Originally published in The California Aggie
The behemoth lecture hall 1100 Social Sciences filled up fast, students piling through the doors. A few latecomers rushed in and took seats on the floor as a white-haired professor with a proper English accent pointed out a student in the crowd.
“Have you ever been to Lake Berryessa?” he asked. “Ever go fishing? Did you drink beer? Did you pee? Where? In Lake Berryessa?”
Yes, the student answered to each question.
“That went straight to Budweiser, my friend,” the professor said, as the room erupted in laughter. “Did you do anything else there? Oh, never mind.”
Welcome to the wonderful world of beer and brewing with Charles Bamforth.
The Anheuser-Busch endowed professor of brewing science and department chair of the UC Davis food science and technology program has earned a reputation among students as one of the best professors at UC Davis, and his Intro to Beer and Brewing class remains among the highest enrolled on campus.
Bamforth’s popularity won him a spot on the Playboy Honor Roll, a list of the top 20 professors in the nation chosen by Playboy magazine. The list, which calls Bamforth the “Brewmaster General,” can be found in the magazine’s October 2010 issue.
In his office in the Robert Mondavi Institute building, Bamforth introduced himself as “Charlie from the food science department” and appeared amused by the award, which he said he initially wanted to turn down.
After Playboy spoke to the university, however, he agreed to take it.
“I’m highly honored, and kind of embarrassed to see what is elsewhere in the magazine,” Bamforth said with a smile. “There is a young lady from Sacramento there who is showing rather more of her charms than I am, but it’s all recognition and that’s kind of nice.”
Bamforth’s interest in beer began with visits to pubs in his native England when he was 16 years old. While studying biochemistry at the University of Hull, drinking with friends became a social activity.
He happened upon the brewing industry by accident as he looked for work researching enzymes. After finding a job at an English brewing company, he never looked back.
Bamforth’s experience as both a professor at the University of Sheffield and as a researcher at Bass Brewery caught the eye of the food science and technology department at UC Davis, which offered him the position of Anheuser-Busch endowed professor of brewing science in 1999.
Despite his extensive background in research, it is teaching that excites him most.
“I’m motivated by students learning and enjoying what they’re learning as well, and that’s so important to me,” Bamforth said. “Like any academic I have three responsibilities: research, teaching and outreach. I put a lot of energy into all of them, but if I was to rank them in order of personal satisfaction, it would be teaching, outreach and research.”
Bamforth is well aware of his reputation among students. He chuckled at the mention of the Charles Bamforth Quote Appreciation Society, a Facebook group dedicated to the humorous quips and expressions that he has become known for.
“I’m not a member. I find it amusing, though. Yes, yes, I have a tendency to say strange things at strange times. Nobody’s sued me yet,” Bamforth said.
In fact, students have been known to take their devotion to Bamforth’s remarks far enough to fashion a game out of them.
“Ten minutes into one of my classes this guy put his hand up and I said, ‘what, do you have a question?’ He said, ‘No, bingo,’” Bamforth said. “And everybody in the class had a bingo card and on each of the squares there was something I say. And this guy had a line.”
Seeming to understand the power he has over the drinking habits of his students, Bamforth cautioned them against drinking if under the age of 21 or as the result of peer pressure.
That’s not to say those of age should avoid drinking beer in moderation.
“They should choose a beer they enjoy. It’s perfectly okay to like a gentle-flavored, blander lager. It’s not necessarily smart to have the strongest and most alcoholic,” Bamforth said. “And don’t play games with it. Strictly no beer pong. Uncle Charles says, ‘No.’”
Bamforth’s devotion to his students and contributions to the world of brewing have earned him not only the admiration of students, but also of his colleagues.
Jean-Xavier Guinard, professor in the food sciences and technology department, referred to Bamforth as a superstar on campus.
“He is easily one of the most knowledgeable experts on beer in the world,” Guinard said in an e-mail interview. “That combined with his professionalism, charisma, sense of humor and incredible command of the English language make him a fascinating and entertaining speaker and a wonderful teacher.”
Despite the continued adoration of his students and colleagues, Bamforth stressed that he does plan on retiring one day. Until then, the ever-changing business of brewing and his passion for teaching keep him coming back to UC Davis year after year.
“There’s always something new going on in brewing, and it’s a very social, as you can imagine, business to be in,” Bamforth said. “It’s always nice to meet up with friends and colleagues all over the world as we discuss the finer nuances of beer … over a beer.”