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70 of 74 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The state of the beer market, October 10, 2010
This review is from: Beer Is Proof God Loves Us: Reaching for the Soul of Beer and Brewing (FT Press Science) (Hardcover)
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I'm an avowed beer and food snob, and we used to brew our own beer. We have chosen vacation destinations based on what we'll eat and drink; this stuff is important to us. As a result, choosing a book about "the soul of beer and brewing" was a no-brainer selection from my Amazon Vine options. And there is no doubt that Charles Bamforth, the UC Davis Anheuser-Busch Endowed Professor of Malting and Brewing Sciences, knows his stuff.

I have strongly mixed feelings about this book. In some ways, I want to give it five stars; in others -- particularly when I disagree with the author's premises -- I have a violent urge to click hard on the two-star button.

Let me be descriptive, first. Despite a title that hearkens to an emotional relationship with beer (and I dare say that most readers recognize the Ben Franklin quote in his title), the book would be better called, "The business of beer." Bamforth gives an exhaustive, educational, and entertaining overview of the state of the beer market and how we got here. Chapters are devoted to such topics as "the re-birth of a beer ethos," anti-alcohol forces, and the merger of so many beer brands under a very few companies.

I am definitely smarter after reading Bamforth's book. I had lots of, "Oh, so THAT's what happened!" realizations from his explanation of the Thatcher-era Beer Laws of the 1980s and their effect on the UK beer market, for instance. (In the UK, 52 pubs are closing their doors every week.) I learned more than I ever imagined about the chemistry of foam (that is, the head on your glass of beer). And I appreciated his thoughtful pro-and-con discussions of the health claims for beer (in which he manages to be far more balanced than you'd expect from an allegedly biased author).

These are very different discussions, as you might imagine, and Bamforth manages to communicate and educate with both technical depth and a highly personal anecdotal style. I felt like I was listening to a college professor -- but the entertaining professor whose classes everyone wants to get into.

There are two problems that I have with the book: one my own preconceptions (which you may not agree with), and the other a matter of book organization.

The book's organization is... odd. It's one thing to include endnotes in a technical book, but almost half the book is given over to endnotes -- enough so that I used two bookmarks, so as to read the "main" text and addenda in concert. Many of the endnotes really should have been incorporated in the main text (such as the aforementioned foam discussion); others are personal and entertaining tangents that make me suspect Bamforth could not bear to part with the storytelling but couldn't justify it in the chapters he'd chosen. As an editor in my day job, I kept wanting to restructure his chapters. This isn't a killer problem for those who are interested in the topic or in Bamforth the person, but it certainly interrupted the flow of information since I was never sure which end notes were important, which were just technical citations, and which were "how 'bout that!" info.

The larger problem for me is that Bamforth *does* work for one of the "big guys" in the beer industry, and his personal opinions reflect that. Anheuser-Busch InBev, he says, commands almost 25% of the world's beer market, and so his concerns with beer-making are somewhat different than mine. Consistency is a stronger watchword for a business in which every glass of Bud (which I persist in thinking of as "barley soda pop") must taste the same. And as a dedicated hop-head, I'm a little overwhelmed by a beer expert who told the owner of Sierra Nevada that "Some of your beers are just about at my upper limit for hoppiness." ("He calmly looked back at me and... replied, 'Charlie, 25 years ago I was brewing in a bucket. Now I am producing more than 500,000 barrels every year and selling into every state in the nation. Do you mind if I leave things as they are?'") Bamforth gives credit to the craft brew market for giving beer attention again. And he asks us beer snobs to respect his own preferences; I do, honest I do, but it takes some effort on my part. It colored my reading of the book; depending on your background maybe it'll matter to you, too.

I don't think Bamforth's book will be enjoyed, especially, by someone who isn't "into" beer, as Bamforth doesn't take time to explain the role of wort or what a fermenter is. It isn't a book about "Isn't beer wonderful?" This book will appeal to home brewers and fans of craft brews -- at least for understanding the "big business" viewpoint of the industry. But you find that you are as uncomfortable-yet-interested as I am.
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Tracked by 3 customers

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Showing 1-8 of 8 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Oct 21, 2010 10:23:53 AM PDT
CGScammell says:
Excellent review. I hate Bud but my husband is an avid drinker. I prefer microbrews whenever I travel. I've talked to beermasters who say that the national beer brands are controlling the market, despite their beers being clearly the inferior beers. This review makes me want to read the book and get a feel for the corrupt business behind our soul.

Is there much reference to the beer wars of Chicago or Milwaukee?

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 31, 2010 9:36:40 AM PDT
Actually, there isn't ANY reference to the beer wars per se. He does more of an overview of the current state of affairs... and a little of how we got to this point. It's colored understandably by his UK experiences so he goes into a lot of depth about Thatcher's efforts to break up a perceived monopoly (wherein beer companies owned/leased pubs and hotels) and how that backfired.

Posted on Nov 10, 2010 8:20:08 PM PST
Dido says:
he's NOT employed By AB!!!!

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 16, 2010 8:41:15 PM PST
No. He's the the UC Davis Anheuser-Busch Endowed Professor of Malting and Brewing Sciences. But he also works with A-B in that capacity, which is clear from the text.

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 22, 2010 9:30:15 PM PST
tim says:
AB endowed the school some years ago, but he does not work with or for them. His salary is paid by the state of California like any other professor in the UC school system. The endowment from AB is no different than any other one given to higher education by wealthy individuals or corporations across the country.

Posted on Dec 30, 2010 10:49:45 AM PST
S. Yates says:
Anyone who knows Charlie Bamforth will laugh off the premise that he's grinding an axe for InBev. Truth is, he's just British, and no one but Americans like American craft brews. The US craft brew market is still pretty raw and nascent, and so far it's gone down an insular one-way street to ultimate hoppiness, whereas European brewing traditions have through centuries created more balanced beers that can have all the flavor without sacrificing (to use a term from Bud Light ads) "drinkability".
Maybe it's a taste thing, and I just don't get American tastes, but beer that scorches your pallet with hops isn't good for very much at all in my opinion. Go to Yorkshire and have a pint of Theakstons, or to the Midlands for a Marstons Pedigree, or any pub in Britain that serves real ale, and you'll find beer that has so much flavour, without being quashed by dry, burning hops. It might give you some insight into why Bamforth is so dismissive of American craft brews (and why he, without professional bias, would prefer a Bud).

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 12, 2011 12:42:11 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Feb 12, 2011 7:26:56 PM PST
Robespierre says:
I'll agree with you that a disappointing number of American craft-brewed ales are, to put it tactfully, overly stylized. (There seems to be some idea that massive amounts of hops create an abrasive and therefore virile effect.) But to dismiss all American craft brews (including the thousands you've never tried) as undrinkable is prejudiced to the point of being colonial. And to claim that anything by AB is preferable to New Glarus, Lost Abbey or Goose Island is so misinformed that I wonder if you've ever spoken to a British, Scottish or Irish expatriate who now lives in New York or the Pacific Northwest. The ones I know love the taste of *particular* kinds of beer from America -- some, not all -- like everyone else who makes a point of going to places like the Blind Tiger Ale House.

Then again, you'd probably assert that no French person ever liked Germain-Robin brandy, either.

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 18, 2011 10:10:39 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jun 18, 2011 10:20:34 PM PDT
W. A. Keele says:
Actually, there is a growing interest in the kinds of beers being brewed in the U.S. in many countries around the world. BrewDog couldn't do as well as they do if someone didn't like it. Surprisingly, Italy has a very aggressively growing craft brewery scene. Norway and Sweden are doing pretty well too with it. Yes, it's on a much smaller scale, but there is interest and it is happening. And Belgium is still doing their thing.
And I do agree there are WAY too many breweries in the U.S. trying to make their own version of a hop punch-in-the-face. It's very over played. I think because of what we had for so long, and the mentality of Americans, it's much easier to get an aggressive, easily noticeable difference with hops than trying to do it with some balance. We are a country of extremes. There are healthy number of breweries that can do balanced and malt-leaning now--it almost seems some are trying to make up for the hop breweries. I know some breweries/brewpubs I've been to have six or so of their beers on tap and half are some sort of hoppy beer--and the others are bland and/or leaning towards light lager (to try to provide some sort of "transition beer" or to sell more beer in weaker markets). In the better beer markets there are plenty of great, balanced choices now.
Dr. Bamforth doesn't receive a dime from ABInBev. It's just a title. You can think of it as one of those seats with a name on the back of it or on the arm at theaters/halls. That money sometimes goes to the musicians/actors/singers/building, but they are not paid directly by that person(s). Although, Dr. Bamforth did work for Bass back in the day. He's also more of a biochemist than a brewer depending on how look and think about it.
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Esther Schindler

Location: Scottsdale, AZ USA

Top Reviewer Ranking: 206