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.

That looks like an error in the copy editing. There are other sorts of errors I’m finding: for example, errors that are plain repetitions of other people’s errors. On page 439 the OCB declares: “When Julius Caesar arrived in Kent in 55BC, of the people he found there, he noted, ‘…They drink a high and mighty liquor … made of barley and water.'” You’ll find that quote, or a longer version, appearing in several books on beery subjects from the 1970s onwards. I haven’t been able to find where it comes from, originally, The words originally seems to come from a book published in 1675 by Sir Winston Churchill, father of the Duke of Marlborough, who does not give them as a direct quote from Caesar.  I can assure you they do not come from anything Julius Caesar wrote himself, not even in translation. I spent a lot of effort 10 years ago trying to track the original quote down, eventually confirming that Julius Caesar never wrote anything at all about British beer. (The quote ended up as Myth Number Six in my beery mythbusting list.) Where the 17th century Sir Winston got his alleged information from, I have no idea.

The more famous Sir Winston Churchill quoted that passage about the “high and mighty liquor” from his ancestor’s book in his own Marlborough: His Life and Times, which was originally written in 1933. That may be from where the passage entered modern awareness. Just a couple of pages earlier in Marlborough: His Life and Times the not-yet-prime minister Sir Winston complains about the effects of a misprint in John Hutchins’s History and Antiquities of the County of Dorset of 1774 which turned a fine of £446 18s on the 17th century Sir Winston Churchill for supporting the Royalists in the English Civil War into one of £4446 18s. This “erroneous and absurd” figure led later historians (writing in 1819, 1894, 1910, 1921 and 1926) into completely wrong conclusions about the severity of the penalty. The problem is, the author of Marlborough complained, “Once a statement gets into the stream of history, it is apt to flow on indefinitely.” Well, quite.

There are inadvertent errors that spring from the inevitableness of incomplete knowledge: the OCB article on barley wine says: “In 1854 the brewers Bass, Ratcliff & Gretton of Burton upon Trent began production of a single-brew barley wine then called simply No 1”. But there’s an advertisement 11 years earlier than that, in The Times of London on 1 September 1843, for “Bass’s No. 1, commonly known as Burton Ale” of “either the present season’s brewing or from two to four years old.” That implies No 1 has been brewed since at least 1839 (and I’d bet, in fact, that the name “No 1” is even older than that.) Should the writer of the barley wine article be expected to have known know about the Times ad? No, not really, because I doubt they’re so sad as to spend hours – days – going through the archives of The Times. I, however, AM that saddo. But there we are, it was an error to write that brewing of Bass No 1 began in 1854, even if a completely unintentional one based on the best knowledge available to the writer.

There are errors caused by what I have termed the sin of assumptionism, when writers make assumptions about a subject, like the one picked up by Ron Pattinson, where someone in an OCB entry has called the great Scottish brewing town “rural Alloa”. In fact, as Ron points out, in the 19th century Alloa had a plethora of breweries, two woollen goods manufacturers, a woollen mill, a flour mill, a large distillery, several coal mines, a brass foundry, a pottery, a gas works, a large brick works and an “extensive” glass works. So, “rural” it wasn’t. Assumptionism is a tough error to try to steer clear of, to be fair, and I’ve certainly been guilty myself, and probably will sin again in the future. But it’s probably responsible for the majority of errors to be found in brewing history. “Named after porters? Ah – that must mean market porters …”

Then there are the “misinterpretation” (to put it politely) errors: for example, the entry on Burton on Trent (actually, the official name of the town is “Burton upon Trent, but hey, let’s not get nit-picky) says:

“The earliest historical reference to such eminence for Burton ale comes from a ditty of 1295: ‘The Abbot of Burton brewed good ale,/On Fridays when they fasted/But the Abbot of Burton never tasted his own/As long as his neighbor’s lasted.'”

That is a complete mangling of p41 of Frederick Hackwood’s Inns, Ales and Drinking Customs of Old England, 1910, which mentions the rhyme as a “local legend”, and then goes on in the next paragraph to speak about the earliest reference to the Abbey ale being in 1295. It does NOT say the rhyme comes from 1295. It does NOT say the rhyme is the first historical reference to the eminence of Burton Ale. It does not date the rhyme at all. The rhyme cannot be dated to 1295, for two reasons: it’s in modern English (ffs), and medieval literary efforts have no reliable dates.

Alongside that are the “wtf” statements, such as the claim in the sentence immediately above the “ditty” in the entry on Burton that

“According to Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, the Abbey at Burton, in the time of Richard Coeur-de-Lion (1189-1199), has acquired a local reputation for its conventual ale.”

We’re taking historical novels as factual evidence for events 625 years before they were written? According to Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, Robin Hood was a real person, who met King Richard I, but I wouldn’t expect you to accept that as evidence if I tried to claim the same thing. In my opinion – and it’s only an opinion- the editors of the OCB should have done themselves a favour and chopped Ivanhoe out.

Then there are the “well, you say that, but actually it’s a bit more complex” statements, which are not errors exactly, but hover a bit close to the edge of being mistruths. Brian Glover’s article on mild is excellent, properly covering the differences between what was meant by “mild” in the 19th century and earlier, and what “mild” meant to later 20th century drinkers. But he says at one point:

“as sales slipped … (b)rewers gradually dropped their milds – or sometimes just dropped the discredited term. McMullen’s of Hertford renamed their AK Mild simply AK to boost sales.”

Well, you say that, Brian, but actually it’s a bit more complex. In the 19th century, AK was a lightly hopped, low-gravity (for the period) bitter beer. By the time of the Second World War, at least, beers like AK, low gravity, low in bitterness compared to even the standard “ordinary” bitter, were regarded by drinkers as falling in the category “mild”, though the line was very blurred: I’ve got a pumpclip from the 1950s or thereabouts that calls AK a “mild bitter”. By the time Brian began drinking AK in North Hertfordshire in the 1970s, that had been simplified, and AK was just called a mild. Then, indeed, a couple of decades later McMullen’s dropped the “mild” designation (and increased AK’s strength), and it’s now back to what it was originally, a light bitter. So is Brian wrong in what he writes about AK? Er … it’s complicated.

There, I’ve said something praising the OCB. And I’m glad. I’m sorry to have had to concentrate so heavily on criticisms, but my job is to write accurate history, and inaccurate history from a source that is going to be regarded by huge numbers of people as authoritative, as the last word on beer, makes me mad. Too mad, maybe. Mad enough to very badly annoy people, obviously. But at least the issue of accuracy in beer history now appears firmly on the agenda. However, even the curate’s egg had excellent parts, and I’m confident, really, that despite the errors, many parts – most parts – of the OCB will turn out to be as excellent as Brian Glover’s piece on mild. As others have said, we badly need something like the Oxford Companion to Beer. But we need it to be as impeccable a resource as possible.

Still, nothing – nothing – in the OCB could be as bad as this passage on Russian Imperial Stout from a book called The Beer Devotional, published last year, which I happened to pick up in my local Waterstone’s today:

“First brewed in London in 1796 … the beer was sold as Thrale’s Entire Porter until the brewery was purchased by Courage & Co and was then renamed ‘Courage Imperial Russian Stout’.”

Ron Pattinson is going to become increasingly paranoid – Barclay Perkins written out of history again.

I’m going to try to ignore the OCB now, at least until my own copy finally arrives: all the criticisms (and indeed the praise) I’ve made so far are based only on trying to search through what little is available of the book on the web. But Google Books did turn up something amusing. There is one of the 140-plus contributors who simply copied-and-pasted whole paragraphs from the book he wrote several years ago straight into his work for the Oxford Companion to Beer. Evidently for some people, five cents a word only gets you second-hand sentences.

0 thoughts on “The Oxford Companion to Beer: how the temperature became raised

  1. Very well said Martyn. I am actually surprised as how reserved you have been.
    your criticism has been grounded in the facts. Garretts response was stagering and for the most part had little relationship with reality. We can only hope that he cools off and actually take the criticisms on board for a second edition.

    1. Neil, thank you very much indeed for that – when I first went hunting for that quote, nine years ago, I found references to Sir Winston’s book, but couldn’t find a copy of it anywhere, on the net or (IIRC) in the British Library, to check the actual words. I have altered the copy above to reflect your find.

  2. > makes me mad. Too mad, maybe.

    Well, it depends. If your goal is to have people take you seriously, and perhaps even let you have a role in the second edition of the OCB, then probably, yes.

    Really, why get mad at all? I realize it’s a very understandable human reaction, but is it likely to get you what you (and I, for that matter) want? Probably not. In fact, it may well make it even harder to get all these errors fixed, because people are now mad at you in turn.

    So I think this was understandable, but poor tactics.

      1. Yeah, I saw Ron’s posts, and the lack of reaction to them. I think in part the reason he was ignored is that, as you say, he was “quiet but devastating”, whereas you could be attacked for the vehemence of your posts. I think the general impression many people have now, judging by discussions in various places, is that mr. Oliver has answered his critics effectively. He hasn’t, of course, but that seems to be the general feeling.

        So I still think this was poor tactics. Anyway, what really matters is where we go from here. Oliver seems to be hinting that there will be more editions, so the goal should be to get those corrected.

  3. Did nobody notice the question mark in Martyn’s heading?
    My point is though that a work which buyers will assume to be definitive is not so.Some errors go well beyond the realms of being trivial but the crux of the matter is that if you can’t trust one part why then trust the rest?It looks like a case of taking money under false pretences.
    In particular why were certain of the contributors chosen in the first place? It’s not difficult to spot one in particular with a track record of spouting drivel yet who was allowed to write about something of which he knew little if anything.Or perhaps even less than nothing.Yet well qualified people were not, apparently, asked.

  4. I note with amusument that the OCB’s editorial advisory board included two employees of Anheuser-Busch, one of Carlsberg and one of MillerCoors. That’s like writing a guide to fine dining and asking McDonalds, KFC and Burger King for their opinions.

  5. You are more than justified in your anger, accuracy is not optional especially in a work that purports to be definative. I hope there will be a second edition that corrects the obvious and less obvious errors but I won’t hold my breath.

    Why is Pete Brown furious, wasn’t he an advertising man of some sort? Not a profession noted for a desire to be accurate.

    BTW I noticed today on a Marston’s glass the following guff:

    “matured in the Burton Union oak barrels since 1834”

    a little way to go yet on the accuracy front I fear….

  6. With reference to your second paragraph, Martyn, I’m with the Duke of Wellington – publish and be damned. If you really had said it then it would be down to him to prove it, surely? Anyway stuff them – we live at a time when nobody seems to really care for the truth – certainly if it doesn’t agree with their world view.

    Good journalism is still important and yours is always excellently researched and presented. Keep up the good work.

  7. Martyn, that page from the 1600’s book (concerning Caesar and his alleged statement that Britons drank a high and mighty liquor made from water and barley) is interesting. Assuming this is the origin of the modern attribution of the expression, I am curious why this is not historical evidence. It isn’t, clearly, a primary source, but it is some evidence surely that Caesar may have written that. I understand that in research, both primary and secondary sources are used, so failing locating a primary source, why would we not accept this attribution as evidence the statement was made by Caesar?

    Also, or what is connected IMO, Wikipedia’s entry on Caesar states that the non-military writings of Caesar have not survived. Military writings have, but it is conceivable that a military focus would exclude an observation of a social or cultural character.

    The 1600’s Sir Winston Churchill might have had access to a tome of Caesar, or another book quoting him, now disappeared in either case. It seems unlikely to me he would want to make this up.

    Viewed in this light, why is it wrong in your view to write that Caesar said this?


    1. Simply, there’s no evidence – beyond Sir Winston Churchill’s unsupported assertion – that Caesar ever said any such thing, and it doesn’t seem very likely that he did. (Apart from anything else, according to Sir W. C. Caesar believed that the Britons had “vines enough” but chose not to use them to make wine. This seems highly unlikely. Tacitus, writing 150 years after Caesar’s invasion, specifically mentioned vines as one of the plants that wouldn’t grow in Britain, as it was too cold.)

      It would be correct to say that a seventeenth-century writer *claimed* that Caesar said X or Y, and perhaps (Martyn will know better than me) some long-distant zythologist did report the claim in this qualified form. (And this would leave open the possibility that Caesar did in fact say it.) But to use it without qualification is to state that we believe Caesar said it – and there’s no good reason why we should.

      If you look at that Google Books link, there’s a scrap of Latin in the margin that purports to be from J. Caesar Esq., or at least to support the quote. It says “Efficit egregios nobilis aula viros” – which would mean something like “the noble jar produced outstanding men”. But it’s a red herring – as far as I can work out it comes from a jokey Latin poem called Drunken Barnaby’s Four Journeys, written by someone called Richard Braithwait some time in the early 17th century.

  8. Maybe those vines were decor because the people had tried to drink wine from them earlier and the result was useless…

    At bottom, I believe Caesar did write these things, because in 1675 an author wrote a reasonably detailed paraphrase albeit not giving his source, but I take the point of no direct evidence of authorship.


    1. I believe that Churchill’s source was one of the following:

      a) a copy of a genuine work by Julius Caesar (now lost)
      b) a genuine translation of a subsequently-lost work by Julius Caesar
      c) a fake translation of a non-existent work by Julius Caesar
      d) his own imagination (as a fraud on the public)
      e) his own imagination (as an in-joke for his friends)
      f) another, unnamed author – in which case the original could be any of a) to e).

      Since we’ve got no evidence either way, it would be irresponsible to say that it was definitely fake. But it would be even more irresponsible to say that it was genuine, because this purports to be evidence about brewing in pre-Roman Britain – it fills in a historical blank (“here be ignorance”). Since we don’t know it’s genuine, the only responsible thing is to leave the blank, blank.

    2. One more point: I think we (and many people before us) may have misunderstood Churchill’s book altogether. Here’s the sentence before the purported quote from Caesar:

      And why may not the Britains be as well suppos’d to have taken their [name] from their Bruton or Bruteion [supposedly names for beer], a Drink known to be peculiar unto them, and so singularly famous, that Aeschylus, Sophocles, Archilochus, Aristotle, Theophrastus, Hellanicus, Athinaeus, and all the Classick Greek Authors have made more or less mention of it

      “All the Classick Greek Authors” referred to “a Drink known to be peculiar unto [the British]?” This isn’t scholarship, or not as we understand it – it’s just a series of unsupported assertions and unverifiable source references strung on a thread of speculation. It’s a performance, first and foremost – a good story, a tall tale. I don’t know where he got the Julius Caesar stuff from, but I don’t see any reason whatsoever to suppose it was from Julius Caesar.

  9. Initially I thought was saying that those classical authors had referred to beer (which many did), not necessarily to the supposedly unique or original British version of it, but I guess you could read it that way. If so, I can see that perhaps he was trying to establish a false lineage, as part of an extended joke or exercise in irony. Or maybe he was just trying in an expansive, humorous way to plump the national beverage, which in his time had more prestige among the gentry than in later centuries. Perhaps more contextual analysis is needed, e.g., does he use classical references ironically in the rest of the book, does he refer to beer elsewhere in this work or other works, etc.?

    At the end of the day, one is left with an impression and mine is, why would he invent such an odd story about Julius Caesar, but I suppose it is possible.


  10. Thank you, Phil, that’s all pretty much what I was going to say. We can’t rely on someone writing 1,600 years after the event, using reported speech and failing to actually give a verifiable source, to assert that “Caesar said this”. This is especially true when no other writer in the 1,600 years before the 17th century Sir Winston Churchill has Caesar saying anything like it. We certainly cannot say: “Well, maybe Churchill had access to writings of Caesar now lost.” The evidence for that is totally zero. So I wouldn’t regard Sir Winston’s words as evidence of anything at all. I’d be particularly suspicious of them, in fact, because he uses the alleged Caesar quote as part of his argument that the British, because they were beer drinkers, got their name “Britons” from “brutos”, a Greek word (or Thracian, actually, IIRC) for beer. This is nonsense on stilts, obviously, but Churchill tries to bolster his argument by claiming that only the British drank beer, whereas we know from other writers and other evidence that the Germans did, the Continental Celts did, the Irish did, people in Asia Minor did and so did the Sumerians and the Egyptians, to name just a few.

  11. Martyn, thanks for this. The evidence for lost Caesar writings containing beer comments may be zero, but we know we don’t have access to all his writings, which is a datum significant in this context, IMO (i.e., by way of trying to explicate what Churchill said). It may not go very far, but it is part of the picture. I am (believe me) no expert on classical history or languages, but it does seem an area where sources are often fragmentary, secondary or indirect in some way. All secondary sources should be taken with a grain of salt, but less so surely in the area of classical history given the challenges which often exist. Anyway this has been a useful exercise, and perhaps in the future more will be uncovered on Caesar’s relationship to beer and English beer. You have got me interested in this whole area, for which I thank you again, and Max Nelson’s book is next on my list.


    1. I don’t know – dare you? Garrett’s launching the OCB in the UK tonight (Monday 7th) and I received an invitation from the OUP to the thrash inLondon – sadly right now I’m 6,000 miles away, so I had to turn them down

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