Book review

Bad science

Froth: The Science of Beerfroth
Mark Denny
John Hopkins University Press

Take a look at the title of this book. See, that subtitle? “The Science of Beer”? Well, if you’re like me, that’d make you assume that this is, well, a book about the science of beer.

And yet the first chapter is an unnecessarily long history of beer. Hell, forget unnecessarily long. It’s simply unnecessary – to understand the science of beer you don’t need to know that beer features on hieroglyphics in Egypt, that porter came from Britain or that mainstream brewers make beer that isn’t very nice. You don’t need to know any of it.

Then there’s the second chapter, which is a guide to homebrewing. Yeah, Denny is a homebrewer and for reasons that make absolutely no frigging sense, he devotes an entire chapter to making your own beer. It’s not until after this chapter, nearly halfway through the book, that chapters on science start. And contrary to Denny’s oft-repeated claim, they aren’t simple or easy to understand. They’re full of calculations and are just very dull. He obviously doesn’t have any skill in explaining science to the layman.

He also doesn’t seem to know as much about beer as he thinks he does. Witness the following excerpt: “Let us adopt this increasingly common convention; ale refers to beer that contains little or no hops, whereas beer refers to the hopped product.” What? “Increasingly common convention?” I have never once heard anyone use these distinctions – and I read a fair bit about beer.

Another is his claim that “I have brewed about 80 batches of beer over the years, and not one has developed off-flavours.”. Now that’s pretty hard to swallow; any homebrewer you ask will have a tale of batches that went wrong. It’s a rite of passage. I don’t think Denny is lying; rather he probably doesn’t know enough about beer to recognise off-flavours.

While he’s making odd statements like these he’s painting himself as a “sophisticated” beer lover. He might like it, but he doesn’t seem to know that much about it. He also seems to think he’s a pretty funny guy and wastes a bit of space in the book making sad efforts at humour.

To summarise, if you’re looking for an accessible book about the science of beer, don’t bother with this one.

7 replies »

  1. Hey Glen –
    I don’t know this book, so can’t comment on it per se, but a couple of things you mention might be worth a comment. On the Ale/Beer thing, that is a actually common misperception, more s in the UK and USA than here. So much so that one of the great beer myth debunkers, Martyn Cornell, has written extensively about it:
    And: “This separation of fermented malt drinks in England into ale and beer continued right through to the 18th century, and can still be found in the 19th century, though the only difference by then was that ale was regarded as less hopped than beer. Even in Shakespeare’s time, brewers were starting to put hops into ale, though this was uncommon.”
    And, it’s just a purely personal thing, but I love science and I love history and I find that I understand science much better when I understand the history of scientific discovery that led to our current understanding. If I was coming to beer fairly cold (pardon the pun) I think I’d rather have some background to the history of beer so that I knew that beer wasn’t always the industrial product that we now know and that science has played a big part in the development of the beer industry. But that’s just me.
    Despite your ‘don’t buy’ recommendation, now I want to get it to see what it’s like!.
    PS, if sad efforts at humour count against a bloke, Prof & I are ruined!

    • Hi Matt,
      Thanks for pointing me in the direction that. Beer is one of those subjects where the more you find out, the more you realise you don’t know. I like a bit of science too – but I like mine acccessible and written with the layperson in mind. I didn’t that with this book at all. Next book i read is likely to be Adam Rogers’ Proof, which looks much more user-friendly.
      As for your wanting to get a copy yourself, I would have gladly mailed mine up to you – but I read it on my Kindle. So I don;t have a hard copy to send up.
      On the humour front, you and Prof are fine – light years ahead of this guy. 🙂

  2. Cheers, I’ll stay away from this one! On the ale vs. beer note, I have read somewhere that, rather than being an “increasingly common convention,” this is a dated convention from a couple hundred years ago and it was a purely British convention. But I could be wrong on that.

      • Yeah I saw that, interesting! I came across that info when trying to figure out why the style was called a “bitter” when it’s really not… I couldn’t find any definitive answer but my best guess came down to the beer vs. ale history. I think I’ll be spending some time on Zythophiles site tonight…

        All in all though, the distinction isn’t being used anymore, so God knows why the book sites it as “increasingly common”…

  3. Aw, damn! I liked this read! I found the writer to be a beer geeky scientist who made an effort at sharing his enjoyment of beer through his eyes.
    Granted, he isn’t a specialist of all beer aspects but his breakdown on the scientific reasons for a foamy beer head is entertaining and intriguing.
    Both a casual read and insightful, if not always hardcore beer professional. You bring up a lot of good points though and hopefully the writer will take those into account for a revised version. :-/

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