Last words on the Oxford Companion to Beer

It’s a year since the Oxford Companion to Beer arrived to some small controversy over the number of inaccuracies in its 860-odd pages. Time enough for some calm reflection, perhaps.

I apologise for lifting the lid again on what became, at times, a heated ruckus between the OCB’s defenders, proud of the achievement that had pulled together more facts about beer than had ever been assembled in one place before, and those of us that felt there were a few too many of those facts that failed to stand up under scrutiny. But yesterday was the day I finally put up the last of my own contributions to the excellent OCBeer Wiki, the “comments and corrections” website organised by the Canadian beer blogger Alan McLeod, which means I can now give a proper reply to Clay Risen, who complained after the OCB corrections wiki had been up for less than a month that the OCB’s critics had really not found very much to complain about:

The Wiki has only about 40 entries, and most of them deal with matters of interpretation. In a book that may have upwards of 100,000 factual statements in it, the presence of a few dozen errors, while regrettable, is pretty impressive.

If only. One year on, and thanks to the efforts of more than 30 contributors, the Wiki now has corrections to more than 200 entries in the OCB, almost one in five of the total. The corrections add up to, so far, just under 32,500 words. Some corrections – to “pale ale”, at more than 1,000 words, and to “Pilsner Urquell”, at almost as many – are as long as or longer than the original OCB entry.

Some of the errors in the OCB are actually rather funny. Ed Wray of the Old Dairy Brewery in Kent found a great one that, somehow, everyone missed. Under “cask” the OCB says: “After filling, a plastic or wooden stopper called a shive is driven into the large bunghole on the belly, and a smaller one called a keystone is driven into the tap hole.” However, as Ed points out in the Wiki, the keystone is actually driven into the tap hole before filling the cask – otherwise the beer would pour out onto the floor. My own “gotcha!” is in the entry for “California” (page 204), which says that “[T]he state of California’s influence on American beer culture cannot be underestimated.” It certainly CAN be underestimated. What it cannot be is OVERestimated. (For the widespread problem of overnegation see eg here) Continue reading

The Oxford Companion to Beer: how the temperature became raised

I was going to blog about the London Brewers Alliance beer festival at Vinopolis last Saturday (great event, let’s see more like it), but since my comments on the Oxford Companion to Beer have driven Garrett Oliver into apoplectic rage, infuriated Pete Brown, and apparently sent waves crashing around the beery blogosphere, I thought it would look odd if I don’t acknowledge all that. Particularly because I’ve been accused, through criticising the OCB’s accuracy in, admittedly, quite a fierce fashion, of being “hell-bent on destroying the conviviality of the beer world”. But this is NOT the clubbable, comfortable beer world – this is scholarship, and commercial publishing, and boosting people’s reputations by being associated with a prestigious project, and selling an expensive product that the OUP intends to make a considerable profit on.

Garrett Oliver, editor of the OCB, who took my criticism very badly, accused me of McCarthyism (eh?), and declared that “in essence” I referred to him “as a dupe, a cretin and a liar, piloting a project populated by lazy idiots”. I didn’t refer to him at all, actually, and I certainly didn’t use any of those words.

Garrett also reckoned that my criticism was “intemperate and inconsiderate”. But the OCB lays claim to being “an absolutely indispensable volume for everyone who loves beer”. If you make that sort of boast, you ought to expect a vigorous kicking if you appear to be falling short of the high standards you have set yourself.

Was I angry when I wrote that a quick glance found enough errors to suggest the OCB could be a disaster in the battle for historical accuracy in beer writing? Yes. Why? Because I spent seven years researching a book that had, at the end of it, one chapter detailing a long list of beer history myths that were regularly repeated in books and magazines, but which, after I had tried to verify them, I found were all demonstrably untrue, unproveable or extremely dubious. A trawl though those parts of the OCB available on the net shows at least seven of those myths have been printed in its pages as “facts”. Given the OCB’s inevitable status as a product of the Oxford University Press, those errors I believed I had killed off are now going to be repeated again and again. And I thought: “Why did I spend seven years researching a book, while trying to maintain the most rigorous standards of accuracy, and not let any story I had been unable to verify get through, only to have the OUP come and piss over my work?”

Should I have been angry? I make errors – I know I do. There’s an appalling howler in my first book, on breweriana, involving the comedians Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, that still makes the back of my neck turn red when I recall it. And cock-ups happen: having been involved in newspaper and magazine production most of my working life, I can understand just how the OCB managed to print a picture of the Marble Arch pub in Manchester in a montage supposedly of pubs of London. On the other hand there appears to be a certain I-don’t-know in, eg, the OCB misidentifying a beer label from the Silver Spring Brewery, Victoria, British Columbia as “English”, presumably because it’s a label for “English-style Burton-type ale”. Or the OCB describing one of the stained glass Windows Of Privileges from Tournai Cathedral as “C 19th century” when it is from the end of the 15th/beginning of the 16th century. (Mind, I once put the wrong date on another one of the Windows Of Privileges myself. If you bought Beer: The Story of the Pint, please turn to p48 (hardback edition) and correct “The view inside a 14th century brewhouse” ” to “late 15th century/early 16th century brewhouse”.)

And I cannot imagine what went wrong in the editing process at the OCB to produce the statement under the “Distribution” entry that

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

Certainly the writer credited at the end of the entry never wrote that, because he’s a very senior British beer journalist and knows there are thousands of managed pubs in the UK not owned by brewers. In 2007, in fact, there were indeed 9,000 managed pubs in the UK, but 6,500 were owned by pub companies, and only 2,500 by breweries.

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