Science Weekly: Debunking Beer Myths

Charlie Bamforth is a celebrity in the world of beer and brewing, known as the “pope of foam.” He is also the Anheuser-Busch Endowed Professor of Malting and Brewing Sciences at UC Davis, and teaches the next generation of chemists and brewers about all things beer.

Along with a group of environmental journalists, I recently met with Bamforth at the August A. Busch III Brewing and Food Science Laboratory at the Robert Mondavi Institute for Food and Wine Science in Davis, California. Not only is Bamforth one of the most entertaining scientists I’ve had the pleasure of learning from, he is one of the most informative. And this beer drinker over here learned that I’ve learned a few things, well, wrong.

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Brewing tanks at the Busch Laboratory.

Myth #1: Water is the most important ingredient in beer.

Yes AND no! There is a lot of water that goes into the process of making beer from start to finish, with 40 times more water involved in growing barley than in the brewing process. Then there is a 3-1 standard ratio of water to beer in brewing and beer itself is 90 percent water.

But according to Bamforth, there is “nothing magical about Rocky Mountain water!” Good beer can be made anywhere, since the salts are taken out of the water and put back in according to recipe. Beer is always worse when shipped, Bamforth said, and it is “foolish” to ship water.

So don’t lament that your European beer was made in America – if you’re drinking it in the states, that’s a good thing.

Myth #2: The alcohol content in beer has a set limit.

False – so false. In the past decade, a race has ensued to determine who can make the strongest beer. Think your 15 percent Belgian Tripel had a high abv? Think again.

Scottish brewery BrewDog, around since 2007, created the Tactical Nuclear Penguin in 2009, with an abv of 32 percent – the strongest beer ever at the time of its release. Then competitor Schorschbrau and a few others got in the game and they climbed the ladder all the way to 70 percent alcohol by volume.

Intrigued? Be willing to pay up. Most bottles start at $130.

Myth #3: The freshest beer is the one on tap.

Almost always false. Bamforth hates the smell of popcorn because the aroma is a sign of bad brewing or contamination, which can happen if beer isn’t always flowing through a line at the tap. He’ll order the most popular or most sold beer at a bar, if he has to.

The most stable form of beer is actually in a can. Air can get into bottles, so “beer in a can is better,” Bamforth said.

But if you’re going to choose a sealed beverage, “never drink beer straight out of the bottle!”

“It’s vulgar,” Bamforth said, shaking his head. Always get a clean (cold) glass, and pour it so it creates foam.

Myth #4: Beer saved the world.

True – at least it played a part. Beers were originally accidental. But since hops are a preservative, they made beer safer than water to drink. The original meaning of ale was “un-hopped beer,” and so it had to have a higher alcohol content to stay stable. But Bamforth credits the creation and consumption of beer by our ancestors as one of the reasons we’re alive today.

Myth #5: Some beers are better than others.

False: “The best beer is the one you like,” Bamforth said.

Yes, it really is that simple. Cheers!

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