Beer history Blogging and writing opinion

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.

Blogging and writing opinion

Oxford Companion: Good, not Perfect

Detail of text from the Oxford Companion to Beer

We like The Oxford Companion to Beer (ed. Garrett Oliver) a lot more than we were expecting to and, although far from perfect, it certainly beats any other catch-all on the market.

So, let’s get the big flaws out of the way. First, entries differ wildly in tone of voice and occasionally contradict each other. Wikipedians would describe some as “not encylopedic in tone”. But then, each entry is attributed, and this is pointedly not an encylopedia with a capital E — it’s a ‘Companion’, suggesting something less formal.

Secondly, every tenth entry is written through the weird prism of American home brewing culture, with phrases like “true to style” and “German ale” occuring in pieces which stridently expound very shaky history, citing less than credible sources. But then critical readers (like wot we are) will spot these entries a mile off and take them with a pinch of salt. They don’t ruin the whole book.

Finally, on the subject of sources, there are too few primary sources cited, and many instances where one contributor cites another contributor’s book as the source for an entry. Cliquey-ness? Laziness? Primary sources inspire a great deal of confidence in a reader and any serious attempt at history should use them.

Having said all of that, those flaws and a few others do not mean there isn’t a great deal to enjoy.

The more technical entries covering contemporary brewing practices, hop and barley varieties and chemical processes are fascinating and (to us at least) seem well sourced and credible. Every time we pick it up, we learn something new, and feel inspired to read more elsewhere.

A few years ago, when we wanted to buy a friend a primer on beer, the best we could find was the Eyewitness Guide edited by the late Michael Jackson. Although the Oxford Companion is expensive, it is now the best book to buy anyone wanting to get a good overview — or at least to begin to appreciate the complexity and depth — of the world of beer.

If nothing else, it will hopefully spur others on to produce similar, bigger, better books. With apologies to those who have worked hard writing them, we don’t need any more variations on 750 Beers to Try Before You Need Your Stomach Pumped, where pornographic pictures of beer are accompanied by tasting notes.

Note: we got a free review copy from Oxford University Press.

beer and food beer festivals

Beer Exposed

You may remember we were a bit wary about Beer Exposed. A beer festival with a dresscode? £20 entry? Tsingtao exhibiting?

Well, we went on Friday and had a pretty good time.

The entrance area was a Shepherd Neame-sponsored education zone where you could learn about the basic ingredients of beer. The main part of the hall was mostly stands for brewers, with the occasional shop and also a CAMRA stall.

There was an interesting range of British breweries, from the big boys (GK, Fullers, Shepherd Neame), to the trendy guys (Meantime, BrewDog), and a whole host of stuff inbetween. Bailey, Somerset boy that he is, was delighted to chat to the Exmoor people. The Americans were represented by the Brooklyn Brewery (including Garrett Oliver in person on Friday), Blue Moon (didn’t try it) and a stall offering products from Anchor, Goose Island, Great Divide and other US biggies. And there was an assortment of interesting and not so interesting breweries from other parts of the world.

We were delighted to find that Zywiec had brought some of their legendary porter. Having waiting for more than seven years to try this again, we were not disappointed. At 9.5% it has a pleasing sticky treacly feel to it, with great coffee and liquorice flavours. We were going to buy loads of it, but were thwarted by jobsworth security guards (more on that later).

How the beer bit worked: you got given a glass, and you got taster samples, which varied in size depending on who was pouring. While the portions themselves were small, there was huge variety on offer, and lots of brewers had bought their best stuff along (eg Paradox from Brew Dog, Vintage Ale from Coopers) — and you could always go back for more. If you wanted to buy, some stalls accepted cash, whereas others only took vouchers, which you had to buy on the front desk. There was also free water for drinking and rinsing your glass.

Zak Avery took us on an “Extreme Beer” walk, starting with Schlenkerla Rauchbier and covering offerings from Great Divide, Meantime, and Brew Dog, among others. Incidentally, Zak was surprised to find himself on the first page of the Speaker Profiles, but he shouldn’t be so modest. He was extremely engaging, had plenty of interesting nuggets of information for novice and expert alike, and really knew about the beers he was offering.

Garrett Oliver lived up to his reputation — we went to his session on beer and cheese, although interestingly he hadn’t done the pairings himself. We liked his manner, and the way he described what he was drinking, and we’re inspired to set up a beer and cheese tasting ourselves.

We had the opportunity to meet several members of the Young Camra Collectiv — they’re jolly nice chaps. We also got to meet Phil Lowry from Beer Merchants / Cave Direct who got us the tickets (thanks!), and Steve Williams, Greater London Regional CAMRA director and writer of The Beer Justice blog (another jolly nice chap).

Now the whinge about the organisation. The event was scheduled to stop at 9. This meant that they cut the mic on Garrett Oliver when he was still speaking, and pretty much chased us all out of the building.

9pm is way too early to finish on a Friday night. We couldn’t get there until 6:30 because of work, and we’re sure plenty of the target market would be in the same boat. There were quite a few stands that we wanted to visit and couldn’t because we were out of time.

We were also left with vouchers to spend. We were prevented from exchanging them with the nice guy from Zywiec, because it had gone 9, and there was no system for exchanging them back for cash, leaving us a few quid down. We argued in the organisers’ office. They did offer us free tickets for the next day, which I suppose would have been a good deal, but we had other plans for the Saturday.

So a pity that we left an otherwise good event on such a sour note.

All in all, it was a great idea, and we think that a beer novice would have learnt a lot and hopefully come away with a real enthusiasm for beer. We still think the entry fee would have been a bit prohibitive for someone who wasn’t that interested in beer in the first place, but we’d be delighted if the organisers proved us wrong.

There was definitely a different crowd to the usual beer festival bunch. A lot more women, a lot less beards, and people from a whole range of ethnic and national backgrounds. The trendy Islington location also seemed to have lured in some passing trade, including a fair few tourists and a lot of people at a loose end after work.

Overall, a success, we think. I hope there’s another one next year with the wrinkles ironed out. If there is, we might well get a bunch of our “not that fussed about beer” friends and take them along.

Declaration of pecuniary interest: we got free tickets. And Phil gave us some Beer Geek Breakfast to take away!