30 March 2011

Book Review: Beer Is Proof God Loves Us

Beer has been around in some form for as long as 12,000 years, but we're in a golden era of beer appreciation. You're not limited to fermenting some grain in a clay pot, or relying on the neighborhood brewery. You've got options from all over the world, and growing communities of home brewers and beer bloggers and all sorts of other options if you want to discuss the topic. In some ways, it's a more dynamic world than that of wine, because the time from getting an idea to enjoying a completed beer is so short. Here's a new book that covers a wide swath of the beer industry in a very short space.

Beer Is Proof God Loves Us: Reaching for the Soul of Beer and Brewing
by Charles W. Bamforth
$26, 237 pages, FT Press

Bamforth has been involved in the beer industry in various ways for over three decades, and currently works as the first Anheuser-Busch Endowed Professor of Malting and Brewing Sciences at UC Davis. He has written several books on the topic, and while I have not read any of the others, this one is very strangely put together. Pages 1-131 are the book itself, while pages 133-224 are the end notes and appendices. There are tons of endnotes; the first paragraph of the book contains five. There are individual endnotes that go on for seven or eight pages, making them longer than some of the shorter chapters. It's an odd approach, and I think that a lot of the short endnotes would have worked better as footnotes, while the longer ones could have been incorporated into the text or added as interstitial chapters.

Most beer books and documentaries and articles you'll read these days tend to celebrate microbrews and lambast consolidation and large brewing operations. Bamforth has good things to say about smaller breweries, but also points to the major benefits of consistency and economies of scale. Beer is the world's most popular alcoholic beverage, and the third most popular beverage behind water and tea. The vast majority of that is going to require massive industrial processes, not copper kettles and bottles that are wax-sealed by hand. Since he's originally from England, there's also a split focus on the beer industries of the United States and United Kingdom. I admit that I didn't know much about the latter prior to reading this book, but the story is similar, with lots of consolidation and small scale pushes to protect or revive unique regional brews.

Within the short space of the actual book, lot of topics are covered. Neo-prohibitionism, the chemistry of foam, debates over packaging, a touch of religion, and pretty much anything else you can imagine. In that respect it's more like a series of essays rather than a single cohesive book. There was an interesting look at water usage in the beer industry, going from a 6:1 ratio to an Australian brewery that's operating at a slim 2:1 ratio. Beer is almost entirely water, but all the cleaning and boiling and other processes require a lot of water as well. For the one bottle you crack open, an average of about 3.5 additional bottles of water were involved in the production. And it turns out that recycling bottles (grinding them down and recasting the glass) uses less water than refilling bottles due to the additional washing required.

I'm not really sure who the target audience is for this book. If you have a general interest in beer, the business and technical aspects might be boring. If you're in the business, you probably don't care as much about the philosophical waxing or stories of his boyhood love of soccer. The sociopolitical angle is so muddled from state to state and city to city that it's difficult to write about as a general topic. But if you're interested in a broad range of beer topics written by an industry insider, give it a shot.

P.S. Funny side note: the very first part of the book explains that the quote that inspired the book's title was in fact written by Benjamin Franklin, but it was worded differently and referred to wine, not beer. The complete quote, from a 1779 letter to a contact in France: "Behold the rain which descends from heaven upon our vineyards, there it enters the roots of the vines, to be changed into wine, a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy."

Note: This book was received as a sample.


Cindy McMichael said...

this is my 1st time hearing of this book. i may give it a read if i see it at Barnes and Noble next time i go.

warm regards,

Cindy M.

Benito said...


It's a fairly new book, but shouldn't be too hard to find.


The Winos' said...

I've never heard of this book, but I thought the title was catchy. Not really into beer, but always up for exploration.

First time visit to your blog, love it!

Benito said...

Welcome, The Winos! Thanks for stopping by and reading my site.

Beer production is so odd compared to wine production. Your water tends to be local (and that can impact the local style of beer, but there are ways to chemically alter the water to emulate other aquifers). But the barley tends to come from far away, and the hops can be from another continent.

I always love to tell people about all the cool, Rocky Mountain springwater Coors beer that was brewed right here in Memphis. :)