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UC Davis Magazine

Volume 28 · Number 2 · Winter 2011

The buzz on beer

All things in moderation, but the UC Davis brewing program is extreme.

Photo: Charlie Bamforth

Charlie Bamforth

What's in a name?

Read about beer terminology…

Beer history, health benefits

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Consider Charles Bamforth an evangelist of sorts, a man bent on enlightening the world about a magical elixir he calls the “noble beverage.” We call it beer.

With remarkable energy, Bamforth will hop on an airplane and fly anywhere to talk to anyone about the alchemy of hops, barley and yeast. Above all, he preaches, “Treat beer with the respect and reverence it deserves.”

This stout, jovial Anheuser-Busch Endowed Professor of Malting and Brewing Sciences certainly does what he says — and then some. Before coming to UC Davis in 1999, Bamforth spent 21 years in Britain’s brewing industry and has written nine books on the subject. His latest, Beer is Proof God Loves Us, was released just this fall. A Renaissance man, he understands beer making like the biochemist that he is, yet rhapsodizes about it like an English poet — or humorist — would.

“There’s so much going on in a glass of beer — foam, lacing, color, clarity, flavor, the amount of alcohol,” Bamforth said. People, he is quick to add, “are not only thirsty for beer, they’re also thirsty for knowledge about beer.”

His efforts on the road and in the classroom are bringing new renown to UC Davis’ brewing program — the most acclaimed and oldest of its kind in the U.S., though overshadowed by the campus’s more famous wine programs.

Already, many industry leaders express deep admiration for the brewing program. And its future is looking even brighter with the opening this year of the state-of-the-art August A. Busch III Brewing and Food Science Laboratory.

“UC Davis has the only significant brewing science program in the U.S.,” said Dan Gordon, co-founder of Gordon Biersch Brewery, a major American brewery in San José that has hired four UC Davis beer-making alumni in the last 10 years.

Gordon credits Bamforth, who is the program’s sole faculty member and attracts students with the same allure as an ad for Free Beer! “He is so knowledgeable about the industry and genuinely cares for his students.”

Mitch Steele ’84, head brewer at Stone Brewing in San Diego, attests that graduates of the UC Davis brewing program are among the most sought-after in the business.

“They are engaged and passionate,” said Steele, one of the most highly regarded brewers in the country and formerly of Anheuser-Busch. “We know they are being taught by the best in the industry.”

‘Reinventing the classroom’

Before Bamforth arrived on campus in 1999, UC Davis was in dire need of someone like him with a big-league science background and industry experience. Though the campus had offered brewing science as a formal program since 1958, Michael Lewis, who had led it for more than three decades, had retired in 1994. So the university, on Lewis’ recommendation, recruited Bamforth to revive the program.

According to the October issue of Playboy, Bamforth has done more than that. The magazine featured him among the Top 20 professors in the country “who are reinventing the classroom.” When not lording over the malting-and-brewing program, Playboy observed, the professor “gives heady lessons to industry behemoths and micros alike. Meanwhile, one of the most popular classes on campus is his ‘Intro to Beer and Brewing,’ during which he offers a favorite mantra — ‘all beer is good beer.’”

Asked about appearing in the publication, Bamforth responded, “I’m very flattered. At first I was a little bit nervous wondering what would be on the next page, but I’m fully clothed, so it’s OK.”

Beyond men’s magazines, Bamforth attracts serious science media attention. On Feb. 6, he is slated to appear on a Discovery Channel documentary, How Beer Saved the World, which covers the rise of beer in the ancient world and its evolution through the Middle Ages to present day North America. In December, NPR’s Science Friday show is scheduled to air an episode with Bamforth discussing beer-making.

On the subject of training future brewers, Bamforth takes a hands-on approach. In any given quarter, he may have only about 10 undergrads and six master’s students studying under him. In 2010, there were 66 students in his main brewing class on campus, 32 in the practical brewing class, and 40 in the UC Davis Extension program, which Bamforth teaches alongside his friend and colleague Lewis, the emeritus professor of brewing science and director of the extension brewing programs.

The professional brewing credential program offered by UC Davis Extension is the only one in North America accredited by London’s prestigious Institute of Brewing and Distilling. Highly popular, it is already filled with students through 2012. Alums of the program have for three straight years won the industry’s coveted JS Ford Award — the honor given annually to the top scorer in the Institute of Brewing and Distilling’s rigorous brewing exam.

Soulful crossroads

Bamforth’s passion for brewing could fill a keg or two. The merry beer provocateur wants us to think differently, more creatively and expansively about beer. To start, there is the utter complexity of beer — how it is painstakingly made, how to most profoundly enjoy it, and its surprising health benefits.

Bamforth got his start loving beer — “I was not yet 17” — in the smoky pubs of Lancashire, England, in the 1960s. One or two pints of Walker’s Best Bitter at The Owl suited him just fine as he crowded in with the “tough-as-teak” workers, dart throwers and dominos players in a place of convivial fellowship.

Nowadays, Bamforth is concerned about the trend toward corporate consolidation, the loss of smaller traditional brewers and less fellowship among beer drinkers. Perhaps beer itself is at a soulful crossroads, he worries.

“The world of beer is hugely different from that I first glimpsed as a too-young drinker close to the dark, satanic mills of my Northern England. Has beer, I wonder, lost its soul?” said Bamforth, who sprinkles quotes from C.S. Lewis, Julius Caesar and Ralph Waldo Emerson throughout his books and talks.

New era In brewing

To save the soul of beer, Bamforth aims to lead the UC Davis brewing program into a shiny new future. This fall, the program opened the state-of-the-art brewing and food science laboratory — part of the UC Davis Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science — thanks to a $5 million gift from the Anheuser-Busch Foundation.

The new 1.5 barrel-capacity facility gives Bamforth and his students the latest tools of brewing science at their fingertips. Entirely paid for with private donations, the new brewery is part of a $20 million, 34,000-square-foot teaching-and-research complex billed as the most environmentally sophisticated of its kind in the world, designed to unravel scientific enigmas and solve practical problems related to foods, beverages and health. It is expected to be the first winery, brewery or food-processing facility to earn LEED Platinum certification. A grand opening for the public is set for Jan. 28.

For Bamforth and many others, the new facility is a dream come true. “There is no finer facility anywhere for the training of future brewery employees and the ongoing education of existing brewers. This is an authentic brewery, just like those at the big breweries.”

The additional space will allow for better instruction, research, and “programmatic flexibility,” he added.

Bryan Donaldson, a master’s student in brewing, said the new facility is one of the reasons he chose the UC Davis brewing program. “The brand new Robert Mondavi Institute definitely helped sell the program to me, as did the current students and faculty,” he said.

Davis: A beer Mecca?

Back in the early days when Lewis piloted the program, the academic community looked askance at the idea of “beer-making” as a worthy scientific endeavor — there were few academic journals suitable for publishing. Was beer-making a true science, some wondered?

That is no longer a question. “Our reputation is second to none,” said Lewis, crediting the wine and food science programs for helping establish brewing on campus.

What does tomorrow hold for UC Davis brewing? Said Lewis, “I’d like to see UC Davis become the Mecca for international conferences on specialized brewing topics.”

It took a step in that direction when UC Davis held its inaugural Oktoberfest at the Oct. 30 Aggie home football game. The event celebrated the brewing science program, its industry connections and alumni brewmasters.

Bamforth hopes the brewing program expands, makes more extensive use of the brewing facilities, and meets its huge student demand with more classes and resources.

Beyond this, he asks for levity and broad-mindedness for beer’s role in the pursuit of happiness.

“There’s a tremendous educational job to be done,” Bamforth said. “I’m in favor of a healthy middle ground in the public’s perception of beer. It doesn’t have to be like wine with a hoity-toity image, but neither does it have to be associated with adolescent humor and the lowest common denominator.”

Some advice — don’t let Bamforth see you drinking beer out of a bottle. Glassware is better suited for beer — different types of glassware for different styles of beer, he explained.

“I want people to understand and appreciate the noble beverage of beer,” Bamforth said.

Clifton B. Parker is associate editor of UC Davis Magazine.