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Can there be too much beer diversity?

The cheery headline at the News & Observer in North Carolina’s Triangle reads: Beer brewing bursts with new diversity. However, by the end we get cautionary words from Charlie Bamforth, chair of the department of food science and technology at the University of California, Davis, as well as the university’s Anheuser-Busch Endowed Professor of Brewing Science.

How many different beers are being made is anyone’s guess, but Bamforth isn’t happy with the growing number. He’d rather the trade stick to a few traditional styles of beer and explore variety within each, taking advantage of different regimes of hops and malts but avoiding the array of other ingredients and techniques being used today.

“I wish brewers would stay with a limited number of beer styles, and make the most of those, like the wine guys have done with their red, white and pink wines,” Bamforth says. “Let’s make ales, and then celebrate diversity within the ales, like with different hops. Let’s stop looking for the exotic.”

Loosen up, Charlie.

Yes, small-batch, and not-so-small, brewers need to keep their eye on the quality control ball – a common concern European brewers seem to express when they see a brewery or brewpub cooking up 30 or more different recipes over the course of a year. And we sure as heck shouldn’t rush to define any new styles (as in Imperial Hefeweizen).

But last year Will Meyers and assistant Megan Parisi cranked out 21 batches of a pumpkin ale at Cambridge Brewing in Massachusetts, each time spending about three hours prepping organic pumpkins for the mash. That’s a drop in the bucket compared to what Anheuser-Busch and Coors will sell in the way of pumpkin beer this year, but it represents what makes Cambridge – and small-batch brewers – different.

That’s one example. You readers – and perhaps Prof. Bamforth if he’d admit it – probably have a few of your own.

7 Responses to Can there be too much beer diversity?

  1. MattThenhaus September 9, 2007 at 12:06 am #

    What a bunch of absolute frakkin bullsmack. Makes one get all conspiratorially-minded, thinking that maybe someone wants to keep the possiblities for competition to a minimum.
    Besides, tell me wine is really just about red/white/pink. Who is this loser? Oh right, he’s a corporate-sponsored “expert”.
    Here’s my example of a brewery who doesn’t fear the “exotic”: O’Fallon Brewing in O’F, MO, makes lots of experimental styles each year, some great, some not so. They also make one of the best smoked beers in the country. Should they abandon deliciousness in the interest of making solely sturdy, respectable ales? Screw that! I want that sloppy blackberry scotch ale available to me as much as I want a refined kolsch or IPA. Diversity always enhances experience, and isn’t that what this is all about? Who wants to go back to a market of just a handful of beer styles? Isn’t diversity the point?

  2. Alan September 9, 2007 at 6:28 am #

    Would he say the same thing about ice cream or cheese or cookies? Of course not. What an odd principle and one that only seems to say to me that this professor is a bit overwhelmed by choice and needing some argument to point the basis for that away from himself.

  3. Bob Skilnik September 9, 2007 at 12:23 pm #

    Charlie Bamforth is very much a respected member of the brewing community and author of a number of books on the subjects of beer and brewing. The American Brewer called his book, “Beer: Tap Into the Art and Science of Brewing,” “Brilliant!”

    As chair of the department of food science and technology at the University of California, Davis, I find it ridiculous that posters here dismiss him as “a corporate-sponsored ‘expert’ or that he he’s “overwhelmed by choice.”

    Conspiratorially-minded, indeed.

  4. Stan Hieronymus September 9, 2007 at 1:21 pm #

    Bob, I do think Bamforth is presenting an “old school” view when it comes to marketing beer.

    Maybe he’s going to turn out to be right, but I hope not.

  5. Eric Trimmer September 10, 2007 at 7:09 am #

    I’m a little confused by Bamforth’s quote.

    Does he intend his advice for individual breweries or the industry as whole?

    The article’s author seems to believe the latter.

    I think his advice would be better applied to some individual breweries, who should stick to a few related styles and try to make them excellently.

    Not every brewery can be a Dogfish Head or a Victory.

    It takes massive talent and lots of capital to be able to branch out and never offer a lousy beer to the public.

    You shouldn’t experiment with a new style if you can’t afford to dump it.

  6. Stan Hieronymus September 10, 2007 at 10:52 am #

    Eric – Fair question (and points).

    The reference to wine keeping it simple would seem to be toward marketing. Wine is equally important at UC Davis and wineries are concerned about making sure their products seem friendly and less pretentious to younger consumers.

    On the other hand, Bamforth is a production expert. So he could mean “do what you do well before he add brands.”

    And I’m not sure what differences between packaging beweries – who are competing for shelf space in an increasingly confusing markeplace – and brewpubs he is allowing for.

  7. Stan Hieronymus September 11, 2007 at 5:31 pm #

    Dr. Bamforth has explained some of his comments to brewers in the Brewers Association Forum. Because the Forum is private I’m not going to do a lot of quoting.

    He says the newspaper did not quote him in full context, but not in a way that he is whining (good for him).

    I will quote one thing: “I applaud the breadth and diversity of what is available in the world of beer. After all, it is simply a matter of individual taste – personally I have little enthusiasm for beers dosed up with ginseng or pieces of pizza. I don’t like drinking beer that tastes like the perineum of a skunk, either. Each to his or her own.”

    Seems fair to me.

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