The “Pope of Foam” acts more like a jovial grandfather than a holier-than-thou beer expert. Charlie Bamforth, a UC Davis professor and brewing authority, talks quietly and answers questions with a smile and a slight Liverpool accent. In an industry dominated by 30-something bearded hipsters, Bamforth is its clean-shaven elder statesman.
Bamforth earned his moniker from a 40-year career that will include the Institute of Brewing and Distilling’s highest honor, the Horace Brown Medal, in London later this month. Bamforth put in 21 years with historic British producer Bass Brewery and Brewing Research International before immigrating to the U.S. in 1999.
He’s been a professor of malting and brewing sciences at UC Davis ever since, and currently sits as president of the Institute of Brewing and Distilling and the editor-in-chief of the Journal of the American Society of Brewing Chemists. The author of seven books on brewing, Bamforth sat down for a Q&A session in his university office to discuss beer trends and where the industry’s headed.
Q: In the last five or 10 years, what do you think is the biggest change that we’ve seen in craft brewing with California?
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A: Clearly we’ve seen huge growth. Lots of new breweries and lots more that are planned. And of course, an increase in diversity of beers, some of which I like and some of which I don’t. But it doesn’t really matter what I like — it’s what sells.
I don’t like peanut butter, full stop. I don’t like it on a piece of bread and I don’t like it in a beer, but what the hell, some people do. People are not afraid to challenge the status quo. My belief is food and beer do belong together — the food on a plate and a beer in the glass. It’s when you put the food in the beer that upsets me.
There’s a beer in Colorado that’s got Rocky Mountain oysters in it. There’s a beer in New Zealand that’s got bodily fluids (stag semen) in it, which I find bizarre. Even a very large brewing company (Anheuser-Busch) brought out a beer with guarana, ginseng and caffeine in it several years ago.
People are trying to find a point of difference — you know, “we stand out because we do this crazy thing.” And I understand it, but I don’t like it. And I’m an old fart — I was even called a Luddite recently. But I just know what can be achieved with malt, hops, yeast and water.
Q: On the other end of the spectrum, we’ve seen a few places emerge recently that have really gone for palatable, low-alcohol session beers. Do you think that’s an older trend that’s coming back at this point?
A: I think it’s a good idea. I do think there’s a lot to be said for the sensibly lower-alcohol range. There’s many great cask ales in the U.K. that are 3.4, 3.5, 3.6 percent ABV. Very drinkable, very well-balanced and substantially less alcoholic than the beers you would get over here.
There’s no sensible correlation between the intensity of alcohol content and the quality (of a beer). I remember when I worked for Bass in the U.K., we made products that were around 2 or 3 percent alcohol, deliberately thinking of that lower-alcohol market. There is a lot to be said for promoting beers of lower alcohol content, remembering that they’re going to be lower-calorie as well.
Q: Within the last year or so, we’ve seen brut IPAs pop up as the West Coast alternative to New England IPAs. What other trends do you think we’re going to see in the future?
A: Impossible to answer that question. Five years ago, if you would have told me about IPAs being really cloudy, I would have said “no way.” But it happened.
I’ve been in the industry for 40 years, and I’ve been taught and taught other people that brightness in beer is important, and now people are deliberately trying to make the cloudiest beer they can. Personally, I’m not a fan. It’s okay if they’ve genuinely got certain characteristics that are because of their lack of clarity, but if it’s just residual yeast suspended in the product, sorry, I can’t accept that.
I would like to think that over the years, people will start positioning beer more for its drinkability and for its place on the dinner table. My wife and I were in Belgium recently, and it was just great going to these cafes by the side of the square. You’d get six pages of beers, and right at the end it said “wine: red, white.” Every beer in the correct glass, served properly. Fantastic.
Maybe I can’t predict beer styles, but my hope would be that there’s going to be much more reverence for presentation of beer in this country. People will seek to pour it properly and look after the glassware. I just hope that beer gets a much bigger presence in all sorts of dining locations, and gets the respect it deserves.
Q: More locally, we have roughly 70 breweries in the broader Sacramento region. Do you think there’s still room for new breweries to come in?
A: There is. You can go to the British Isles, and there are 2,000 brewing companies, and all of the U.K. (land mass) would fit into California 1.5 times. If people make good, consistent beer that will delight the customer every time, and the business model is right, there’s every reason why there’s more scope for that. But they’ve got to be desirable places to go.
It’s good that more and more people are showing interest in beer. There are certain age groups and gender groups that are perhaps more seen to be wine drinkers. They’re showing interest in beer now, and I think that’s great. They’re much more likely to buy products that are drinkable and not outrageous.
Obviously some pretty notable names (including Rubicon Brewing Co. and American River Brewing Co.) fell away in the last year or two, and I think that speaks more to the fact that perhaps they didn’t see the competition arising, and perhaps the business models weren’t as perfect as it should be.
Q: This might be a bit of an uncomfortable question given that you’re (UC Davis’) Anheuser-Busch endowed professor, but we kind of saw big beer’s first foray into Sacramento this year with Golden Road opening up in midtown. Do you think that’s something we’ll see more of?
A: I think it is. This is well-known: I have a fundamental problem with the word “craft,” because what we’re in the business of at UC Davis is training people to be excellent brewers. Some of them will go into smaller brewing companies, and some of them will go into very, very big brewing companies, and the technical excellence is present, we hope, in all of them.
The very large brewing companies have outstanding brewing capabilities. They can make anything they want. And what a lot of people don’t realize is the majority of people in this country want to drink beers that have been around for a long, long time, and it doesn’t make them bad people.
Where it becomes difficult is when they acquire or invest in companies, and I understand the irritation if they try to masquerade as being so-called “craft” and they’re not actually “craft,” and people don’t know it. It’s sort of naughty. But equally, just because a company is acquired by a large company, it doesn’t mean the beer is suddenly bad. It probably have never been as good as it’s going to be now.
Q: Sure. Going along with that, what are five locally-produced beers you’re really a fan of?
A: Define local.
Q: Let’s say Northern California.
A: Well, Sierra Nevada. I’ve said this repeatedly: I’ve been in the industry for over 40 years, and Ken Grossman is streets ahead of everybody else in his capabilities, his knowledge, his humility, the way he looks after people, the way he’s concerned about the environment, the architecture of his breweries. Clearly Sierra Nevada is the model, I think, everyone should aspire to.
In this region, Track 7 is a really great brewing company, and there are lots of others. I like beers out of Bear Republic. Many of the beers that I enjoy now are pretty hoppy. When I first came to the States in 1999, I used to say an English pale ale was the perfect balance of malt and not too many hops. Now when I go back to England, I’m thinking, “where’s the hops? I need hops.”
Another great brewery and also a good friend is Dan Gordon out of Gordon Biersch. Dan Gordon really makes great lagers, and he makes the best hefeweizen in North America. So many people focus on pales, they say “it’s too hard to make a lager.” No, it isn’t. If you understand the science and technology, it is not hard to make a lager.
Sudwerk, obviously, has made some great lager beers. I just wish the restaurant was open, because that has the potential to be really one of the shining lights for people to go drink a beer and have good food.
This interview has been condensed for clarity and space.