Are you thinking of another Martyn Cornell?

It’s truly a bizarre experience reading false stuff about yourself on the internet. Over on Beerpal they’ve been having a discussion about the differences between ale and beer, springing from this post. Someone said: “Who is this Brit who can’t understand that the way we Americans use a word is the way a word must be used?” (or something to that effect), and someone called Mark Fraghert responded with seven totally wrong claims about me:

The writer is Martyn Cornell, considered the foremost expert on beer in the world …

Great Dionysus, no, no, I’m most certainly not considered that, not at all, not by anybody, not even by me. How did Mr Fraghert make that one up? I wouldn’t call myself even “a leading beer historian”. A following beer historian, quite a lot of the time.

… and the person who worked with the late beer expert Michael Jackson on many of his books.

No I didn’t – I never worked with Michael Jackson at all. I was quoted in one of his books, back in 1990 or so. That’s my only link to any of his publications.

Martyn has been writing about beer for more than 30 years …

Trivially true: I’ve been seriously writing about beer only for 15 years, however.

… has authored over a dozen books

No I haven’t – three, that’s all.

… is the founder of the British Brewing Guild …

No I’m not. There’s no such organisation. I was at the meeting held to set up the British Guild of Beerwriters, but so were a lot of other people.

… and is a multiple award winner of the British Beer Writer of the year award.

No I’m not. Once. Eight years ago.

He is currently in the news doing his best to discredit Garrett Oliver’s efforts as a editor with Oliver’s Oxford Companion to Brewing.

No, I’m, definitely, absolutely not doing that at all. I have no wish to discredit Garrett Oliver, for whom I have great admiration.

Cornell is definitely not a student.

Well, THAT he got right. But now these “facts” about me are out there, how soon before they get repeated, and turn up at the top of every Google search? Let’s hope I never get a Wikipedia page

0 thoughts on “Are you thinking of another Martyn Cornell?

  1. Again Martyn, you are letting the truth get in the way of all the juicy bits, seriously though, anyone worth a grain of salt needs to do their own fact-checking on anything proclaimed to be “a truth” on the internet. Lest we forget, that before even the blogosphere existed, one needed to do the same with books and reference materials, research is just that …..hard work and no short cuts. You, in my opinion, treat your work(and a few others out there, Brown and Pattinson) like an academic , and in the current world of copy and paste, you stand out as an authority regardless of your experience or past credentials. The discussion/argument here on BeerPal , is just another example of personal opinion and anonymous internet deity, often fueled by untruths, thus cannot be proven right or wrong and hardly worth the time. Fight the good fights and then move on. …Oh, and watch out for those Canadians!

  2. You’re certainly causing a stir out there. That Protz article makes me giggle. It more or less reads as “Common errors that could have been corrected with a quick Google search? To hell with ’em. The fact that ink met paper and this book is in existence is, in itself, worthy of admiration. Any seditious speech from you ‘BLOGGERATI’ should be crushed under my steel-toed boot.”

  3. If it’s not you, can I go around beer festivals handing out business cards proclaiming me “Martyn Cornell: The Foremost Expert On Beer In The World” and collect member subscriptions for the British Brewing Guild?

  4. Ah well Martyn, you should be proud to be in such misquoted territiory as Mark Twain! ‘Rumours of my demise have been greatly exaggerated’
    Apparently, Amber, Gold & Black reads as a prayer to the devil if read backwards on FrabjousDay. No, no, NO its true, i read it on t’interent so it MUST be true. On the upside, you have your integrity AND the bonus of an online alterego who will change as he bounces around in the heads of many many people online. To paraphrase Richard Matheson(another American writer, this MUST be a conspiracy) ‘You are now Legend’. 🙂

    P.S AG&B Still rocks and now has official coffee table status in my home. I do like it when people pick it up and flick through. Who knows where that flick will lead them……
    Keep up the good work. Cheers J.

  5. Is it pissing you off that the line from Protz and co, that it’s ‘bloggers’ who are behind all this anarchy, is still being peddled? At least Gruppenfuhrer Protz didn’t call you noisome…

  6. Martyn,

    Just on the point of terminology, until recently recently in England as I’ve gleaned it and probably still to a point, “beer” in its popular sense meant ale, initially cask ale and later bottled, keg and cream-flow. But the term mainly applied to cask-conditioned ale (bitter and mild) especially when mild was the pub staple, into the 1960’s that is. Beer meant porter too but this association declined with the disappearance of the black beers (for the most part) excepting Guinness. Thus, even in England, the popular meaning of beer had evolved.

    Lager was something viewed as quite different. “Will you have beer or lager”? Today, such a (welcome) question has much less clarity than in the past based on my informal chats and observations in English pubs in the last 10 years. The older generation understand it, but the younger ones much less so. Thus, with the decline of ale as the pub staple and correlative rise of lager, the distinction dimmed and it all seems beer today in England.

    In the U.S. until the craft beer era, beer always meant the reverse of what it meant in England until recently: lager. There may have been German-American influence at work here. Ale was the term used, even by many brewers, to mean top-fermented or warm-fermented beer made in the older way. Porter would have been considered ale for this purpose (I mean in 1970, say) but there was so little porter around by then it didn’t matter.

    The terms do change over time in other words and surely once all ale became hopped, one might say nothing should be viewed as definite in the matter of terminology. That said, there is an enormous value, to which you’ve contributed greatly, in understand historically what is what (or at what times).


  7. It’s the arrogance of *some* American homebrewers/beer writers that sticks in the throat.

    The BJCP is a group of individuals who have decided to set up a “style guide” for British and German beer (as Ron has pointed out before, they don’t seem to have noticed Czech beer yet, for which I guess we should be thankful). Their opinions and strictures have no more validity than me and my mates writing something on the back of an envelope in the pub.

    It is therefore frustrating to say the least when they decree “Porter is an ale” or “Alt is an ale”, ignoring (or more likely being ignorant of) the long history of separate porter and ale breweries in England and the subtleties of top-fermented lager, and condescendingly lecturing people wo correct them along the lines of “Don’t you know the basics? If it’s top-fermented it’s an ale, it says so in all the homebrewing books I’ve read.”

    No one denies that language changes with changes in what it it describing: ale as an unhopped and then lightly hopped drink is an example of that. What we have here though is an arbitrary and recent decision by a small group of people to start calling all top-fermented beers ale, even if they’ve never been called that by the people who brew and drink them. It’s like me and my mates deciding to call dogs cats and then criticising people who refuse to go along with us.

    1. I thought along your lines until someone somewhere said to me that all the BJCP Guidelines are, are a classification system for judging beer in a home-brew competition. They are just and only that.
      Nothing else.
      They are also a work in progress, long term!

      1. If they were only used internally by the BJCP for juging purposes, there’d be no real problem. Problems arise when their members start applying them to beers in the outside world with comments like “Greene King IPA isn’t an IPA because it’s not to style”, i.e, it doesn’t fit the arbitrary and unhistorical criteria we’ve just written.

        1. Agreed. No qualms about judging beer in accordance with a set of guidelines set forth by an entity such as the BJCP. However, this rigid defining of styles has certainly permeated much of the craft beer community, and that’s the problem.

      2. I’ve been harping on this for years and it is very gratifying to see more widespread recognition of the fact that the BJCP “guidelines” are meant for judging homebrew, and not as a “styles” guidebook for commercial beer.
        Of course, the confusion is not helped by programs like “Cicerone”, which unfortunately seems to treat the BJCP guidelines as some sort of gospel. To me, it definitely lessens their credibility at least a bit.

    2. The bjcp refers to Alt as a “hybrid”, as it does with California Common, which uses a “bottom-fermenting” yeast but is fermented relatively warm.

      1. And precisely that is a fine example of their cultural myopia. They cannot conceive of a top-fermenting beer which is cold-conditioned, because their English language categories lump cold-conditioning together with bottom-fermentation in the single word “lager”. The Germans have one word for the type of yeast, obergärig/untergärig, and a different one for the conditioning regime, lagern, so they don’t have to resort to clunky concepts like “hybrid beers”. Alt isn’t a hybrid of anything. It’s just a beer that doesn’t happen to fit into the BJCP’s way of thinking.

          1. FYI, the BJCP does call Dusseldorf alt and ale in the ‘Overall Impression’ in the guidelines: “A well balanced, bitter yet malty, clean, smooth, well-attenuated amber-colored German ale.”

  8. I agree it is best to understand why someone uses a term in the way they do before suggesting it is wrong. No disagreement there with Martyn.

    But it might be noted that the association of ale and porter started in England, not America. The term “porter’s ale” appears in literature, and was used in the 1700’s and 1800’s outside literature, as a word search will show. (Indeed it may be at the origin of the term porter together probably with porter’s liquors and porter’s beer). Yes, these writers were not not brewers or other experts in the brewing trade, but they were reflecting popular usage, and it became part of the way porter and ale are viewed in the culture.

    Anyhow, porter has been described in 1800’s England by people knowledgeable about beer as a coloured ale, or weak mild ale. This probably came about due to the change in porter’s grist and/or aging regimen over time.

    If porter is mostly pale malt and has to boot (in general) nowhere near the hops it once did, why isn’t it ale after all, with which it shares a common fermentation method?

    I am all for using the terms the way Martyn has argued but it seems to me in practice, usage will vary and the matter can’t be said to be crystal clear one way or the other for modern usage. It may be that the researches of scholars like Martyn will change this: if so, fine, but it doesn’t make conflicting usage wrong IMO.


    1. Gary, I’ve just done a quick search for “porter’s ale” on Google Books and you’re right that the term does appear in encycopaedias and other literature from the eighteenth and nineteenth century.

      What I think is a dangerous though is then jumping to the conclusion that such secondary sources were “reflecting popular usage” simply because they are contemporary with porter as a mass beer. The writers of secondary sources are just as likely to get things wrong writing about contemporary beer as they are about historic styles: in a hundred years, some poor soul might be reading Horst Dornbusch as *the* authority on twenty-first century beer!

      What you really need is some primary sources – brewery adverts, price lists and brewing logs – that refer to porter as an ale.

      I’d be interested to know about the nineteenth century sources that talk about porter “as a coloured ale, or weak mild ale”. Originally porter was a type of London brown beer, a very different drink.

  9. I’ve decided to set up a Wikipedia page about you, Martyn, just to put the records straight, you understand. So, purely from memory, I’ve decided to put these forward as the whole truth and nothing but the truth:

    Martyn Cornell knows more about beer than anyone else I’ve ever met
    That was a different Micahel Jackson Martyn worked closely with
    It’s been more than a mere 30 years
    He’s written dozens of books and all of them about beer
    I think that he was actually the beer writer of the 20th Century
    I thought I once heard him say that Oliver was, “talking out of his arse” (possibly misheard)
    Martyn is actually a bruiser chick of 19

    Hopefully this sets the record straight.

    1. Thank you, Dave. If you could add that I am also an extremely wealthy babe-magnet, three times Time Magazine man of the year, the inventor of cold fusion and a qualified astronaut who fights crime under the name of Commander Z from my secret nervecentre hidden underneath a perfectly ordinary-looking suburban house in West London, that would be terrific.

  10. Martyn,
    I’m surprised Mr.Fraghert forgot to mention your direct lineage to King Gambrinus but unfortunately such ommissions frequently occur via the internet.

    Regarding beer classifications and the pigeon holing of styles, where does Amercian or Canadian cream ale really fit? It can be an excellent brew.
    When ale and lager yeasts are used simultaneously and a warm primary fermentation is followed by a lengthy secondary cold conditioning and then a diacetyl rest at a warmer temperature is followed by shock cooling and and then packaging, what exactly is it?
    If its served at cellar temperature is it an ale and when its served to near freezing temperatures is it a lager? And what about carbonation? At 1.7 volumes is it an ale even if its served cold and at 2.5 volumes is it a lager even when served warm?
    And those questions don’t even address the criteria of grist composition or the use of hops.
    Anyway, its a drink I enjoy whatever its name might be.

  11. Matt, thanks for these thoughts.

    In historical research, both primary and secondary sources are used. Secondary sources must be approached with caution, but they have a role sometimes and here IMO it is to show how (some) ordinary people used a term. Brewers’ sources like ads and such are unlikely to refer to porter as an ale; au contraire. (At least, I can’t recall any examples off-hand, which doesn’t mean it didn’t exist).

    But my point is, the public did – I feel that is a reasonable inference from what I’ve seen – and this background is relevant to understanding why in the last two centuries some beer fans did too. We can say they were wrong but usage gets sanctified to a degree by popular custom: isn’t the term porter itself, originally a colloquial expression, an example…?

    Here is one reference to porter being a kind of weak mild ale:

    Cooley’s Encyclopedia, which contain a very detailed description of beer and brewing, appears to have picked this up, and there are other sources which say something similar.

    Again, I am all for accuracy in appellations but I cut a little slack to those who diverge from it given this kind of background, that’s all.


    1. Gary, notwithstanding the nineteenth century secondary sources which describe porter as an ale, I think the provenance for calling any top-fermented beer an ale is much more recent: Michael Jackson’s use of ale and lager to mean top and bottom-fermented beer in the 70’s which then became common usage in the American homebrewing community.

      1. I agree Jackson probably did have something to do with this, but he in turn must have done some fairly wide reading when he came up with his original classifications… Plus, I do think North Americans never quite abandoned the pre-craft era ways of looking at some beer styles. Anything not “beer” (lager) in the old days was ale, porter too, is how I recall it myself from the 70’s.


    2. I checked Cooley’s again and it appears the comments in the Blyth book derive from that, since Cooley’s Cyclopedia was published first (apparently) in 1872 and the Blyth book after.

      Cooley’s discussion of Porter is quite technical and accurate IMO. (So is Blyth’s discussion, it’s a good precis for a non-specialist).


  12. The fact is, that “ale” no longer means an un-hopped er… beer, so although it is of interest (to us lot anyway) it is an archaic definition, that no-one sticks to. The fact that North American craft beer enthusiasts/drinkers etc use ale as a catch-all for top-fermenting beer (there’s that word again!) is here to stay I’m afraid. It’s use in the UK may differ but you can’t prevent language changing or evolving (for good or bad), but perhaps understand the differences in language in different countries and accept them for what they are.
    I think the Oxford Companion to Beer (uh-oh!) actually mentions the different meanings/history under ‘Ale’ . (My copy is not in front of me so I’ll check tonight) – so may well have done a good / diplomatic job there!
    One country can’t “tell” another how to use a word as essentially the longer time elapses between the English speakers moving to the US and Canada so the dialects will diverge. Only mass media has kept British, American, Canadian, Australian etc English from being more different than it is now.
    I think of a word like “chivalry” which now means a kind of noble bravery, or gentlemanly behaviour, that originally meant horsemanship, to demonstrate how utterly different the meaning of a word can become over time.
    Whatever old primary sources anyone can find (Porter being an ale or not for example), If lot’s of people start calling it an ale, whether right or wrong, then the word now has a definition which may not be true for others or those living 100 years ago, but might now become true. Language cannot be ‘preserved’ and never has been; it is organic and for either side of the debate to try to enforce “rules” on each other is a pointless exercise.
    As “ale” has evolved its meaning in its home country then to point out to others that it can’t evolve its meaning some more in another country seems to be a bit over proprietorial. Likewise those BJCP followers and Cicerones cannot tell the British, Germans, or Belgians what their beer should taste like.
    Perhaps there is need for an international forum to smooth out our differences! Anyone up for chairman of that one?

    1. When people walk past my garden they often comment on the “show of geraniums”.I don’t have geraniums, they are of course pelargoniums though practically everyone, even the nurseries, call them “geraniums” But the true name isn’t disputed and when it’s pointed out people simply say “Oh, I didn’t know that , thank you” , they don’t go on about words changing their meaning or that “of course they are geraniums because everyone I know calls them that”.
      “Common knowledge” often isn’t any such thing.English children are brought up with the notion that witches were burnt at the stake.The fact that there isn’t a single recorded instances of this doesn’t seem to have any influence on the myth.
      Many pubs have old brewers’ signs saying things like “Brewers of fine ales and stouts” which reminds us that these articles derive from different roots and ale is just one thread of British brewing.But ale was never a thread of German brewing which is why our American friends can’t seem to grasp why they legally define Kolsch as a lager even though it’s “top fermented” But why should the yeast type in any case define the beer? Bottom fermented yeasts are the result of long periods of cold fermentation which favoured them , they are the effect and not the cause of lager brewing.In any case with widespread use of conical fermenters the concept of ales being top fermented is much less clear cut.

        1. Now, don’t throw away the baby with the bathwater! My point was simply that just because most people believe something to be true doesn’t actually make it so.
          Words do of course change their meaning.”Ship” carries a different meaning from what it did in say 1850 because ships have evolved , and of course the same is true of “ale” What’s unforgiveable though is to lump trains in together with ships simply because they have things in common-both are means of carrying goods and passengers.But they come from different backgrounds and have significant differences as well as similarities..So for ships read ale and for trains read Kolsch – sharing something (fermentation type) but differing in other major respects doesn’t make one into the other.

  13. I’m not saying Kolsch should be lumped in with Porter or IPA per se, I am just making a point about language more than beer.
    My music teacher hated the term ‘Classical Music’ as most laymen used it as a catch-all for all music written for orchestras and / or pre- 20th Century musical instruments. He didn’t like Baroque and Romantic (as well as Medieval and Renaissance sometimes) being lumped in with music from the Classical Period. The reality was similar to the issue with the use of ‘Ale’.
    Technically he was correct; ‘Classical’ refers to a period of music (late 18th – early 19th C) but in reality the term has become a widely used catch-all for various types of music.
    It’s historically and technically wrong to use it as such, but he is probably still sitting in a classroom telling students this information that has now become redundant in common parlance as Language has evolved, its meaning has altered and there was nothing he could do about it, even though he was absolutely right.
    I don’t want to argue Martyn or anyone on the technical or historic merits of the argument – as I am sure they are right; sometimes the layman’s definition of a word or even a technical term changes because common usage eclipses the historical or academic definition. If the hundreds of thousands or millions of American craft beer fans already use ‘ale’ to refer to top/warm fermented beers then the horse has bolted and it would take a monumental effort to get it back in.
    Ironically the best chance has just been and gone in the form of the Oxford Companion. Now if Martyn had written the ‘ Ale’ section things might be different. I foresee many corrections in the second edition, but I doubt that the definition of ‘ale’ will be one of them.

    1. the best chance has just been and gone in the form of the Oxford Companion.

      There’s an Oxford Companion to Beer now? Why have I seen so little online discussion of this interesting development?

      (In other words, ow ow ow.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.