] is absolutely right and Ken [Grossman] would say the same thing: it's an industry that is really quite unique. What I say to people on campus who want to go into biotechnology and so on is that at the end of the day, you can't sit down and share aspirins! At least with the brewing industry, you can share beers.



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