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factoid looks to be appallingly far from an isolated example of “information” in the OCB being either made up or out of date or just wrong.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”:
When the Roman Empire reached Northern Europe … Britain was mostly forested and therefore unsuitable for growing grain.
No it wasn’t. Grain was growing in Britain from the Neolithic, that is the very beginning of agriculture in these islands. The Greek traveller Pytheas of Massilia visited Britain around 320BC and found the natives making a beverage from “grain”, and Cunobelin, king of the Catuvellauni around AD10, in the area of modern Essex and Hertfordshire, featured an ear of barley on his gold coins, suggesting that some or much of his kingdom’s wealth came from grain-growing.
Mead and spontaneously fermented cider would have been the predominant alcoholic drinks.
This is, again, just made up. In fact there’s very little or no evidence of cider-making in pre-Anglo-Saxon Britain, (“cider” itself was a word introduced by the Normans) and evidence for mead-making is mostly or all post-Roman.
The Anglo-Saxons colonized Britain in the 4th century AD, and brought brewing with them.
There is widespread evidence of brewing in Roman Britain: the idea that it was introduced here by the Anglo-Saxons is utterly wrong. And the Angles, Saxons and Jutes arrived in Britain in the 5th century AD, not the fourth.
That’s all annoying because it’s introducing new inaccuracies into the history of beer: but what is really worrying is that myths I thought I had thrust a stake through eight years ago in Beer: The Story of the Pint are rising from the grave again, and being given life in what claims to be the acme of “scholarly detail and accuracy”.
Here’s some more from the OCB’s entry on “Britain”, this time on porter: “Developed as an alternative to mixing together old ale and younger beer” – no it wasn’t, it developed out of London Brown Beer, and had nothing to do with old ale – “porter is rumoured to have been perfected by Harwood’s brewery in the London district of Shoreditch in the 18th century.” What is this “rumoured to have been perfected”? There is not, nor ever has been, a “rumour”. The claim that Harwood invented/perfected porter rests on a couple of articles, one written in 1788 and one in 1802. It’s a claim that has been comprehensively kicked to death, most thoroughly by Dr James Sumner. “It drew its name from the ranks of porters who carried goods and worked in and around London’s markets.” Porter’s name has nothing to do with market porters. Even Wikipedia is getting that right now. “… Arthur Guinness was a Dublin brewer who adopted porter after seeing its popularity in London.” This is just made-up rubbish, again, when the facts are in numerous books about the history of Guinness: the St James’s Gate brewery started brewing porter, as did other Dublin brewers, because imported porter from England was taking an increasing share of the Dublin market. The Irish House of Commons set up a committee in 1773 to inquire into the decline of the country’s brewing industry, and heard that “the London brewers have now nearly engrossed the whole trade in Dublin.” That is why Guinness moved into porter brewing. “Stronger versions of the brew became known as ‘extra stout’ porters, eventually abbreviated to simply ‘stout'” – this is a complete misunderstanding of the terminology, and a garbling of the timeline. Strong porter was also known as brown stout, or stout porter. Even stronger porter might be called “double stout”. Guinness’s strongest beer, introduced around 1810, was originally called “Extra Superior Porter”. By 1835 it was called “Double Stout” and its name was only officially changed to “extra stout” in 1896. “… Porter’s supremacy in Britain lasted until the unlikely and much mythologized rise of India pale ale … no, porter was never challenged by IPA or bitter pale ales; what slowly replaced it in the public’s affection was mild ale. And while IPA’s rise has certainly been “much mythologised”, why was it “unlikely”? If that statement were in a student essay, the tutor would put a big ring around it, and mark the essay down for unsubstantiated and unexplained assertion-making.
Meanwhile, we have six errors – not just pedantic quibbles, but stuff that is completely wrong – in just two or three sentences about porter, when the correct information has been easily available for years. If this is the general level of the historical entries in the OCB (and I was simply briefly dipping in, rather than actually hunting for inaccuracies), then it will be an enormously damaging blow to those of us who have made huge efforts to try to correct the centuries (literally) of myths and misinformation that have grown around the history of beer.
Why so damaging? Because people will carry on repeating claims like the one under the entry “English hops” that “King Henry VIII … forbade the use of hops outright at his court” believing that if it’s in the Oxford Companion to Beer it must be right, although writers have been pointing out for a very long time that no, that’s completely wrong: Henry VIII (or, rather, his court officers) forebade the use of hops in ale brewed for the royal household by the royal ale brewer. No restriction on the use of hops was applied to the royal beer brewer. And I will be regularly reduced to foaming-at-the-mouth fury at reading this crap again.
Here’s another one, found while simply flipping through, from the “History of Beer” section:
“By the early 800s, the monks of the monastery of St Gallen in Switzerland had built the first full-scale brewing operation in Europe … the brewery’s floor plan, drawn up in 820, would be essentially recognizable to any modern brewer.
That is total garbage: it’s based on the completely inaccurate misapprehension that the so-called Plan of St Gall represented what was actually on the ground at St Gall Abbey. It didn’t: to write as if it did shows a complete lack of proper scholarly research. To then claim, even if the Plan of St Gall genuinely did represent the true scale of brewing at the monastery, that this was “the first full-scale brewing operation in Europe” is utterly unjustifiable claptrap. There is little or no evidence of the size of monastic brewing operations in the early medieval period, and we have nothing to judge the relative size of the brewing set-up shown on the Plan of St Gall by. Zero marks again there.
But aren’t I indulging in polemical exaggeration in suggesting that the OCB could be a “dreadful disaster”? No, I don’t believe so. The lack of proper research shown by even the small number of examples I’ve quoted here, and the repetition of inaccuracies that they represent, threaten to wipe out much or all of the advances that have been made over the past 10 or so years in getting the history of beer into proper, accurately researched shape, and all the errors of the past that the OCB is repeating will be given the authority of the Oxford University Press. To me, that’s disastrous.
Fortunately, Alan McLeod, the Canadian beer blogger, has started a repository for general OCB E&O, addenda, corrigenda and corrections at the new OCB Commentary Wiki site. I’m extremely grateful to Alan for this, not least because it will mean I can put any other errors I find up there, rather than having to clog up this blog with them.
For a discussion of the reaction to the above post, please go here.