Update on the Oxford Companion to Beer

Since we wrote this some­what pos­i­tive but reserved review, there’s been plen­ty going on.

In a stroke of genius, Alan at A Good Beer Blog has set up a wiki so that read­ers of the Com­pan­ion can iden­ti­fy and record errors. What’s par­tic­u­lar­ly help­ful, we think, is that he’s asked peo­ple to focus on just the facts, ma’am, and not to make it per­son­al. This needn’t be narky, sarky nit­pick­ing – it could be some­thing real­ly con­struc­tive and use­ful.

In fact, hip­pies that we are, we were hop­ing this whole dis­cus­sion would turn into a kind of beer com­m­mu­ni­ty col­lab­o­ra­tive love-in.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, what he’s read so far has made Mar­tyn Cor­nell angry (a bit too angry, maybe). Gar­rett Oliv­er, who edit­ed the com­pan­ion, seems to have tak­en it per­son­al­ly (it wasn’t, but then the book is his baby) and has respond­ed with sar­casm and a point-by-point rebut­tal. And Mar­tyn has come back to that in the com­ments here. Yeesh. This could run and run.

Mean­while, all this dis­cus­sion has been met with cries of “pedantry” and “spoil-sports!” on Twit­ter and forums.

And we con­tin­ue to find both bloop­ers and entries which give us hope. Ron Pat­tin­son might not have much time for Horst Dorn­busch, but Herr Dorn­busch and Mr Oliver’s arti­cle on porter in the Com­pan­ion cites Ron’s mini-book on the sub­ject and (based on a quick read) gets the basics right. Most impor­tant­ly, it refers to the sto­ry of Ralph Har­wood invent­ing porter as a sub­sti­tute for three threads as a myth, in no uncer­tain terms.

We still think the book is a good read as long as you read crit­i­cal­ly and don’t do any­thing daft like base an aca­d­e­m­ic paper on its con­tents; and we cer­tain­ly still think it’s a big step for­ward in terms of ambi­tion for books about beer.

But our view has hard­ened a bit: it’s not pedantry, nit­pick­ing or spoil-sport behav­iour to expect a book which costs quite a lot of mon­ey to get the his­to­ry right. Yes, maybe some of those point­ing out errors could be a bit more gra­cious and take less obvi­ous glee in find­ing them but, real­ly, no-one should pub­lish a book with some claim to aca­d­e­m­ic rigour and be sur­prised when aca­d­e­mics and his­to­ri­ans chal­lenge it. It’s all in the game.

18 thoughts on “Update on the Oxford Companion to Beer”

  1. I take no per­son­al glee at all in find­ing errors in the OCB. It’s extreme­ly depress­ing to find errors repeat­ed in a book that will pro­vide the basis for thou­sands of arti­cles, mar­ket­ing cam­paigns, bot­tle labels and the like. I’ve ded­i­cat­ed a fair chunk of the past 15 years to try­ing to find an accu­rate ver­sion of the his­to­ry of beer, and to find stuff like – and this is from lit­er­al­ly the first page I hit using Amazon’s ‘Look Inside – sur­prise me’ fea­ture –

    There are about 9,000 man­aged pubs in the UK. These are pubs owned by a brew­ery.”

    just makes me think: “WTF?”

  2. Mar­tyn – that pint bot­tle thing is par­tic­u­lar­ly weird. The last pint bot­tle I saw was from Sam Smith, six months ago. I can only assume some­one is con­fused and has assumed 500ml bot­tles are pint bot­tles because, give or take, they fill a pint glass.

  3. On gleefulness/angriness, I sup­pose what we’re say­ing is that the old cliche re: more flies being caught with hon­ey than vine­gar rings true to us. Sar­casm and vit­ri­ol make it easy for peo­ple to say “sour grapes” or “crank” and ignore the con­tent.

  4. it’s not pedantry, nit­pick­ing or spoil-sport behav­iour to expect a book which costs quite a lot of mon­ey to get the his­to­ry right.
    This, this, a tril­lion times this.

    I’d like to think that when I’m an inter­na­tion­al­ly-renowed author­i­ta­tive beer writer, and some­one points out that some­thing I’m stand­ing over doesn’t actu­al­ly hold up to scruti­ny, that my response will be more “Oh, that’s very inter­est­ing, I’ll have a look and I’ll know for again”. Rather than “DON’T YOU KNOW WHO i AM AND HOW MUCH WORK I’VE PUT INTO THIS?!”

  5. TBN – there is nev­er a sit­u­a­tion where “Oh, that’s inter­est­ing, sor­ry you’re not hap­py, thanks for the feed­back” does any harm, as far as we can tell. Makes you look big and clever.

    Instead, Oliver’s done one of these.

  6. but Herr Dorn­busch and Mr Oliver’s arti­cle on porter in the Com­pan­ion cites Ron’s mini-book on the sub­ject…’

    By no means is ‘Porter!’ by Ron a mini-book. That’s like say­ing Joyce’s Ulysses is chick-lit suit­able for that lazy beach hol­i­day. ‘Brown Beer’ is the mini-book.

    Sor­ry, I’m a bit of a pedant.

  7. Dominic – *grits teeth* Oh, that’s inter­est­ing, sor­ry we got this wrong, thanks for the feed­back. (Grum­ble, moan.)

  8. I’m with Mar­tyn. It’s depress­ing and frus­trat­ing to find cer­tain errors in the book. I’d much pre­ferred to have had noth­ing to crit­i­cise.

  9. I think the “next link” you post­ed on Twit­ter is per­fect­ly rel­e­vant here.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-15428024

    An ear­ly arti­cle about the Com­pan­ion (sor­ry, can’t find a link) not­ed it ripped through the first print­ing because it is being bought by com­pa­nies to use in train­ing sales peo­ple. Sales peo­ple love sto­ries, because sto­ries are a great way to sell.

    Here’s anoth­er link:

    http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2011/10/how-friends-ruin-memory-the-social-conformity-effect/

    It seems as humans we aren’t “wired” to nat­u­ral­ly get things right. We’ll take a good sto­ry over the facts any time.

  10. Stan – and (at the risk of hav­ing things thrown at me) if that’s what the book is about, I’d cer­tain­ly rather hear a bar­man say that “porter was invent­ed by Ralph Har­wood in the ear­ly 18th cen­tu­ry” than “it’s kin­da like Guin­ness only more watery, sort of like Bud­var Dark, like a kind of dark lager, if you like dark­er lagers,”, etc. etc..

    But, for the sec­ond edi­tion, we need snap­py sto­ries and pithy sum­maries which are *also* fac­tu­al­ly accu­rate.

  11. TIW – nev­er be ashamed of your type­face nerdery. Where would we be with­out our type­face nerds? We’d have books with Com­ic Sans on the cov­er; we’d be strug­gling to read illeg­i­ble signs in dis­play faces at rail­ways sta­tions; and our beer labels would *all* look like Pump­clip Parade can­di­dates…

  12. I’m a con­sumer of this stuff. How do I read it ‘crit­i­cal­ly’? Either it gets the his­to­ry right or it’s chopped off at the ankles. Or don’t take his­to­ry on…

  13. Sid – by read­ing it crit­i­cal­ly we mean with a healthy side sal­ad of blogs and oth­er more schol­ar­ly books; and not quot­ing it at any­one to win an argu­ment (on his­to­ry at least) with­out first check­ing anoth­er source.

    As Barm says in the com­ments here, if you haven’t got an absolute­ly super­flu­ous £35 burn­ing a whole in your pock­et, you might be bet­ter off just buy­ing books by Ron, Mar­tyn and Charles Bam­forth and cut­ting out the mid­dle man.

  14. I’d cer­tain­ly rather hear a bar­man say that “porter was invent­ed by Ralph Har­wood in the ear­ly 18th cen­tu­ry” than “it’s kin­da like Guin­ness only more watery”

    I like the sec­ond one bet­ter, but it is Guin­ness that’s watery these days.

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