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

Caught on the horns of a yard of ale

You’ve read the stories, I’m sure: you’ve probably got, as I have, a mental picture. The mailcoach rattles through the arch into the straw-strewn innyard, chickens flying out of the way, the outside passengers ducking to avoid losing their hats – or heads. The ostler and stable-boys, alerted by the sound of the guard’s horn as the coach came down the High Street, rush to unhitch the old, tired, sweat-spattered team of horses and lead them away, at the same time bringing out a fresh team. The red-faced landlord, in tan breeches, black waistcoat, white shirt and white apron, his hair tied back in a short ponytail by a black bow, hands up a yard-long glass brimful of ale to the overcoat-laden mailcoach driver, who has no time in his schedule even to get down from his box. In a swing perfected by daily practice, the driver drains the long glass without a spill, hands it back down to the cheery publican and, refreshed, whips up his new horses, who gallop off back out onto the highway, the passenger-laden coach bouncing behind them and 10 more miles of muddy, rutted road ahead before they can all rest at the next stop. If there’s not a painting of that scene on the oak-panelled walls of some pub dining room with 18th century pretentions somewhere in England, I’ll swallow the nearest tricorn hat.

It’s a great tale, repeated often, and I never dissected it until I read it again in the Oxford Companion to Beer, where it appears in the entry for “drinking customs”:

“The diarist John Evelyn (1620-1706) mentions a yard of ale being used to toast King James II but the vessel has more plebeian origins. It was designed to meet the needs of stagecoach drivers who were in a rush to get to their final destinations. At intermediate steps the drivers would be handed ale in a yard glass through an inn window, the glass being of sufficient length for the driver to take it without leaving his coach.”

Perhaps because this occurs just four paragraphs after a claim that King Edgar, a pre-Conquest king of England, tried to limit villages to only one alehouse each in an attempt to cut drunkenness, which is definitely a pile of Anglo-Saxon pants (the permanently established alehouse as a village institution was probably at least three centuries away when Edgar was on the throne, and there wasn’t the infrastructure in his time to enforce such a law anyway – and nor is there a single parchment scrap of evidence for such a decree), myths were at the front of my brain, which is why this time when I read about coach drivers and yards of ale I finally went: “?”

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The origins of pils: a reality Czech from Evan Rail

If there is one blessing the Oxford Companion to Beer has brought us, it’s the beginnings of a much better, and myth-free understanding of the origins of the world’s most popular beer style, pale pils lager, and the brewery that first made it, Pilsner Urquell, which is in what is now the Czech Republic. We didn’t get this new understanding from the OCB itself, obviously, but from Evan Rail, who lives in Prague, who writes with insight and erudition about Czech beer, Czech beerstyles and Czech brewing history, and who knows the number one rule about writing history: go back to the original sources – an apt commandment here, since “Urquell” – “Prazdroj” in Czech – means “original source”.

If you haven’t already, I urge you to read his latest blog post adding, clarifying and correcting the OCB’s Czech-related entries.

Evan has done something few, if any, writers in English about the origins of Pilsner Urquell, the “world’s first pale lager”, have bothered doing. He has uncovered, and read, the document in 1839 which effectively founded the brewery in Pilsen, the “Request of the Burghers with Brewing Rights for the Construction of Their Own Malt- and Brewhouse”, made by 12 prominent Pilsen burghers. He has also read the brewery’s own history, written for its 50th anniversary, Měšťanský pivovar v Plzni 1842-1892.

Among the fascinating facts that Evan has revealed so far, the following seem particularly worthy of note:

  • The town of Pilsen was already being “flooded” by bottom-fermented “Bavarian-style” beer in 1839, the 12 would-be founders of the new brewery declared, and it seems one big reason why they wanted to build their own new brewery was to fight back against imports of lager beers from elsewhere, by making their own bottom-fermented brews in Pilsen.
  • The builder of the new brewery, František Filaus “made a trip around the biggest breweries in Bohemia which were then already equipped for brewing bottom-fermented beer,” while in December 1839, the brewery’s architect, Martin Stelzer, “travelled to Bavaria, so that he could tour bigger breweries in Munich and elsewhere and use the experience thus gained for the construction and furnishing of the Burghers’ Brewery.”
  • The yeast for the new brewery was certainly not “smuggled out of Bavaria by a monk”, as far too many sources try to claim (did anybody with their critical faculties engaged ever believe that?), nor even, apparently, brought with him by Josef Groll, the 29-year-old brewer from the town of Vilshofen in Lower Bavaria who was hired to run the new brewery. Instead, “seed yeast for the first batch and fermented wort were purchased from Bavaria,” according to the 1892 book. (The Groll family brewery, incidentally, no longer exists, but another concern in Vilshofen, the Wolferstetter brewery, still produces a Josef Groll Pils in his memory.)
  • The maltings at the new brewery were “dle anglického spůsobu zařízený hvozd”, that is, loosely, “equipped with English-style malt kilns”, according to an account from 1883. That meant indirect heat: the same 1883 account says the kilns were “vytápěný odcházejícím teplem z místnosti ku vaření“, which looks to mean “heated by heat from the boiler-room”. Indirect heat makes it easier to control the heating, and easier to produce pale malt, which is just what the Plzeňský Prazdroj brewery did to make its pale lager.

That still leaves THE big mystery: if the burgher brewers of Pilsen wanted to compete against Bavarian-style bottom-fermented lagers, which would still have been quite dark (think “Dunkel”), why did they make a pale beer? Were they attempting to imitate English pale beers? Since pale bitter beers were only just taking off even in Britain in 1842 (although pale mild ales had been around for a couple of centuries), I don’t personally find that particularly likely.

However, Evan has promised “more on the origins of Pilsner Urquell coming up”, and I am hugely looking forward to reading additional revelations. I was delighted to read that Stelzer had toured the big breweries of Munich before the Plzeňský Prazdroj brewery was built, because I suggested in an article for Beer Connoisseur magazine in the US two and a half years ago that he must have done. In Munich he surely met Gabriel Sedlmayr II, of the Spaten brewery, who had been round Britain looking at the latest brewing and malting techniques being practised in places such as London, Burton upon Trent and Edinburgh, and Sedlmayr would have been able to tell him about English malting techniques. Munich, at that time, was becoming a magnet for brewers in Continental Europe because of the advances in brewing methods being made by Sedlmayr, as he perfected the techniques of lager brewing.

Sedlmayr wasn’t, at that time, making pale malts: however, the man who accompanied him to Britain on one of his trips, Anton Dreher of the Klein-Schwechat brewery near Vienna, DID come back and start producing paler English-style malts, allied with Bavarian-style lagering, which resulted in a copper-brown beer, the first “Vienna-style” lager. Vienna was then, of course, the capital of the Austrian empire, of which Bohemia (and Pilsen) were still a part: it would not be surprising if Stelzer, a citizen of the Austrian empire, also visited Vienna and met Dreher (whose name, it always amuses me to note, translates as “Tony Turner”), and talked about malting techniques, but there seems to be no evidence as yet that he did so.

I’d also love to know why Josef Groll was hired (apparently by Stelzer) to run the new brewery: Vilshofen, while nearer Pilsen than Munich is, is a comparative backwater, and if Stelzer had been to Munich, why did he not bring a Munich brewer back with him to Bohemia? This site claims (on what authority I know not) that Groll studied under both Sedlmayr and Dreher, but both allegedly complained about his rudeness, obstinacy, stubbornness and lack of self-control. If that’s true (I have no idea), it doesn’t look as it Stelzer bothered checking up on Groll’s references before he hired the young brewer …

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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The Oxford Companion to Beer: a dreadful disaster?

My copy of the Oxford Companion to Beer is currently on its way to me from the US, but, alerted by the comments of others, I’ve been dipping into the book using the “look inside” facility on the Amazon.com website, and … well, here’s one tiny quote from the entry on “Bottles”:

In the United Kingdom the imperial pint (568 ml) remains a popular size …

This completely invented “fact” appears in an entry that was a mash-up of several separate pieces on bottles, including a couple by me, put together into one article apparently for space reasons. I was sent the revised entry to comment on, I pointed out the error, and still it went into print.

Unfortunately the “pint bottle remains popular in Britain” factoid looks to be appallingly far from an isolated example of “information” in the OCB being either made up or out of date or just wrong. Here’s a very small part of the entry on “Britain”:

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