In which I give more badly written beer history a good kicking

Why oh why am I still having to write lengthy corrections to articles about the history of India Pale Ale? Well, apparently because the Smithsonian magazine, the official journal published by the Smithsonian Institution, is happy to print articles about the history of India Pale Ale without anybody doing any kind of fact-checking – and William Bostwick, beer critic for the Wall Street Journal, appears to be one of those writers who misinterpret, make stuff up and actively get their facts wrong.

The article Bostwick had published on Smithsonian.com earlier this week, “How the India Pale Ale Got Its Name”, is one of the worst I have ever read on the subject, crammed with at least 25 errors of fact and interpretation. It’s an excellent early contender for the Papazian Cup. I suppose I need to give you a link, so here it is, and below the nice picture of the Bow Brewery are my corrections.

The Bow Brewery in 1827: picture from the Mueum of London

The Bow Brewery in 1827: picture from the Mueum of London

“The British Indian army” – most of the British troops in India in the 18th century were in the three private armies run by the East India Company. There was no such thing as “the British Indian army” at that time.

“Soaking through their khakis in the equatorial heat” – khaki uniforms were not used by the British until the 1880s. Calcutta is almost 1,500 miles from the equator.

“The first Brits to come south were stuck with lukewarm beer—specifically dark, heavy, porter, the most popular brew of the day in chilly Londontown, but unfit for the tropics.”
Ignoring the fact that to get to India from Britain you travel east, porter continued to be exported to India from Britain for more than a century from at least the 1780s, with the East India Company in the 1850s ordering large quantities of porter from London brewers. The troops drank porter, and enjoyed it. Dark beers can be very refreshing in hot weather, and stouts are still made in hot climates, from the West Indies to Indonesia.

“One Bombay-bound supply ship was saved from wrecking in the shallows when its crew lightened it by dumping some of its cargo — no great loss, a newspaper reported, ‘as the goods consisted principally of some heavy lumbersome casks of Government porter.'”
The ship was trying to get away from Bombay, not into it, and this is a quote from 1851, just to underline the point about how long porter was exported to India.

“Most of that porter came from George Hodgson’s Bow brewery, just a few miles up the river Lea from the East India Company’s headquarters in east London.”
While Hodgson exported porter to India, there is no evidence that he was supplying “most” of it. The East India Company’s headquarters weren’t in east London, but in Leadenhall Street in the City. What was in “east London”, or more accurately, at Blackwall, on the Thames three miles to the east of the City, were the moorings used by the East Indiamen. They weren’t “a few miles” from Hodgson’s Bow brewery, but 1.3 miles as the crow flies and 2.5 miles if you follow the meandering Lea.

“Outward bound, ships carried supplies for the army, who paid well enough for a taste of home, and particularly for beer”
The articles carried on board the East Indiamen from London to India were for sale mostly to the European civilians living there, including the “civil servants” of the East India Company, not for “the army”. Beer was only a small part of what was carried, which included wine, brandy, Madeira and cider, plus all kinds of foodstuffs and many other items, from china to furniture to leather goods to clothes, unobtainable in India.

“Its clippers rode low in the water, holds weighed with skeins of Chinese silk and sacks of cloves.”
A clipper and an East Indiaman are two entirely different sorts of sailing ship, one built for speed, the other for carrying cargo and passengers. If you call an East Indiaman a clipper, you just make yourself look stupid. And the majority of the goods on board an East Indiaman was likely to be tea and cotton.

“The trip to India took at least six months” – no, it took between four and six months

“Hodgson sold his beer on 18-month credit, which meant the EIC could wait to pay for it until their ships returned from India, emptied their holds, and refilled the company’s purses.”
But it wasn’t the East India Company buying the beer from Hodgson, it was being bought by the East Indiamen captains and commanders to sell on their own accounts.

“Still, the army, and thus the EIC, was frustrated with the quality Hodgson was providing. Hodgson tried unfermented beer, adding yeast once it arrived safely in port. They tried beer concentrate, diluting it on shore. Nothing worked. Nothing, that is, until Hodgson offered, instead of porter, a few casks of a strong, pale beer called barleywine or ‘October beer.’”
This is complete rubbish. There is no evidence for any of this, no sending unfermented beer out – that would never have worked, as anyone who claims to know about beer would surely realise – and no concentrating it and then diluting it. There is no indication that “the army” (not an institution that existed anyway) or the East India Company cared at all about Hodgson’s beer. “Barleywine” is an anachronism: the term isn’t used by British brewers until the late 19th century, and even then as two words, not one, which is an Americanism. In any case, Hodgson was exporting both pale ale and porter to India from at least 1790, and pale ale – brewer unknown – was being exported to India from at least 1784.


“It got its name from its harvest-time brewing, made for wealthy country estates “to answer the like purpose of wine” — an unreliable luxury during years spent bickering with France. … these beers were brewed especially rich and aged for years to mellow out. Some lords brewed a batch to honor a first son’s birth, and tapped it when the child turned eighteen. To keep them tasting fresh, they were loaded with just-picked hops. Barclay Perkins’s KKKK ale used up to 10 pounds per barrel. Hodgson figured a beer that sturdy could withstand the passage to India.”

October beer was brewed months after the harvest, and was not, in any case, the same beer that country gentlemen drank in place of brandy – not French wine – nor the same beer that the landed gentry laid down until their sons became 21 – not 18. They weren’t “loaded with just-picked hops” to keep tasting fresh – that’s something the writer has made up – and Hodgson didn’t work out on his own that well-hopped beer would survive the journey East, that was known since at least the 1760s.

“He was right. His first shipment arrived to fanfare. On a balmy January day in 1822, the Calcutta Gazette announced the unloading of ‘Hodgson’s warranted prime picked ale of the genuine October brewing. Fully equal, if not superior, to any ever before received in the settlement.'”
This is nonsense. The 1822 shipment was just the latest in more than 30 years of shipments of pale ale by Hodgson to India.

“Hodgson’s sons Mark and Fredrick, who took over the brewery from their father soon after”
Mark Hodgson was running the brewery by 1811. It was Frederick Hodgson, not Fredrick.

“They tightened their credit limits and hiked up their prices, eventually dumping the EIC altogether and shipping beer to India themselves.”
I repeat: it wasn’t the East India Company shipping the beer to India, but the EIC captains and commanders, acting as private individuals.

“By the late 1820s, EIC director Campbell Marjoribanks, in particular, had had enough. He stormed into Bow’s rival Allsopp with a bottle of Hodgson’s October beer and asked for a replica. Allsopp was good at making porter — dark, sweet, and strong, the way the Russians liked it”

It was 1822, not “the late 1820s”, that Marjoribanks spoke to Allsopp, at Marjoribanks’s home in London, not at Allsopp’s brewery in Burton upon Trent. Allsopp was not a porter brewer, but a brewer of Burton ale, a totally different beer. Porter wasn’t necessarily sweet.

“When Sam Allsopp, only a few years shy of turning the business over to his sons, tried the sample of Hodgson’s beer Marjoribanks had brought, he spit it out — too bitter for the old man’s palate.”
Samuel Allsopp was 42 in 1822, so certainly not an old man. He would run the company for another 16 years. There is no evidence he spat Hodgson’s beer out.

“He asked his maltster, Job Goodhead, to find the lightest, finest, freshest barley he could. Goodhead kilned it extra lightly, to preserve its subtle sweetness – he called it ‘white malt’”
The author is making that all up again. There is no evidence Allsopp asked Goodhead to find “the lightest, finest, freshest barley he could”, nor that Goodhead called the pale ale malt he made “white malt”. “White malt” and pale ale malt are different types.

“To recreate Allsop’s legendary brew, I’d need the best ingredients available today, and that meant Maris Otter malt and Cascade hops.”
It’s “Allsopp”. And to recreate it you would need an authentically 18th/19th century hop such as East Kent Goldings, not Cascade, which is the kind of American hop British brewers dismissed in the 19th century for their supposedly unpleasant flavours.

That article looks to have been based on a chapter in a book Bostwick had published last year, called The Brewer’s Tale: A History of the World According to Beer. I hadn’t come across this before, thankfully, and I have absolutely no intention of buying it, but I took a peek at what is available via Amazon’s “Look Inside” function, and it appears to be as crammed with errors as the article on IPA is. You can only see the first 60 or so pages via Amazon, but here are some of the errors I found even in that short section:

“Dark-age tribes had spice cabinets full of henbane, ergot and other bog-grown oddities”
Henbane doesn’t grow in bogs, unless you’re making a bad British English pun (Nicholas Culpepper said in 1653 that “whole cart loads of it may be found near the places where they empty the common Jakes”). It grows on chalky and sandy soils. Ergot is a fungus that infects rye (mostly) and wheat and barley (sometimes), Again, it’s not something that grows in a bog. Nor is it something that is known to have ever been deliberately used by humans to induce hallucinations, unlike henbane.

“Brewers eventually learned through trial and error to reproduce those warm, oxygen-rich environments Saccharomyces likes best”
– ah, really? My understanding is that while you need oxygen at the start of fermentation, to encourage yeast growth, you soon want more anaerobic conditions, or the yeast won’t make alcohol.

“Caked in a Neanderthal molar discovered deep in a Belgian cave, a single charred kernel of barley, last munched some thirty thousand years ago, is our earliest record of that agricultural revolution”
This is a wildly exaggerated and highly inaccurate version of the findings of Amanda Henry, Alison Brooks and Dolores Piperno, reported in 2010, from their analysis of the dental calculus found on the teeth of Neanderthal skeletons found in the Shanidar Cave, Iraqi Kurdistan, and Spy Cave (pronounced “spee”), Belgium. It certainly wasn’t “a single charred kernel of barley” that was found, but dozens of tiny grains of starch. Some of those grains of starch were identified as coming from barley, and some of those from cooked barley – but only on the Neanderthal teeth from Iraq. It would be absolutely staggering if evidence pointing to barley consumption dating back 36,000 years was found in the area of modern Belgium, since this would be 30,000 years before barley and other grains are reckoned to have reached northern Europe, brought by farmers from their original home in the Middle East. Anybody studying the history of beer really ought to know that talking about barley in Northern Europe that far back is nonsense. Shanidar Cave is in the Zagros Mountains, on the edge of the area where, long after the Neanderthals disappeared, settled agriculture developed, using just those varieties of grain, like barley, that the Shanidar Neanderthals were evidently gathering wild – and cooking – 40,000 years ago. So there is a fascinating link between the Neanderthals and modern agriculture – but it ain’t the one Bostwick claims it is.

“the Greek wit and poet Athenaeus contrasted his own civilized ways with savage tribes who drink, he wrote, “a beer made of wheat prepared with honey, and oftener still without honey.”
Athenaeus was quoting another writer, Posidonius, in that passage, talking about the Celts of Gaul, and neither writer called them “savage tribes”. Posidonius was actually contrasting what the wealthy Celts drank – wine – with what “those who are poorer” drank. Bostwick uses the translation of the passage by CD Yonge from 1854: I prefer that of Max Nelson: “Among those who are poorer there is wheaten beer prepared with honey, and among the majority there is plain [beer]. It is called korma.”

“Germanic tribes were cultivating wheat and barley by 5000BC and Celtic bands on the British Isles soon after”
It is total nonsense to talk about “Germanic” and “Celtic” tribes 7,000 years ago. We’re barely in the time of the Proto-Indo-Europeans that far back. Germanic tribes cannot be identified until around 1500BC, while the origins of the Celts are normally pitched around the same time or slightly later.

“Stranded on the windswept Scottish border in fortresses at Bearsden and Vindolanda, Augustan legions …”
Ignoring the anachronism of taking about the “Scottish” border at the time of the Romans, Bearsden is in Glasgow, 80 miles north of the modern Scottish border, while Vindolanda is 26 miles south of the border. The legions weren’t “Augustan” – Augustus died 70 years before Roman troops were stationed at Vindolanda.

“The first brewer in British history we know by name, in fact, was a Roman: Arrectus”
The name was Atrectus. We don’t know what nationality he was, but Atrectus is reckoned to be a Gallic or Gallo-Belgic name, so the Vindolanda brewer was unlikely to be Roman.

“Some beer writers are sticklers about the difference between beer and ale, saying beer refers to a drink made with hops and ale to one without. I find that distinction arbitrary and etymologically suspect and will ignore it”
I don’t know any beer writer who says ale can only refer to a drink made without hops. I DO know beer writers who point out that when you’re talking about historical malt liquors, it’s important to distinguish between beers and ales in the context of their times, when the two words meant different things at different periods. That’s not an “arbitrary” distinction, but an important historical one, and etymology has nothing to do with it.

How I got Mikkeller to call me a bastard

What sort of bastard goes along to a book launch just to point out to the author the mistakes he’s made?

Errrr …

Me.

OK, it was done in what I’d like to insist, really, was a semi-joking way, and in a spirit of, I hope, friendly beer comradeship, but if someone as highly regarded and influential as Mikkel Borg Bjergsø – founder of Mikkeller – is repeating historical beer myths in print that I (and others) have been trying to stamp on for a dozen or more years, well, somebody has to do something – even if I did come across as a prat.

Mikkel Borg Bjergsø down in the cellar at BrewDog Camden, conducting a swift beer tasting for the launch of Mikkeller's Book of Beer

Mikkel Borg Bjergsø down in the cellar at BrewDog Camden, conducting a swift beer tasting for the launch of Mikkeller’s Book of Beer

Fortunately for me, I’ve known Jo Copestick, who works freelances for Jacquie Small, publisher of Mikkeller’s Book of Beer, for some years, so at the launch for the English language version of the book, at BrewDog Camden in North London on Thursday, I was able to give my corrections to her: (p53) no, George Hodgson did NOT invent India Pale Ale, nor was IPA brewed stronger to survive the trip to India – it was, as Ron Pattinson regularly points out, comparatively weak for an 18th century beer – and I’ve no idea where the idea came from that the beer was stored in oak barrels which “caused the beer to develop a particular complexity and bitterness that proved extremely popular” – ALL beer was stored in oak barrels. Admittedly, IPA was kept in barrels before serving longer than, say, a mild ale, and that would have added some complexity as the beer aged, but that happened to other beers as well, and if anything the bitterness would have mellowed out as the beer aged. Nor do I think it’s true that “An IPA is generally darker than an ordinary pale ale.” And (p59), porter was NOT “first brewed as a more nourishing beer for the port workers of England in the 19th century” – porter was first brewed in the early 18th century, it was taken up in London by the men called porters, hence the name, some of whom (the Fellowship porters) loaded and unloaded ships in the Thames, but many – most – of whom were Ticket or street porters, working in London’s streets, delivering parcels, letters and goods about the city. And porter wasn’t specifically designed to be a “more nourishing” beer than its predecessor and parent, London brown beer: it was designed to be tastier and more appealing. Nor does the word “stout” mean “‘robust’ or ‘solid'” – it means “strong”.

I am a bastard – official. Mikkell of Mikkeller says so.

I am a bastard – official. Mikkell of Mikkeller says so.

Having slipped Jo my corrections, I then thought it would be extremely cheeky to introduce myself to Mikkel, explain what I had done, and ask him to sign my copy of the book with the words “You bastard!” Which, as you can see, he was amused enough to be happy to do – rather than smashing me about the head with the nearest beerglass, which is what I might do if someone did the same thing to me at one of my book launches. (And yes, there most certainly ARE mistakes in my books, though I’d be grateful if you’d email them to me privately when you find them, rather than revealing them publicly in the comments below.) James Watt, co-founder of BrewDog, was there as well, so I got him to also sign Mikkel’s book – thus making it a unique BrewDog-Mikkeller co-production. Offers over £10,000 gladly accepted …

Apart from that, what is the book like? Actually, it’s good, edging into very good: excellent production values and beautiful photography, which is what you’d expect from a Jacqui Small book, and rammed full of facts’n’info, about Mikkel and his early life; about Mikkeller and how it developed, including what seems to me, at any rate, a rare mention of the man who gave the operation half its name, Kristian Keller; about beer types; about Mikkeller’s different beers and what inspired them; about beer tasting; about beer and food; and also about how to brew your own beers like Mikkeller’s. The translator, Ray Ashman, has done a fine job of capturing what certainly sounds like Mikkel’s authentic voice (I’d love to know which of the original bits were written by Mikkel and which by his co-author [and wife] Pernille Pang), and the text is enlivened by drawings from Mikkeller’s in-house illustrator, Keith Shore, frequently featuring the two Mikkeller “characters”, Henry and Sally. To whom will it appeal? Well, Mikkeller fanboys and fangirls, obviously, and anyone looking to learn more about beer, and about homebrewing, will get a great deal out of it too, but even the most beer-knowledgeable will, I think, learn enough to make the book worth its £20 tag (£13.60 on Amazon.co.uk, I note, where, unsurprisingly, it’s already the number one best seller in the “beer” category). And those untruths about beer history are really only a tiny part of the whole book …

Which is more, unfortunately, than can be said about another book I just acquired, Beer: A Global History, by Gavin Smith, published last year. This appears to have been written in an alternative universe where Ron Pattinson and I were never born, and repeats big chunks of long-disproved myths about beer history. Indeed, Smith loses all credibility at the very beginning of Chapter 1, which is headed by an alleged “quote” from Plato, the Greek philosopher: “He was a wise man who invented beer.” No, Plato never said this, or anything like it – and if Smith had done any proper research at all, which would have involved reading The Barbarian’s Beverage by Max Nelson (an excellent book), he would have discovered that the ancient Greeks actually had a very low opinion of beer.

This is far from the only nonsense, Smith hits his readers with, even in Chapter 1: he goes on to make the bizarre claim that “the first nomadic hunter-gatherers to settle and grow crops are thought to have been the Sumerians” – but domesticated barley is known from 7750BC at a site now called Netiv HaGdud (sic) in the Jordan valley, 20km north of Jericho, at least 2,250 years before the Sumerians started founding settlements in Mesopotamia. Smith also claims the Sumerians invented the wheel, though the jury is still very much considering its verdict on that one, since the wheel appeared effectively simultaneously in Sumer, the Northern Caucasus and Central Europe, and he continues: “more than 5,000 years ago they [the Sumerians] recorded on a series of clay tablets a range of beer types and recipes contained within the ancient text ‘A Hymn to Ninkasi’.” This is, simply, complete bollocks. The clay tablets that contain the “Hymn to Ninkasi” come from around 1800BC, so 3,800 years ago, not 5,000. The poem does not contain “a range of beer types and recipes” – it doesn’t mention beer types at all, and the idea that it can be seen as a recipe describing how to make Sumerian beer is stretching the concept of “recipe” to breaking-point: if you read an English translation of the text, which suffers from unknown words and chunks that are now missing, you will see that it is very hard to make out what is meant to be going on. The Hymn to Ninkasi is, as I have said before, no more a recipe for beer-brewing than the folk song “John Barleycorn” is a text on how to make malt.

And so we go on: Smith repeats the myths about the alleged brewing set-up at St Gall in Switzerland, writing, as others have done, as if the map of St Gall actually described what was on the ground, instead of being an idealised depiction. He claims that porter gets its name from “market porters” – ffs, how many times do I have to repeat that this is a 20th century misunderstanding of who porters were? – and, yes, that it was “reputedly invented during the 1720s by Ralph Harwood of the Bell Brewery in Shoreditch”. No, Gavin, it wasn’t, and if you’d bothered even to Google “Ralph Harwood Shoreditch porter” you’d have found the very first link is my debunking of that myth from 2007. George Hodgson isn’t actually called by Smith the inventor of India Pale Ale, which makes a change, but he calls him “an early proponent of pale ales, which in character were light, sparkling and heavily hopped ” – showing he has read nothing about how ale, in the 18th century, still meant a lightly hopped beer – and how these pale ales were “ideal for consumption in the warmer climes of the British Empire, leading to a vigorous export trade”. Gavin – you’re making that up. Porter, as I and Ron have shown, was exported in greater quantities to India than pale ale was, and in any case the overseas beer trade in the late 18th/early 19th centuries was really pretty small. He also clams that after Hodgson “began to send its pale ales to India in 1790″ – the firm never sent the beer, it was bought by independent exporters, that is, the captains and officers of the East Indiamen sailing ships – “the generic title India Pale Ale, or IPA, was soon in circulation” – well, only if “soon” means “40 years later”.

Other stupidities include a picture of the Meux brewery at the corner of Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road captioned “Messers Meux’s brewery in Liquor-Pond Street, Clerkenwell” – a completely different brewery, Meux Reid, later Reid & Co, in a completely different place; and a picture of the Fighting Cocks, St Albans with the claim that it “has a strong claim to the title of the oldest public house in England”. Actually, it has a shockingly poor claim to that title, being almost certainly no older as a pub than 1600. But that’s the standard of histocical enquiry you can expect in this book. In fact, despite the title, the “history” part only takes up 44 out of 153 pages, which the rest of the book padded out with chapters on “The Art of Brewing”, “Great Brewing Nations”, “Beer and Food”, “Beer and Culture”, “Cooking with Beer” and “Great Beer Brands”. That last chapter kicks off with Amstel, which tells you just how rigorously quality control was applied to the choice of brews listed. In all, Beer: A Global History is definitely one to avoid.

Mikkeller's Book of Beer cover

Mikkeller’s Book of Beer, written by Mikkel Borg Bjergsø and Pernille Pang, published in English 2015 by Jacqui Small LLP, £20

Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Guinness …

Mein Fröther

Mein Fröther: the image even Guinness probably wouldn’t have tried to get away with, Hitler with a pint-of-stout moustache

There are some images that are just wrong: uncanny, creepy. One of them is a poster of a smiling, steel-helmeted Nazi-era German soldier holding a pint of stout, with the words in Gothic script: “Es ist Zeit für ein Guinneß!” What makes this poster even weirder is that it’s by John Gilroy, the artist who produced so much classic Guinness advertising imagery, from the flying toucans with glasses of Guinness on their beaks to the Guinness drinker carrying the huge girder. Even people born decades after those ad campaigns ended know the posters.

The German soldier saying: “Time for a Guinness!” is one of a number of images Gilroy produced in 1936 for the advertising agency SH Benson in connection with a campaign in Germany that never went ahead. Today those putative posters look – well – naïve. Guinness-bearing toucans flying over a swastika-draped Berlin Olympics stadium? More Guinness toucans flying escort to a swastika-decorated airship? “Guinness for strength” demonstrated by a mechanic lifting a German army half-track single-handed? Guinness toucans zooming past the Brandenberg Gate, as a man who looks like the Guinness zoo keeper dressed in what appears to be the uniform of the SS Feldgendarmerie stares up, alarmed? (Bizarrely, these were the very first use of the “flying toucans” image, which did not appear in Britain until 1955, and the famous “toucans over the RAF aerodrome” poster.)

Guinness German soldierThey all appear in a fascinating new book by David Hughes, Gilroy was Good for Guinness, which features a mass of material from the SH Benson archive in London that mysteriously vanished in 1971 and, just as mysteriously, semi-surfaced in the United States a few years ago, when canvases from the archive started appearing on the art market.

As well as the German material, there are a host of other draft posters by Gilroy in the book, mostly painted in oil on canvas. Many are for other overseas campaigns that never actually appeared: toucans flying over the Eiffel Tower, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, Brooklyn Bridge and the Kremlin; Greek and Israeli farmers pulling the cart with the horse in (changed to a donkey) to illustrate “Guinness for Strength”: men popping out of manholes and holding up Russian and Israeli steamrollers. There are illustrations of cars, used to advertise Guinness on posters and in calendars, which show what a fine automobile artist Gilroy was – although, again, seeing a picture of Hitler’s six-wheeler Mercedes staff car with “Congratulations from Guinness” underneath, or one of another iconic German vehicle over a pint of stout with the words “VolksWagen – Volks Bier” is weird, weird in an alternative-universe, “What if Germany had won the war?” way. Some are for domestic campaigns that, again never saw daylight: a series of posters for the 1948 London Olympics on the theme of “My Goodness – My Guinness (a sprinter running off with the timer’s pint, for example), and “Guinness for Strength” (a Guinness-powered javelinist hurling his javelin way out of the stadium).

Hughes, who produced the excellent A Bottle of Guinness Please, an extensively illustrated and thorough round-up of the history of Guinness bottling with lots of Guinness-fact goodies (spoilt only by the lack of an index), gives the fullest account I have seen of Gilroy’s life and art in Gilroy was Good for Guinness. I wasn’t going to buy it (on the grounds that I already have far more books on Guinness than any sane man should own) but I couldn’t resist the Nazi Guinness pics.

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The book has a good account of Gilroy’s portrait-painting, which included several members of the royal family, and politicians and military men, such as Churchill and Eisenhower. The trouble is that the pictures in the book show Gilroy wasn’t a very good portrait painter, in the sense that his paintings, while technically excellent, just fail to hit the target: they appear to be of entrants in a famous-person-lookalike competition, rather than who they are actually meant to be. If you don’t know who the person is, then nothing appears to be wrong. If you know that it is meant to be, say, Prince Charles, you can see that it isn’t quite right.

It also contains one revelation I certainly didn’t know: that when Benson’s lost the Guinness advertising account in 1969, and thus Gilroy was no longer producing ads for the stout brewer, Guinness felt it owed the artist so much for all the pints and bottles of stout his artwork had helped to shift that it offered him a £2,000-a-year honorarium for life, a sum worth perhaps £27,000 in today’s money: not a huge amount for a man who was a member of the Garrick Club and living in Holland Park Road, Kensington, but much better than a poke in the eye with a paintbrush.

It also attempts to detail the story of the Benson advertising agency’s archive after Benson’s was sold to Olgilvy and Mather in 1971. Somehow the archive, including the Gilroy Guinness collection of original artwork for poster campaigns both used and unused, was sold to, or acquired by, an anonymous American. Parts of the archive began to appear on the market in the United States in 2009. Subsequently more and more of the collection appears to have been disposed of, with canvases selling for up to $14,000. Unfortunately the parts of the story of the archive are scattered through what is an unfortunately frequently bitty book, which could have done with a good editor to pull it all more tightly together. That same editor could have prevented the occasional infelicity and error, such as spelling the name of the actor Kenneth More incorrectly.

All the same, if you’re interested in Guinness, or in breweriana, Gilroy was Good for Guinness is probably worth its £20 price tag. In many ways, it’s Guinness porn at its best. And those German posters really are disturbing.

Update: hat-tip to Boak and Bailey for this – there’s a far better account of the mystery millionaire who bought the Benson’s archive than the book gives, and lots more great illustrations from the book, on the Collectors Weekly website here.

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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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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A Christmas present for a beer lover


Looking for the ideal present for the beer lover in your life? Or maybe the beer lover in your life is you, and you want a simple, satisfying answer to that annual question from spouse/parent/child: “What do you want for Christmas this year, then, you awkward old get?” The Zythophile blog has the perfect answer: Amber Gold and Black, the history of Britain’s great beer styles, the first and only book to cover the story of every type of British beer from IPA to stout, from mild to porter. For Americans it’s available via here, if you’re in the UK you can get it here, and if you don’t want to use Amazon you can buy it from Beer Inn Print here.

Amber Gold and Black shows the routes each British beer type took as they evolved into the beers we know today, and details some of the top examples in each style. If you want to know just how the pint in your hand came to be the way it is, whatever it’s a pint of, Amber Gold and Black is the book to tell you.

The book reveals, among other fascinating stories, how bitter, regarded around the world today as the typical British working man’s pint, was born as a drink for snobs in the early years of Queen Victoria; how mild, the biggest-selling beer style in the country when the Beatles released their first LP, was originally strong and pale rather than weak and dark; how porter, the British beer style that once swept the world, owes its success to the 18th century equivalent of a Ferrari-driving City smoothie; how stout became “good for you“; how India Pale Ale was a lucky accident that came about because of the greed of several dozen ships’ captains; how Britain lost its wheat beer tradition because James II lost his throne; and how a weed that infests thousands of British lawns was once just one of dozens of herbal flavourings in British ales. It looks at the important role British brewers played in helping two young men from Munich and Vienna develop modern lager; it charts the invention and rise of golden ale and wood-aged beers, two of Britain’s newest beer styles; and it details long-vanished British beers such as broom ale, mum and West Country white ale.

Here’s a selection from some of the latest reviews of Amber Gold and Black:

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