Bamforth, Beer and God

Bamforth, Beer and God

As its title would suggest, Charles Bamforth’s new book, Beer is Proof God Loves Us ($26, FT Press), is a book about beer, but it’s also to a great degree a book about Charles Bamforth. And soccer. And religious philosophy. And any of a dozen or more other subjects. Or, as the author himself puts it, it’s a book that “tries to get to the essence of beer in the context of life (which) speaks to rather more than a liquid to abuse.”

A goal as noble as it is ambitious, perhaps, but one Bamforth addresses with style and a fair degree of success, ranging as he does from his personal history in the brewing arts—32 years worth, including eleven in his current position as Professor of Malting and Brewing Sciences at UC Davis—to a critical view of anti and pseudo-anti-alcohol forces like the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse to Buddhism and rebirth to water conservation and the future of brewing. It’s an engaging and informative ride, even if it can also be at times frustrating.

Beginning with a chapter on the recent internationalization of brewing, Beer is Proof God Loves Us, which hit shelves today, takes the reader alternately backwards and forwards through the global brewing industry and its history, stopping along the way at questions of quality perception, brewing science, health, neo-Prohibition and environmentalism. Interspersed throughout in the form of endnotes (86 pages of them!) are tidbits of the author’s life story, which Bamforth says “speak to the fact that this is a project which changed direction.”

“There are things I wanted to put out there, which did not flow in a book primarily about beer,” says Bamforth, adding, “but they are things I felt would illustrate where I am coming from.”

And indeed, the endnotes present some of the book’s most pleasurable passages, such as the five page explanation of Bamforth’s fear of flying or the occasional appearance of the author’s favorite soccer club, the Wolverhampton Wanderers, and do frequently offer the reader insight into the perspective behind the book. Still, it would have been helpful to have them as footnotes or even chapter endnotes and so minimize all that page flipping.

Occasionally irritating, too, is Bamforth’s repeated insistence that the brands of the world’s largest brewers are not bland or uninteresting, but rather consistent and “gently nuanced in flavor.” Although he insisted in interview that his goal is to “celebrate the diversity of beer,” all too often in the book it seems like the big brewers are lionized as “smart, capable and fun” while craft brewers beyond a few pioneers are marginalized almost altogether, sometimes derided as “the Hyde of extreme brewing (which) all too frequently escapes the common-sense calm and beauty of Jekyllian values.”

If you can bypass this incessant defending of the world’s largest breweries—who, after all, have for years paid Bamforth’s salary, both directly as employers and indirectly through the endowment of his chair at UC Davis—and don’t mind the continual flipping between chapters and endnotes, the book can be a humorous, engaging and deeply personal book, as entertaining for the beer novice as it is for the seasoned aficionado.    

Published on October 1, 2010