Once a beer snob, his love of suds led to a unique academic career

Northeastern food and world history professor Malcolm Purinton poses for a portrait at Sam Adams Brewery in Jamaica Plain.
Malcolm Purinton, a Northeastern professor and beer historian, turned his love of beer into an academic vocation. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

Malcolm Purinton was a former theater major who wanted to be a high school history teacher. Then he pursued an interest in world religions. Today he is a beer scholar.

The Northeastern assistant teaching professor of history focuses on the sociocultural relationships of empire, trade and technology in the history of beer and brewing. His website is devoted to “the travels and discoveries of a beer historian.” 

His first book is due out in spring. “Globalization in a Glass: The Rise of Pilsner Beer through Technology, Taste and Empire” is part of a food history series by the academic publisher Bloomsbury Press.

“You can talk about beer in pretty much any conversation on any topic,” says Purinton, who remains amazed by the outcome of his academic career.

While pursuing a Northeastern master’s focused on the history of religion, he took a course on colonialism in Africa. “I was just trying to learn more about everything,” Purinton says. By then he was also trying to learn about beer as a home brewer and occasional freelance writer on the subject. His professor put it all together and suggested that Purinton look into the role that beer played among the empires. It was a tasty idea: Two years later, in 2009, Purinton found himself making a presentation to the World History Association on the history of India Pale Ale.

“Suddenly I was moving towards a Ph.D. [at Northeastern] that was focused not on religion at all, but looking at beer,” he says.

Purinton spoke with News@Northeastern about his unlikely career, the development of his palate and the one question everyone seems to ask him. His comments have been edited for brevity and clarity.

So what was the link between alcohol and colonialism in Africa?

Upwards of 80% of any revenue that was being locally produced in European colonies in Africa was from taxing alcohol. The European powers instituted laws and controls which led to great markets for European breweries.

What is the history of your relationship with beer?

I didn’t start drinking until my second year of college—most of my friends started in high school—so I was intentionally active in not drinking and being an example for others of non-substance use.

When I did start trying alcohol, I took it up incrementally. I wanted to understand what I was doing throughout. Beer was something I could latch onto and identify with because there can be a deeper level of understanding to it.

So I kept it going as far as studying the culture and the sociology surrounding beer, looking at the relationships that develop through beer and alcohol in general.

When did you develop your ability to articulate what you were tasting—your confidence in identifying differences of quality?

In my early 20s I was actively brewing a lot of beer that was palatable, but it wasn’t great. And I was tasting lots of local beer, always trying something new. 

When I was 24 and living in Northern California I went to a party in a barn. I tasted what was on the keg—there was nothing labeled—and I told my friend, “I know exactly what this is.” It was this specific local brown IPA. My friend went over to the brewer, who happened to be there, and the guy said, “I can’t believe you could tell!” At that moment, I was like, OK, I can trust myself. My palate has reached a new level of understanding.

There are a lot of wine historians and experts. What is the difference between you and them?

It’s still a very big difference. Wine tends to be held at a higher level of respect due to perceptions of class.

It actually goes back to the European Renaissance and an idealization of Greece and ancient Rome and the development of philosophy and the law—all of that is associated with the impressions of wine that developed in ancient Greece and Rome. 

It comes down to class and economic place for me too. I certainly didn’t have enough money to be a wine aficionado when I began drinking alcohol. A beer consumer can still be viewed as being at a lower economic level than a wine consumer. There’s also the more masculine (beer) vs. feminine (wine) dynamic that can be seen as well, something that was actually the opposite in ancient Greek and Roman eras.

Give us an interesting fact about beer history?

For most of the possibly 13,000-year history of beer production, women were the primary brewers. But the controls of consumption generally were patriarchal structures controlled by men.

What’s the most popular question you’re asked?

It’s always, “What’s your favorite beer?”

So what is your favorite?

My understanding of beer is different from most people’s. Some of my home brews are among my favorites. But then it also depends on the weather and the timing and the social interaction, like, who am I with? 

When I first started drinking beer, I was a beer snob. If someone would offer me a Bud Light or PBR (Pabst Blue Ribbon) I’d be offended, like, “Do you know what I usually drink? Are you kidding? This is not going to work.”

But now if I’m meeting someone and they offer me a beer that I wouldn’t normally purchase, I’m going to say yes—if I’m in the mood for a drink—because the beer itself is not what they’re offering. They’re offering me an opportunity to share in a social experience. It’s like a gift of welcome to their home. And you can see this across nearly every culture. Alcohol is a part of contract negotiations, celebrations, mourning—it’s all over the place. I think of alcohol and beer on a very different level than I ever would have thought. That said, I am currently excited for Oktoberfest season with all the festbiers and märzens. And good IPAs and sours are also always favorites of mine.

How many different beers have you sampled?

Thousands. That includes home brews, but I’ve also traveled for my academic research everywhere from Belize and Costa Rica to South Africa, to Germany, Ireland, Scotland, England, Belgium. Every place I go, it’s all about the hashtag “drink local.”

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