Good Beer Hunting

no. 400

During SF Beer Week, Almanac Beer Co. hosted a series of presentations from a group of people co-founder Jesse Friedman described as “his favorite people in beer.”

It was absurd that I was one of them. It will always feel absurd.

Averie Swanson of Jester King, Jeffers Richardson of Firestone Walker, Andrew Schwartz of Modern Times, Collin McDonnell of HenHouse—it was one hell of a lineup. But the real ringer of the day was Dr. Charlie Bamforth, the legendary professor, writer, and research manager for Bass, among many other incredible roles that would stand out, individually, on literally anyone else’s résumé, as career achievements.

Bamforth is one of those folks who has spoken in front of a crowd so many times that he barely needs to be conscious to be effective. And yet, he brings a zeal and a sense of humor that feels of-the-moment every time. He’s not playing the hits so much as laughing with us about how ridiculous it is that there are so many hits.

It was a wormhole moment for me, hearing the stories from the old days at Bass about how hard they committed themselves to quality and maintenance of the draft lines in their many, many brewery-owned pubs across the UK. And how losing that capability because of Margaret Thatcher’s desire to prevent monopolies (which Bamforth claims she learned from shortsighted Americans), destroyed what we in the States would call “tied houses.” (It's a phrase that always causes a hush in a room full of craft beer fans, and this day was no different.) And yet, those pubs made for an exceptional drinking experience for one of the world’s most iconic brands. 

These days, a lot of the old fears of the beer industry are falling by the wayside, and even older fears are returning in new ways. Craft brewers are entering every part of the three-tier system with their own distribution and retail experiences. Meanwhile, we’re also making light Lagers and gunning for the low-cost convenience store coolers. Beer is doing what it does best when left to its own devices: it’s going in every direction at once. But how do you ensure that those devices—and not the devices of international conglomerates—are the ones the laws are protecting? It’s becoming less and less clear.

Following “a spirited defense of hazy IPAs” from Modern Times’ Andrew Schwartz, Bamforth took aim at clarity, or perhaps lack thereof. He also took the humorous approach of a humble brewer who would not dare say what drinkers should like, and also the approach of the scientist who could prove to them that what they like probably isn’t the thing at all.

Basically, Bamforth wants receipts.

And there he was, as relevant—perhaps even moreso?—than ever. Telling stories that would've drawn scoffs a few years ago, but now find the ears of a new generation of craft brewers. But hey, that’s all you can really do if you’re a soothsayer communicating with a populace that tunes in and out based on their deeply entrenched cultural biases. Beer people have plenty of those, and you can’t force them to understand. You can only share the stories and hope that, as the pendulums swing just like they always do, and the context shifts again as it always does, that the words will fall into a new-sounding sentence full of hope and warning, fear and fortitude, grit and good humor—that it'll resonate with the next generation. After all, that generation has yet to see time and history, as it always does, bending back on itself.

For his part, Charlie seems as limber as ever.