Non-Fiction Reviews

In Praise Of Beer

(2020) Charles W. Bamforth, Oxford University Press,
£22.99 / US$29.95, hrdbk, 168pp, ISBN 978-0-190-84595-7


There is an old joke that says you can identify a science fiction fan by his beard and glasses and the pint in his hand. There is a variant that says you can identify a CAMRA member by his beard and glasses and the pint in his hand. [CAMRA - the Campaign for Real Ale] And in folk music circles the same joke says you can identify a folkie by his beard and glasses and the pint in his hand. This joke doubtless exists for many other groups. Whilst of course none of these activities require you to be a ‘him’, or to have a beard, the common thread is the pint of beer. For so many activities beer is a natural accompaniment.

Local science fiction clubs and groups invariably meet in pubs; partly because they are natural places to meet but also because most of their members enjoy going for a drink and beer is their favourite tipple; indeed, if the beer is consistently poor the group will doubtless move to another pub (our group certainly has, and not just once). In Tales From The White Hart Arthur C. Clarke wrote his stories as though told by somebody at a fictional pub, the White Hart (a name not too dissimilar from the White Horse, where London-based fans met up into the mid 1950s). At science fiction conventions, at least in the UK (maybe not so much in the States), one measure of the organisation’s competence is the beer and they will be criticised, often sharply, if the beer is not good. For most UK fans, good beer means Real Ale (i.e. cask-conditioned ale produced by traditional methods and dispensed by hand pump or gravity). One remembers that the beer was especially good at Mancunicon and Follycon (the UK Eastercons in 2016 and 2018), in both cases organised and supervised by the late and much missed Martin Hoare, whereas the beer at Innominate (Eastercon 2017) was decidedly disappointing.

This book does exactly what it says on the cover - it praises beer - and the author, being an expert in the fields of brewing and its associated microbiology, knows what he is talking about.  Charles Bamforth, an Englishman who moved to the States some years ago, has spent his entire career either working directly in the beer industry or in academic institutions closely associated with it. He graduated from the University of Hull with a degree in biology and stayed on to get his PhD; he also discovered beer (and how many students do not?). Following a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Sheffield, he started work at the Brewing Research Foundation (BRF). He entered the brewing industry with Bass at Burton-on-Trent, before rejoining the BRF. He also became a visiting professor of brewing at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh (Scotland). From there he found himself as the first Anheuser-Busch Endowed Professor at the University of California, Davis. He is now the Senior Quality Advisor to the Sierra Nevada Brewing Company (and I admit to being rather fond of their Pale Ale - indeed, it was the highlight of my time at the San Jose Worldcon in 2018, though sadly not available at the con itself).

He opens by recounting his experiences of beer and throughout makes his opinions very clear (whilst reminding us that opinions are personal and that we all have our own, all equally valid - as illustrated by ‘To my wife, Marmite is good. To me it is evil incarnate …’). He briefly recounts the history of beer and brewing before moving on to the two longest chapters: the brewing process and the many types of beer. He goes into considerable detail about how beer is made yet does so in a light manner that is easy to read and understand. His descriptions of the many varieties of beer to be found around the world, and their histories, was very helpful and I (for one) found it most instructive. He made the strong point that one advantage held by the big brewers is consistency and reliable quality, whereas the small brewers are freer to experiment (though not all experiments are successful). For some people the only beer worth drinking is real ale and they believe lager is evil but there are others who delight in the quality of a well brewed and well kept lager. Whilst some of it is purely personal taste, location and circumstances also have their place to play; on a hot summer’s day I myself enjoy a good hefewiezen but I am not likely to drink one on a cold winter’s night, the reverse being true for an old ale or a winter warmer.

He moves on to talk about how to buy and keep your beer and his advice includes checking the date stamp (the fresher the better), taking it from the refrigerated section (if there is one) and keeping it in a fridge (or somewhere cold) once back home (all to extend the life), and keeping it out of the light (and note that brown bottles provide better protection from light and cans even more so). He discusses bars, beer types and their presentation, and the absolute necessity of keeping the beer properly (it has a shelf life, which is not long for an opened cask-conditioned ale) and the pipes scrupulously clean. He even explains the chemistry of the head (i.e. the foam on the top). He compares beer and wine when it comes to dining (beer is much more complex), he looks at the health aspects of beer (lots of good nutrients), and he finishes with a brief discussion on business models and the constant challenges faced by the whole brewing industry as the public’s demands sway here and there. He also commented on a problem that I myself encounter when visiting the States, the ridiculously high alcohol content of many of their ‘craft’ beers; they so often do not understand the concept of session beers - a beer whereby you can enjoy a couple of pints over an evening and not have to drive home drunk. He also comments on the many things some of the smaller, ‘craft’ breweries are adding to their beers to make them different and asks if there ought to be limit beyond which it can no longer be called beer. Finally, he has suggestions for further reading and a comprehensive glossary of terms.

I found the book a delight. The author has the gift of both knowing his subject and how to get it across easily and enjoyably. It was meaningfully, yet lightly, presented and enhanced by the many anecdotes scattered throughout.

I particularly agree with his conclusion: ‘We should strive to carve out from the beer world the stupidity and irresponsibility, and we should celebrate beer for what it is: the original basis for static civilisation and the saviour of humankind.’

Peter Tyers


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