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A Book With Heart and "Spirit(s)": Beer is Proof God Loves Us

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Rohit Naimpally

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

In the next few days, you will be getting plenty of thoughts from Charles Bamforth, author of Beer is Proof God Loves Us. The book comes out on the 10th of October and is equal parts autobiography and ruminations on the beer industry. I had a very informative interview with Professor Bamforth this past Thursday: the transcript will be put up in two or three parts this week.

Professor Bamforth begins the book by noting that it was born out of a manuscript that was fundamentally autobiographical; part beer, part spirituality. He says "it is indeed a book about beer, albeit perhaps one that comes to the subject from a somewhat unusual, even obtuse angle. And yet, egotistically perhaps, it is also a somewhat personal perspective." (more after the fold)

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Prof. Bamforth stays true to his manifesto. This is not an ordinary beer book: if you are looking for reviews, or even recipes, look elsewhere. Beer is Proof is a sweeping look back at Professor Bamforth's life, from his younger days dreaming of becoming the goalkeeper for the Wolverhampton Wolves, to his current position as the Anheuser-Busch Endowed Professor of Brewing Science (via other stops along the way, not least of which was a stint as a brewer at Bass Brewing in England.)

At the same time, this is a sweeping look at the brewing industry, covering topics from the consolidation of the major breweries into the few behemoths that dominate the mass-market industry today, to Maggie Thatcher's adverse influence on the brewing industry in England, to the neo-prohibitionist forces that continue to worry (and annoy) the author. Special mention should be made of the chapter titled "Looks Good, Tastes Good, and..." in which the author makes the argument that beer is not only not bad for you, it can actually be good for you.

Let me dwell on that issue for a bit. The "nutrition" argument has often elicited snorts of disbelief from friends and family, or worse, the tired statement "now, if you were talking about red wine..." As Prof. Bamforth points out, beer really does not have any more calories than most other beverages (the average mixed drink probably contains many more calories than any beer that you would find at the same bar). As I often tell people, a can of soda contains more calories on average than a pint of Guinness. Look it up if you don't believe me.

But it's not just about calories. Once Prof. Bamforth gets into the chemistry of the matter, he really hits terminal velocity. The beneficial effects of antioxidants in red wine are quickly dismissed by the Professor, since one would need to consume enough red wine to kill a person in order to absorb the trace amounts of antioxidants in wine; in fact, there is compelling evidence that the component of red wine doing the work...is the alcohol. Add in significant levels of antioxidants in beer (albeit found in only one substantial study) and there is little to distinguish the health effects of beer from wine. As with most things though, beer can only be good in moderation, something that Professor Bamforth will be the first person to admit. One would be foolish to think that last night's bender can possibly be anything other than a strain on one's liver, and an awful headache for the rest of the day. Rather than get ahead of myself here, I shall just add one final point on beer as a health food: read the book at least for this section, one that beer lovers will want to learn how to wield like a katana knife.

The section on the decline of cask ale under Maggie Thatcher's premiership will be especially fascinating to people interested in beer history. By severing the tie between the big brewers and pubs, through a misperception that the beer industry in England was monopolistic in it's vertical integration. By forcing the big brewers to divest of any establishments owned beyond an established, the Iron Lady's administration succeeded in driving the big brewers towards bulk brewing rather than continuing with the cask culture. In the days when breweries could own an uncapped number of pubs, representatives would ensure that the quality of cask ale served met a certain quality since they could afford to. Ultimately, the Thatcherite regime forced a number of the larger brewers out, at the expense of newer small breweries and the larger European brewers (Carlsberg, Heineken, et al.) I am not quite as ready as Professor Bamforth to call this an unmitigated disaster; that would require a little more research on my part regarding the effects of the reforms on the smaller brewers market. At the very least though, I can concede that the decline of cask ale in the UK must have been a significant loss. One can only hope that the ongoing Renaissance in brewing will see this delightful method of drinking beer make a comeback.

The author discusses this Renaissance in his section on the American craft beer industry. He is particularly high in his praise for people like Fritz Maytag (former Anchor Brewing supremo), Ken Grossman (Sierra Nevada), Dan Gordon (Gordon Biersch) and Charlie Papazian (founder of the American Home-brewers Association), and with good reason. We all owe much to these folks and Professor Bamforth's tribute to them is well noted.

Taking a more general view of the book, one thing stands out: this is an account with a lot of heart. The less charitable may be bothered by Professor Bamforth's tendency to ramble on seemingly trivial points, sometimes for pages on end. However, he stays true to his commitment to contain all ramblings within the endnotes (which run nearly as long as the book's main text itself). These range from essential lines on beer styles and fermentation procedures to a ten-page meditation on the Wolverhampton Wolves, the author's soccer team. One way to approach the book is to simply skip those endnotes that seem unimportant...however, this would be a mistake in my view. The book is subtitled "Reaching For the Soul of Beer and Brewing", a soul that at various points is manifested in various ways throughout the book. However, I also think this book is reaching for the soul of the brewer, the soul of the beer lover, the soul of people like Professor Bamforth. Meeting brewers and drinkers at beer events has been a richly rewarding experience to me: these are people truly committed to the industry and to beer. The endnotes in the book give the reader some insight into what makes at least one of those people tick. And I personally always like to know more about the person who's book I am reading; it puts things in context and perspective.

I have not covered large swathes of the book, but I will be revisiting it at numerous points over the course of the interview that I will be posting. On the book itself though: this is a unique book in many ways. It is really a diary of sorts, albeit organized along certain broad themes that are of concern to beer lovers. It may not be everyone's cup of tea, with the rambling style, but this reader found it mighty enjoyable. Given that it is a pretty slim volume, it would be worth your while to give it a dekko.

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