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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Wells gets Younger – which isn’t as old as claimed

Excellent news, I think, that Wells & Young’s has acquired the Scottish brands McEwan’s and Younger’s from their current owner, Heineken.

The announcement last week that W&Y was bringing back Courage Imperial Russian Stout genuinely excited me, and not just because it’s a fantastic beer. It showed that the Bedford company has a shrewd understanding of the sort of niche a medium-sized brewer can exploit with the right brands, and it has cottoned on to the growing desire of drinkers in the UK, the US and elsewhere to drink authentic, heritage beers again. McEwan’s and Younger’s have plenty of heritage – Younger’s No 3, for example.

But I’d like to make it clear, now, that if I notice ANY references by the brand’s new owners to Younger’s being “established in 1749”, I shall be driving up to Bedford and administering a few slaps. Because it wasn’t. This claim of a 1749 foundation date has been around since at least 1861, making it 150 years old, or more, and it still regularly pops up. Only yesterday the Scotsman newspaper printed this rubbish

“William Younger founded Edinburgh’s historic brewing industry when he set up his firm in Leith in 1749.”

There are two big errors in that one sentence: Edinburgh’s brewing industry is, of course, far older than 1749: the city was stuffed with breweries long before, so much that its nickname, “Auld Reekie” (“Old Smoky”), is sometimes said to have come from all the smoke that came out of the brewery chimneys. In addition, William Younger never started a brewery in Leith, in 1749 or any other year. In fact he was almost certainly never a brewer at all.

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