Science Talk

Beer Science; And A Cancer Research Report

In this episode, University of California, Davis, professor Charles Bamforth talks about beer science. And journalist Kevin Begos discusses the centennial meeting of the American Association For Cancer Research. Plus we'll test your knowedge of some recent science in the news. Website mentioned on this episode include

Welcome to Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American for the seven days starting May 9th. I am Steve Mirsky. This week on the podcast, beer! We'll talk with Charlie Bamforth who knows as much about beer as any one and has one of the great titles in all of academia. He is the Anheuser-Busch professor of malting and brewing sciences at the University of California, Davis; and journalist Kevin Begos joins us. He reports on the recent conference of the American Association for Cancer Research.

First up, Charlie Bamforth. He is the author of "Beer: Tap into the Art and Science of Brewing." He spoke at the New York Academy of Sciences in late February, and I wrote about his talk in the May issue of Scientific American, but since Charlie is so entertaining and my column is so short, I thought there was plenty more to explore.I called Bamforth at his office at U.C., Davis.

Steve: Professor Bamforth—great to talk to you.

Bamforth: It's nice to talk to you.

Steve: What is beer?

Bamforth: Beer is a fermented beverage based on malted cereals and spiced with hops and fermentation involving saccharomyces—brewing yeast—so it's an alcoholic beverage really, which is grain derived.

Steve: Why is beer superior to wine in your view?

Bamforth: Well! They are both fine drinks, but beer of course is superior for various reasons. One is that it’s much more scientifically interesting and complicated. It's much more technologically demanding and certainly much more technologically sophisticated. It is more complicated quality-wise and therefore far more interesting; and it's just as healthy as wine, if not more so.

Steve: The studies on the cardiovascular benefits of various alcoholic beverages seem to point to the alcohol as being the major factor in those benefits.

Bamforth: Yeah! It certainly seems that way. You know, for a long time people were talking about some polyphenolic materials and things like resveratrol in wine. I think people realize that to get enough of these materials to have any impact on the body, you will have to drink a phenomenal amount of wine, and the same benefits in terms of countering atherosclerosis has have been shown for beer just as good as the wine in terms of the fair amounts of alcohol, and it is actually the alcohol which seems to be the key ingredient. There may be some minor impact on things like polyphenols, but really [it] is the alcohol which is the key ingredient.

Steve: So let me talk about you for a minute, because you're one of the world’s foremost beer experts.

Bamforth: Well! That’s very nice of you to say so. (laughs)

Steve: And you are a real serious chemist.

Bamforth: Yeah!

Steve: Now at what point in your chemical education, in your chemistry education do you commit to beer as your life?

Bamforth: You commit when you are looking for your first permanent job. I was a postdoc, actually in the department of microbiology in Sheffield, England, and it's a two-year postdoc. In the first year you spend devouring away and getting this many results in papers as possible. In the second year you shuffle over the pages of the literature, looking for the best job. I am an enzymologist by trading, then a biochemist, and the very first job that took my eye was actually in the brewing industry. They were looking for an enzymologist to work on malted barley and work on yeast, and I fitted the bill. I enjoyed beer, I like beer. I was interested in beer.

Steve: You had some previous experience with beer?

Bamforth: No, the only previous experience was in terms of quality control down the prom.

Steve: Right!

Bamforth: I never actually went to the brewing industry before that point way back in 1978.

Steve: Yeah! That's the experience I met actually, the experience most graduate students have.

Bamforth: Yeah! Well, of course, you know, being English that experience actually starts at the age of 18, and so you know we had bars on campus, and we didn't abuse it, we simply enjoyed it, and it was a great social vehicle, and I used to sit in the bar and peel back the beer mats and write down metabolic pathways—that's interesting.

Steve: That's always fun.

Bamforth: (laughs)

Steve: (laughs) I've seen that done.

Bamforth: Yeah! (laughs)

Steve: Now you're talking about beer being more sophisticated in a way—scientifically—than wine. One of the hallmarks of beer is—an oppositional one is—that you cannot tell a vintage. How is the quality control so good, where I can pick up a bottle of a particular brand of beer and it will taste exactly the same as a bottle of that beer five years down the road?

Bamforth: Well! Almost it will taste exactly the same five years down the road, but it certainly should taste the same as every other batch of the same beer that is brewed.

Steve: Okay!

Bamforth: Because brewers actually believe in consistency, they believe in consistent excellence, and, you know, the raw materials for making beer, the barley and the hops and so, they vary year on year because of natural, you know, environmental issues and climate differences and so on. Brewers overcome them, they look at the signs, they interpret what is happening, they make certain measurements and they modify—they treat the process —such that you actually have a common process stream and the product is consistent. In terms of five years down the line, then, for most beers that certainly wouldn't be the case. You know, beer is never better than late, first put into a package. We don't tell stories about vintage and, you know, longevity and all those sort of things.Beer inherently, like many other foodstuffs, will deteriorate with time in terms of staling, and we try to overcome that, we try to prevent that by minimizing the levels of oxygen in the beer in keeping the beer cool. And really the brewers have been increasingly successful about that, so beer is, you know, consistently excellent.

Steve: In your book you get into the history of beer.

Bamforth: Yeah!

Steve: And it's really fascinating, the history of beer is in a sense the history of Western civilization.

Bamforth: Well! You know we can trace it back to thousands and thousands of years. We can trace it back to the Fertile Crescent, which is modern day Iraq; and, you know, beer was being made then based on a bread which was made out of sprouted barley and [a] primitive form of wheat called emmer; and really before people learned how to make this interesting product, where they actually they enjoyed it, it was nutritious, it was warming. Before that they used to, you know have a very sort of wandering lifestyle. because [But] they couldn't do that—if they weren't going to stay put and grew [they couldn't grow] grains, and then allow it to ferment; so you know the basis of modern civilization could not be pretty, you know, hand on heart, traced down to the development of a product such as beer.

Steve: Right! If we want to drink that beer we better stay here and grow the barley that we need.

Bamforth: Yeah! Absolutely—you know, what is the point in wandering from one place to another? You know, we've got this wonderful nutritious, pleasurable drink that we've got here, and it depends on us staying put and producing that cereal.

Steve: Until very recently, wasn't water dangerous to drink? Is that part of why wine and beer were the drinks of choice throughout the last 8,000 years or so?

Bamforth: Yeah! Beer is certainly not hospitable for the growth of microorganisms. You know, we don’t have coli scares in beer. Pathogens will not grow in beer and the beer—of course during production it's boiled—beer contains hops which has got antimicrobial components, and so, you know, ales and beers over the years have been safer to drink rather than the water because of these reasons. You know, the early settlers in this country, you know, the story is told of those guys landing up from the rocks. Why? Because of victuals were much spent especially of beer, and, you know, the people, they kept enough beer for the sailors to go back on the Mayflower. The people who were settling there were drinking the local water, and they were getting sick because, you know, if they’ve [they'd] been drinking the ale, and they would've been much healthier.

Steve: Right! You tell that story in the book. You also mention that the first paved street in America, in New York City—in what is now New York City—was paved so that the beer wagons could get through better.

Bamforth: Yes! Right! I mean there's nothing worse than shaking a beer up and that, and making to [it] roll—you know, true effervescence—and shooting out of the container. So they wanted a smooth passage for the beer, so they made sure that the road was nice and smooth.

Steve: You mentioned hops. Now, hops come into the history of beer relatively recently?

Bamforth: Well! Relatively so, and in different parts of the world—in places like Germany—hops have been a part of the recipe for many hundreds of years. In my native England, they were relatively late getting in there, and they were referred to as being a wicked and pernicious weed, because the ales in England, in order to preserve them, they need to be very strong—the alcohol is a wonderful antimicrobial agent—and so they need to be very strong. But hops do contain this antimicrobial ingredient, so if you put hops in to beer you can make them less strong and therefore when the hops came across to England in the mid part of the last millennium, the beer could then be sold at lower alcohol content and therefore they called it a wicked and pernicious weed for diluting that product.

Steve: But what exactly is a hop?

Bamforth: Hops are the fruiting bodies from the female hop plant. The hops in the United States, they grow in Oregon and in Washington State, [and] in Idaho particularly. And the female produces this [these] hop cones, and in these hop cones there are glands called lupulin glands, and they contain resins, and they contain oils. The resins are the precursors of the bitterness in the beer, the oils provide aroma. So you've got a strongly hoppy aroma'ed beer like something like the Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. You know, there's a good proportion of hops in them which give[s] that aroma [and] also gives the bitterness. [The] closest relative of the hops is actually cannabis. The cannabis resins, I'm told, have different types of impact on the body.

Steve: You are told this?

Bamforth: I am told that.

Steve: Yes, I believe that's page 111 in the book by the way.

Bamforth: (laughs)

Steve: I wanted to ask you about—it’s a fascinating relationship between many of the key events in the history of science and beer.There's the—you talk in the book about— has the contribution of Pasteur [made] to beer or is it vice versa? Is it the contribution of beer made to Pasteur?

Bamforth: Well! You know, Pasteur studied fermentation in general, so he looked at the wines, and he looked at beers. He published two books, Études sur le Vin and Études sur la Bière, and he worked with a brewery in London who were having infection problems and showed that [them] basically how to clean up their acts and get a more consistent product. You know, I said that beer [is] relatively resistant to spoil[ing]. There are some organisms that will grow in it—certain lactic acid bacteria—and he showed, he really showed people had to operate the study—hygienic operation. Of course his name is lent to a process which is involved quite widely in the brewing industry. Very, very low amounts of these do actually just remove any last traces of microorganisms.

Steve: I was just checking—the cannabis-hops relationship is indeed on page 111 and there is[are] some nice molecular structures on page 112 for anybody interested. You also talk in the book about beer and the early thermodynamic theory.

Bamforth: Well! I think I referred to a guy called Joule. He was from England, from a well-known brewing family. Naturally, where he comes from in the middle of England, you will pronounce it "Joules from Staffordshire," and when I was a boy, Joules was still a very much a significant brand of ales in the UK. Yeah! There are a number of scientific theories. The pH for example. The pH comes at scales and was worked out by a guy working for Carlsberg—the famous way for measuring nitrogen in food stuffs. There's a guy called Kjeldahl, also from Carlsberg and many people who have heard of the—in statistics—the student's t-test—it was Student, that was the pen name—his real name was Gosset, and he worked for Guinness, and he applied statistics in the breeding of barley. So much scientific work was actually fundamentally first done in the brewing industry. When in the turn of the last century in Burton-on-Trent, England, home of famous ale, there were three fellows of the Royal Society, working for [the] brewing company, the chief chemist in Burton-on-Trent at that time,—three,you know the equivalent of National Academy Of Science was all working in the brewing industry, one really rather small town.

Steve: Amazing! You hate this question I’m going to ask you. So, but I'm going to ask it, so that you can explain why you hate it. What is your favorite beer?

Bamforth: (laughs) Yeah! I never answer that question because there are two reasons—one is I got so many friends in the brewing industry across the world, I'm bound to upset so many of them because of the beer.

Steve: And you are the Anheuser-Busch professor.

Bamforth: (laughs) They do endeavor my chair but the second reason is, you know, it depends on what I'm doing and where I [a]m. You know I am English, and you know it's the middle of winter in England, and there is a roaring log fire at a pub, and I am eating a steak and kidney pie or something like that—then what I want is a nice traditional English ale. But if I am watching a baseball game in the States and it's 100 Fahrenheit outside, and I'm eating nutshells, peanuts, and whatever you have, then you really want a American-style lager, so refreshing and so easy to drink.

Steve: Dr. Bamforth, you are an inspiration.

Bamforth: (laughs)

Steve: And I appreciate your time. Thanks for very much.

Bamforth: Thank you very much indeed.

Steve: My column titled, "Ale’s Well with the World" is free at our Web site,, and Bamforth’s book, again, is called Beer: Tap into the Art and Science of Brewing.

If you've seen the new video news feeds at the Scientific American Web site, they are live, easy to view, and updated three times every day.Video news just a click away at

Now it's time to play TOTALL.......Y BOGUS. Here are four science stories, only three are true. See if you know which story is TOTALL.......Y BOGUS.

Story number 1: Astronomers have found telescopic evidence of a supernova about 100 times more energetic than any previously seen.

Story number 2: Researchers in Manchester, England, have received a grant to study whether maggot therapy beats high-tech treatments for diabetic foot infections.

Story number 3: A compound commonly found in dandruff shampoo might be effective as an antiseizure drug.

And Story number 4: All 10 participants in last week's Republican presidential candidate debate said that they accepted evolution.

We'll be back with the answer. But first, Kevin Begos is a freelance journalist and a frequent contributor to the daily SciAm podcast, 60-Second Science. He attended the recent centennial conference of the American Association for Cancer Research in Los Angeles. I called him back home in Tallahassee, Florida.

Steve: Hi Kevin. How are you?

Begos: Good Steve. How are you?

Steve: Good. You've just come back from the meeting. I understand one of the subjects there was diet and cancer. That's an evergreen topic, but there is some new information about diet in cancer?

Begos: Yes Steve, not just new information, but some extra-specific information beyond just all the myths we've all heard of. Some researchers at U.C.L.A. looked at compounds from eggs, broccoli and green vegetables and soy, but they isolated those compounds and then applied them to cancer cells and literally found that the cancer cells almost came to a stop. These were cancer cells that were, you know, in the process of multiplying, and when these compounds were applied, it virtually stopped the growth in the cells which, you know, has tremendous implications for breast and ovarian cancer, which is what these cells were from.

Steve: What were the specific compounds?

Begos: They were diindolemethane, which comes from vegetables such as broccoli and brussels sprouts; and genistein, which comes from soy products.

Steve: And you mentioned some of the myths before. What myths were you referring to specifically?

Begos: Well! There's been a lot of talk or speculation that soy products either prevent cancer or, you know, may even be good for people recovering from cancer, but studies have been inconclusive, and there are some forms of breast cancer, for example, when massive doses of soy aren't good for the patient. So this is the one [study] that looked at it on the cell level, not just a clinical trial of people, but seeing what was happening on the cellular level, when these compounds interacted.

Steve: Right! And also there's no evidence that that particular compound is going to make it to a cancer cell if you eat that cruciferous vegetable or we'll [will] make it to a normal cell when you eat that food and keep it from becoming cancerous, I would assume.

Begos: That's true. You know this is in the early stages. They are planning trials on mice or rats soon, but right know, they've just looked at it in cells.

Steve: Anything else on the diet front?

Begos: Yes. A researcher at the National Cancer Institute found that just one additional serving of fruit and vegetables per day significantly lowered the risk of head and neck cancer—just that additional serving [and] people had a 29 percent less risk for head and neck cancer.

Steve: It's really interesting. Well! You know fruits and vegetables always get a lot of good press. People still don’t really eat as much of them as they should probably.

Begos: Yeah! And this was a study of 500,000 people, aged 50 and older, so it was a quite large clinical study.

Steve: So, I know that one of the other things that you saw at the meeting was information about information technology in health care cause[costs]. It's kind of interesting.

Begos: Everybody agrees that their problems with health care cause[costs] only seem to be getting worse. You know there are more and more wonderful breakthrough treatments, but they are often incredibly expensive. You know some specific progress can have treatment cause[costs] of 10 or 20 or 30 thousand dollars a month for some particular illnesses, and that's just—everybody else agrees—that's not sustainable one in the long run. There just isn't a model, an insurance model or business model where that works. What was interesting was that there seems to be a lot of agreement that part of the problem is that they were still operating under a healthcare model that dates back to the 19th century or even earlier—it's literally from the Florence Nightingale age—when a hospital had a very limited, clearly defined role and doctors did, you know, [a] much smaller number of treatments and therapies. Now, there are far more therapies and far more complicated ones that can involve, you know, weeks or months of radiation chemotherapy,other things like stem cell therapies—and it's information overload on the system.

Steve: Information overload so that you mean there just aren't the kinds of computer technologies in place to keep track of who should be getting what, when, and the system breaks down?

Begos: Not just so much, that there aren't the kind of technologies but that we don't quite know how to manage them—because there is so much information out there—over not making the best use of it. So if all the information about the patient and perspective therapies and other sorts of things isn't readily available at different stages along, you know, the healthcare spectrum, you know, from clinic visits to emergency rooms to your primary care physicians, they are finding that [a] lot of key information gets left out just because people don’t have access to it; and that can be both the patient and the doctor or the hospital not realizing something. Sometimes it's just from not asking the questions and recording the responses or having enough of a medical history; other times it's just the system doesn't place all that at the fingertips of researchers or doctors.

Steve: And what are the probably negative consequences of that situation?

Begos: Well! There also, one of the big messages from the meeting was the importance of individualized medicine. In other words, cancer isn't just one disease, but it’s a variety of diseases that affect different people in different ways. So women can have all different sorts of breast cancer, its not just one disease; and a treatment that could work for one woman could completely fail for another woman. So some of that ties to that woman's particular genetic makeup; other things could have to do with diet, lifestyle, you know, what kind of environment she grew up in. But unless the physician has all those factors accessible, then there are just blank spots, there is some guessing going on.

Steve: And that could actually wind up having an effect on treatment choices.

Begos: Exactly! Because that's what everybody is also saying is we're getting to the point of, we're going to have to make harder choices. Some of these wonderful new therapies are so expensive that very few people can afford them, and the healthcare system can’t even afford to subsidize them.

Steve: So you better make sure that you're picking out your patient population that actually will be helped by those particular treatments.

Begos: Right! And that you actually are picking them out at the right time.

Steve: Interesting stories. Kevin, thanks very much.

Begos: Thank you Steve.

Steve: The Web site of the American Association for Cancer Research is

Now it's time to see which story was TOTALL.......Y BOGUS. Let's review the four stories.

Story number 1: Super-duper Supernova.

Story number 2: Maggots to be studied against diabetic foot infections.

Story number 3: Dandruff shampoo ingredient could be antiseizure medications.

Story number 4: All of the announced Republican candidates for president accept evolution.

Time is up.

Story number 1 is true. In a paper submitted to The Astrophysical Journal, researchers announced they had telescopic images of a supernova about 100 times as energetic as any known. They estimate that the star that went kablooey had 150 times the mass of our sun. Nathan Smith, of the University of California, Berkley, said that the supernova, dubbed, SN2006gy, "was so powerful that it may require a new type of mechanism that's been predicted theoretically, but never seen before."

Story number 2 is true. Manchester researchers did indeed receive funding to study maggot therapy for diabetic foot infections. Foot ulcers are a huge problem for diabetics and they often become infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Maggots eat only the dead tissue, may release some kind of helpful compounds, and the wriggling motion may stimulate the growth of healthy tissues.

Story number 3 is true. Zinc pyrithione—the active ingredient in antidandruff shampoo—makes defective potassium channels work better; and defective potassium channels contribute to seizures—for example, an epilepsy. So the ingredient in dandruff shampoos may find a role in antiseizure treatment. For more, check out the May 8th edition of the daily Scientific American podcast, 60-Second Science.

All of which means that story number 4 about all the Republican candidates for president accepting evolution is TOTALL.......Y BOGUS. Because when asked last week at the first republican presidential debate if anyone on stage did not believe in evolution, three of the candidates raised their hands: Kansas senator Sam Brownback; Colorado representative Tom Tancredo; and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee. When I passed this news on to somebody else at Scientific American, he said, "When politicians are asked whether they don't believe in evolution and they raise their hands, they should be handed mops and told to report to aisle seven for cleanup in keeping with their qualifications." To which I replied, "That is an insult to hardworking cleaning crews everywhere." But seriously—first of all, it's not really correct to ask if one believes in evolution—you either accept evolution or you don't. But more important, this is actually incredibly encouraging news. The real story here is that 70 percent of the Republican presidential field, including the likely nominee, apparently does accept evolution, which, according to polls, is a higher percentage than the American public. The glass is 70 percent full, and according to my friend anyway, we know who is qualified to mop up the other 30 percent.

Well that's it for this edition of the weekly Scientific American podcast. You can write to us at, check out news articles at our Web site,, the daily SciAm podcast 60-Second Science is at the Web site and at iTunes. For Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American, I am Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.

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