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CONVERSATION

What this prof knows could fill a keg

June 04, 2008|Charles Perry | Special to The Times

DAVIS, CALIF. — MEET THE Anheuser-Busch Professor of Malting and Brewing Sciences at UC Davis.

The what? There's a professor of beer in that teeming nest of winemakers?

Indeed there is. He's Charles Bamforth, chairman of the department of food science and technology, a sturdy, jovial middle-aged Englishman with traces of a Liverpool/Manchester accent. On June 13 and 15, UC Davis will bestow diplomas on eight of his students -- along with their 37 classmates majoring in viticulture and oenology.

Bamforth clearly enjoys his role as the merry beer drinker at the wine tasting. "There are two kinds of students I set off," he confides, as he heads off to teach his Malting and Brewing 102A class. "The chemical engineers, because I tell them they have no soul. And the oenologists, of course."

Well, he doesn't exactly set them off by accident -- he teases them without end. To illustrate an issue in quality control, he pointedly tells an oenology major, "Now, let us say you're throwing darts at a dartboard and you're singularly incapable of hitting a bull's-eye," drawing out the word "singularly" to imply astonishing klutziness. (One of his recurrent themes is that beer requires more skill to make than wine does.) Everybody laughs, including the blushing oenologist.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday, June 09, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
Beer professor's publisher: An article in Wednesday's Food section about Charles Bamforth, a professor at UC Davis, incorrectly stated that his book "Grape vs. Grain" was published by Oxford University Press. The publisher is Cambridge University Press.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, June 11, 2008 Home Edition Food Part F Page 4 Features Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
Beer professor's publisher: A June 4 Food section article about Charles Bamforth, a professor at UC Davis, incorrectly stated that his book "Grape vs. Grain" was published by Oxford University Press. The publisher is Cambridge University Press.

At the end of the class, the last one of the quarter, another wine-making major presents Bamforth with a bottle of Champagne and a bottle of fine Belgian ale and slyly points out that the Champagne bottle is bigger. "Size matters, Charlie," he says, showing that oenologists can tease back.

Bamforth, a onetime quality assurance officer at a Liverpool brewery, has a remarkable rapport with American college students. He is a prolific writer, author of such scholarly articles as "Food, Fermentation and Micro-organisms" and "The Foaming of Mixtures of Albumin and Hordein Protein Hydrolysates in Model Systems."

His latest nonacademic book, "Grape vs. Grain," is a concise discussion of the beers and wines of the world -- including their history, technology and aesthetics -- that treats beer throughout as wine's equal in flavor and healthfulness. "I wanted to call it 'Beer and Wine,' " he insists, "but Oxford University Press preferred the note of confrontation." In fact, he says, he likes both beverages, but he demands that beer get due respect, aesthetically and as a healthful drink.

Yes, healthfulness. When drunk in moderation, beer provides much the same health benefit as wine and is an excellent source of B vitamins and antioxidants, he tells his class. Did you know, for instance, that it's an outstanding way to get your silicon, a trace nutrient important for bone and cartilage health, and that there are people in the U.K. who derive their entire recommended daily dose of silicon from beer? Or that the body absorbs the antioxidant ferulic acid -- that's (E)-3-(4-hydroxy-3-methoxy-phenyl)prop- 2-enoic acid to you and me -- better from beer than it does from tomatoes?

Bamforth's involvement in the beer world began when, as a postdoctoral biochemist, he was hired for his knowledge of enzymology by the Brewing Research Foundation, an institution funded by the British beer industry. A couple of years later, Bass Brewing Co. recruited him to be its research manager. Eventually, Bass sent him to its Liverpool brewery and charged him with making sure no flawed beer got into the market.

"They wanted me to have field experience," he says. "They considered Liverpool a particularly tough brewery to work at." No problem. Bamforth had street cred -- he's also been a sportswriter, specializing in soccer.

A program gone flat

Although brewing has been part of the UC Davis curriculum since the '40s, by 1999, the previous professor of brewing had been retired for several years and the program was in danger of fading away. So that year the university hired Bamforth to revive the program because he had the perfect resume: big-league science and hands-on experience. And Anheuser-Busch (which has a brewery in Fairfield, just 30 miles from Davis) endowed the professorship to make sure the university got him. "I've found that there's a thick seam of Davis grads at Anheuser," Bamforth says.

When Bamforth came to Davis, the fundamentals of brewing were still being taught on a rudimentary setup installed in the '50s. "It doesn't look like much," says grad student Jonathan Goldberg, gazing at a contraption about the size of a refrigerator, consisting of two worn copper tanks connected to a jungle gym of pipes, "but a lot of people in the industry have learned on this system."

Two years ago, the brewing giant again showed its support for Davis' program by giving the university shiny new equipment for teaching the subject, featuring all the computerized equipment you'd find in an up-to-date commercial brewery scaled down to make just a gallon-and-a-half at a time.

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