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Interview with Charles Bamforth (Part II): The Iron Lady (and separately) Responsible Drinking

Rohit Naimpally

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


Photo Credit: UC Davis

In this, the second part of my interview with Professor Charles Bamforth, we discuss responsible drinking, as well as Maggie Thatcher's infamous anti-monopoly beer laws. The interview was conducted as part of my review of the Professor's latest book, "Beer is Proof God Loves Us". Part I, covering the relationship between big brewers and small brewers, and the role played by the "big guys" in developing beer, was posted on Tuesday. The third and final part, discussing "beer cultures" and the globalization of beer, will be posted on Thursday.
Rohit Naimpally (RN): I was recently reading Daniel Okrent's Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, in which he discusses prohibitionist forces in the US circa early 20th century. This is something that you will no doubt empathize with, since you express your distress over neo-prohibitionist forces, at multiple points in your book.

Charles Bamforth (CB): I think I finished the book before I started a class last quarter on mindfulness and alcohol here on campus. All except one student were under the legal drinking age and we were talking about the perception of alcohol; what does beer mean on a university campus and beyond? The attitude towards alcohol in the family in Italy for instance, sees a bottle of wine at the dinner table as common; this is different from the attitude in many part of the United States. There is a very unhealthy situation where alcohol is either abused, or people rail against it as the ultimate Satan! I wanted the students to understand what it means to be mindful around alcohol and to treat it with respect and tolerance. Behavioral issues and drinking games...these are complex things. I realize that I am dealing with polarized opinions, but it would be nice to hit a middle ground between the neo-prohibitionists and the men behaving badly.

RN: Exactly, moderation is the key! Beer can be part of a great lifestyle; for instance, we don't view it as a vice that people eat moderate amounts of candy, although we don't encourage overeating. Couldn't the same be said of beer.

CB: There is growing evidence that moderate consumption of alcohol, including beer, can be a very worthwhile element of one's lifestyle. I discuss some of the direct effects in my book [antioxidants, role in combating osteoporosis and so on], but look at the indirect effects as well: a glass of beer at the end of a task can be just reward, it can lead to a convivial social melee too. Clearly if you abuse alcohol, it will abuse you. People do get addicted to things, but alcohol is only one of them. Think about people clocking away on their phones, which is just another form of addiction! Treat beer with respect; this is the message that I try to preach. The advertising regime isn't particularly helpful here, with beer being marketed in raucous fashion, which doesn't help in the promotion of beer for it's moderate influence.

RN: Could you speak a bit about some of the people that you met early on in your career: what prompted people to get into brewing for instance? In your book, you mention how you yourself came to brewing in an entirely roundabout way!

CB: As with most things in my life- barring the birth of my children!- entering brewing was unplanned. It was a pure accident for me, but so many people took the route that I did: they were scientists looking for jobs and there were openings in the brewing industry, particularly for people like me that had PhDs. I was very proud when I joined Bass; in Burton-on-Trent, Bass was God and we were held up as THE brewing company in England, the premier one. We prided ourselves on quality. And the people: we looked after the people. My old boss used to say that if you look after the people, they will look after the quality and the rest will take care of itself. Those are the two most important things: people and quality. We at Bass were almost arrogant in our attitude, bu we looked at the quality all the way through to the finest raw materials. We malted most of our own barley, for instance, and the quality control extended through to the pubs. We made sure that we only put the finest quality product out on the market. Then of course, when the Iron Lady decided that the brewing industry was a monopoly (as a result of the brewery-owned pubs), all that was blown out of the water. That corresponded with a change in the brewing environment in the UK, which became more ruthless. You had people with MBAs coming in who were just managers and marketers, not steeped in the history and traditions of brewing. They could have been manufacturing anything, whether it was kid's toys or cigarettes! That, combined with Thatcher's beer laws meant that they looked at the business model, looked at where the profits were and determined that they were in they all went into becoming hoteliers. All the big six English brewers were eventually forced out of brewing, either bought out or forced to shut down.

What excited me about the US is the building of new brewing companies, people like Gordon Biersch and Sierra Nevada. There is a growing craft scene in the United Kingdom as well, lots of small brewing companies. But that could have happened anyway, even if Bass still owned it's own companies could could have still started. There were lots of small brewing companies across the UK even at that time. That's what we need, more people steeped in beer traditions, not as many in the "business" of brewing, which is essentially what many call it now. Some companies don't call it beer, they call it "liquid"; it's just a business to them.



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