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)

Other error are more serious. The entry on Scotch Ale is a total waste of space, as Ron Pattinson points out here. The entry on old ale is hardly better. The entry on barrels is nonsense, because it confuses a barrel (a specific size of container, which varies from 31 to 36 barrels gallons, depending on where you are and when you were) with a cask (the name for a container of bulk liquid generally, which can be as small as four and a half gallons and as large as 240 gallons). The entry on hops contains big mistakes and misunderstandings that were refuted a decade or more ago. The same is true of the entries on porter and pale ale, and many more. I could go on – and on, and on. Do have a look at the Wiki yourself. Make your own mind up.

But apart from that, Mrs Lincoln, what did you think of the play? What I think is that Oxford University Press signed Garrett Oliver up for an impossible job. It looked easy: assemble 160 or so of “the world’s most prominent beer experts” and get them to pool their knowledge to make “an absolutely indispensable volume for everyone who loves beer”. And as those experts came together on a sunny, if cold morning in the spring of 2010, the steamy breath of their steeds rising in the chilly air, pennants flapping at the ends of spears, with Garrett at their head, booted, spurred and helmed, ready to lead them out to conquer the land of Cerevisia, who would not have wished them well?

Alas, the maps they had of the land ahead were, in many cases flawed, inaccurate and misleading: the truth they thought would be easily found and brought home was hidden in a mazy morass of myth and misunderstanding. And that truth, as I pointed out here, is often obtainable only through great expenditure in time and money: certainly more money than would be covered by the OUP’s payment to writers of five cents a word. The New Zealand beer blogger Rosalind Ames has an excellent analysis of the problem here. Let me pull a few plums out for you:

“Historic research is time-consuming and expensive, neither of which fits into the demands of the publishing industry … I think few non-historians appreciate just how long historic research takes. It’s not just a matter of accessing information as easily as you can through Wikipedia – you have to find the right source, the right tid-bit of information within that source and then fit it into the larger picture – and you have to do it over and over again, hundreds or thousands of times until you build up the big picture … if I paid a research assistant for all the information in my thesis, at a mere $15 per hour, it would’ve cost, at the very least, $64,000 … I cannot emphasise it enough: historic research is very, very expensive.”

That’s NZ dollars, of course, of which there are currently around two to the British pound. My personal freelance research rate is very considerably more than £7.50 an hour. But the OUP wasn’t even paying New Zealand rates, and the result was that at least one of “the world’s most prominent beer experts” simply copied his (inaccurate) work from one of his previous books and pasted those inaccuracies into his submission for the OCB.

Despite the massive caveats, however, I strongly believe it was right for the OUP to commission the book, which was very badly needed, right for them to appoint Garrett Oliver, a man as passionate as anybody on the planet about beer, and a charismatic ambassador for the cause, as editor in chief, and right for him to take on the task, which certainly went a long way to raising the profile of beer around the world: hey, it won the drinks category in the Andre Simon Food and Drink Awards, only the second beer book to do so in the 33 years the awards have been going, after Michael Jackson’s Beer Companion in 1993.

It is the most comprehensive reference book ever published about beer. It does encourage people to take beer seriously, to give it the respect it deserves. And if mistakes were made in the first edition – well, it was right for me to scream about it, even if some people got very upset, since my yelling at least got everybody’s attention focused. In addition, I like to believe that while Alan McLeod was the man who came up with the tremendous idea of the crowd-sourced OCBeer Wiki for corrections to the OCB to be brought together in one place, it might not have happened if I hadn’t raised the temperature around the book – and the Wiki will make it very difficult, hopefully, for the OUP to bring out a second edition that doesn’t have some serious revisions to at least some of the sections.

Meanwhile my work here is done: actually I completed the bulk of my corrections to the OCB back in May, but to be frank it’s feckin’ tedious looking out all the references to refute someone else’s inaccurate assertions, and once I’d finished “T” (600 words on corrections to the entry on “taxes”, 440 words on corrections to the entry on Truman’s brewery, and other corrections to the entries on table beer, three-threads and the tied house system) I gave it a rest for the summer and popped down to the “life” shop to get myself one. Yesterday I put up “W” (“Wales”, “weevils”, “Whitbread” and “Worthington” among others) – can’t find anything actually wrong in U, X, Y and Z so that’s it. However, I see that Ed Wray is now working through the Wiki adding his own corrections, which, since he’s a professional brewer, are considerably more technical than mine could be. Ed’s up to “D” (“diastase”, “dormancy in barley”) and looks to be doing an excellent job. I hope the OUP invites him to the launch party for the second edition.

39 thoughts on “Last words on the Oxford Companion to Beer

  1. Drat. I wrote the California chapter. It’s my most embarssing oversight since I failed by French mock GCSE after I mistook the word ‘chausseurs’ for ‘chasseurs’ and then translated 800 words on why some French people wanted to ban shoemaking and not hunting.

    My French teacher returned the paper with the word “Cobblers” on it. Followed by the letter “F”.

    Even though OCB paid peanuts, they shouldn’t get monkeys. Apologies to all.

    That said, as always in these situations, I blame the editor.

    1. “I blame the editor.”

      Absolutely. Tar and feathers at the very least, I say

      However, Ben, you are very, very far from the first person to write “underestimate” when they meant “overestimate”, it happens an amazing percentage of times, and I only spot it these days because I read about the phenomenon a couple of years back on the wonderful Language Log blog and therefore every time I read “underestimate” I always check to see if the writer didn’t actually mean “overestimate”. And I’d also bet that 95 per cent of readers won’t notice “underestimate” is wrong anyway.

  2. Where is Albany Ale? 250 plus years of brewing history in the U.S., totally ignored. The OCB is dead to me! Dead I tells ya’.

    I might be a bit biased, though.

  3. I’m with you that it’s good the OCB’s been produced, I’ve learnt stuff from it, but dearie me some of the howlers…

    I’ve now finished ‘E’ in adding comments to the wiki, but have now reached ‘Farnham (hop)’ which may take me some time.

  4. a barrel (a specific size of container, which varies from 31 to 36 barrels, depending on where you are and when you were)

    But how much does a barrel contain?

      1. H**** D***b****’s entry on “barrel” in the OCB doesn’t mention anything about a barrel always meaning, in a brewing context, a specific size of cask: he clearly believes “barrel” and “cask” are simple synonyms. The OCB Wiki has an entry covering this error.

        1. A typo, 31-36 gallons it should be, not barrels.

          I have never looked into this question of cask vs. barrel, but in Canada and the U.S. at least since the early 1800’s, barrel has replaced cask as the general term for beer and ale stored in wood and now metal containers. Cask here for beer, except in its technical real ale sense, sounds old-fashioned. Also, whiskey barrels have ranged from 40-52 U.S. gallons in the same era. Currently the standard is 52.


          1. Since we are commenting on things that should be accurate, I correct my own remark: the current U.S. whiskey barrel contains 53 gallons. Occasionally, I have seen statements that it is 52 gallons or 52.5, but most references, including sites that deal in barrels intended for aging as whiskey (generally bourbon), state that 53 gallons is the standard. It was less (48 gallons) during the initial part of WW II but changed as an economy measure.


  5. Martyn, you and Ron must be really ****ed off by the fact that the fruits of your labours which are freely available and should be widely known by professional beer writers have been ignored in favour of folklore and hearsay. It’s not as if the facts are that difficult to unearth; people such as yourself and Ron have done much of the spadework for them.

    1. Rosalind Ames is in fact Kate Jordan. A bit like when Jeff Bell was Sandy Dancer. I think she has dropped the pseudonym.

  6. Is there a ” wanker ” under W because there’s no shortage of beer bloggers who are unknowing experts in that field.

  7. This makes interesting points, and as an Historian myself the issue of the time and money historical research takes is definitely something that publishers don’t integrate well with.

    I’ve looked at a few of the corrections. I’ve already spotted at least one which corrects an entry but supplies erroneous facts itself. The entry on Russia lists the only beer museum in Russia as being in Chuvashia – this isn’t true, not least as there is a museum at Stepan Razin in St Petersburg (I’ve worked in its archives) – and posits some notion that Chuvashia is where the slavonic and scandinavian word for hops may originate – unlikely, as Humulus Lupulus as a latin name would seem to match the Russian Khmel and the Norwegian Humle rather closely. My point here is not to attack the corrections, but to make it clear that not all corrections may in fact be unproblematic themselves.

    1. Well, “Humulus lupulus” isn’t the “Latin” name, it’s the botanical name, invented by Linnaeus, and the “humulus” bit he took from Scandinavian “humle”, which is why it looks like the Norwegian word for hop. There’s much argument over whether there IS a Latin word for “hop” – the “lupus salictarius” of Pliny MAY be the hop, but that’s not certain, and the Italian for hop, “lupulo”, MAY come from that, or it may be a mistake for “l’upulo”, via French “houblon”.

      1. Dear Martyn, I’m absolutly agreed with you, but I just want to make a little correction in the italian word for hop, and the correct way is: luppolo (the word lupulo is in spanish). In fact, the latin word “lupus” (wolf) is the root for the italian lupo, which means wolf, and is at the same time (probably), the root for luppolo. Cheers!!!

        1. An etymological dictionary I’ve just consulted is sceptical about any ‘lupo’ connection; it suggests that luppolo probably derives from a medieval Latin ‘hupalus’, which would be a diminutive of the same word that gave us ‘hop’ and ‘Hopfen’. This appeals to me, because there are clear pathways into three different languages:

          hupalus -> l’huppalo -> luppolo
          hupalus -> hupalon -> houblon
          hupalus -> hupal -> hummle

          If this is right, Linnaeus’s ‘humulus’ was a back-Latinisation of the Dutch/Scandi mutation, and ‘humulus lupulus’ basically means ‘hop hop’.

  8. Dear Mr. Cornell.
    This is Horst Dornbusch, yes, THAT Horst Dornbusch, the much maligned one!
    I finally spotted your “Last words on the Oxford Companion to Beer” of October 9, 2012; and I wish to thank you for your courage in admitting — after all the ad hominem invective directed especially against me — that there is at least some merit to the OCB; and that the task was actually a mission impossible.
    You obviously noticed that I have remained entirely silent while the flood of malice, spite, jeering, and gloating was unleashed after the release of the book, against the editor-in-chief (Garrett Oliver), the associate editor (me), many of the contributors (especially me), the entire editorial team, and the publisher (Oxford University Press). I felt there was no point in my giving a howling multitude more fodder.
    Now that, as you state in your “last word,” there has been some time for “calm reflection,” I wish to add a few pertinent points, which I know will never convince the ideologues, but may cause a few more reasonable minds to reconsider their position on the value of the book.
    First, let me assure you that Garrett and I made an enormously sincere effort to get things right. In retrospect, I am convinced that the task of creating the OCB should have required a team of perhaps a dozen properly paid people with sufficient brew-technical knowledge to handle the material (I count Garrett and myself, incidentally, among them), with perhaps a decade of development time, and with the writing skills to put the subject matter into publishable English (again, I include Garrett and myself in that group). As Garrett once pointed out, has a much larger expert writer base than does the beer world. If you pick the best and the brightest in your field as contributors, you are stuck with what you get back. Do expect the editors to fact-check the thousands of factoids is absurd. What’s more no publisher would ever put a bull pen of fact checkers into a book’s budget. Dream on!
    Neither Garrett nor I ever had that luxury of sufficient time, ample resources, and timely, uniformly top-quality contributions to do the job that would have been necessary for a book of this magnitude, ambition, and complexity … at the commercially viable price that Oxford University Press charges! In fact nobody involved in this book, including Garrett and myself, made more than a token remuneration from our arduous labors!
    The high priests of the holy grail of anointed Monday morning quarterbacks who have railed against the makers of this book unfortunately base their criticism (and especially their invective) on a completely unrealistic, utopian view of how modern publishing works … while at the same time, it must be said, they used the OCB as an opportunity to copiously stroke their own inflated egos in public, for all to see, entirely in the professed interest of truth, wisdom, and the advancement of humanity, of course. Methinks, the lady does protest too much?
    Therefore, let me state a few facts, which may convey to those capable of “calm reflection,” the real standards by which this book needs to be judged. In doing so, I am NOT denying that there are many errors in the book (I spotted a few that haven’t even picked up by the reviewers). Also, I freely admit that there are omissions, such as the missing entry about Centennial hop. Yes, Mr. Cornell, even the word “underestimated” should have been “overestimated” — an error that slipped past the author, Garrett, me, the staff editor at Oxford, and the Press’ copy editor.
    It is a legitimate question whether or not the glass of the OCB is more than half full or more than half empty (I would strongly argue that it is fuller than anything that may have been attempted in the past in this genre). It is also legitimate to question, on principle, whether or not the book should have been published in the first place, given the constraints under which it had to be made (again, I submit that it was right to publish it, if for no other reason than the crowd sourcing that followed, which, in sum, will advance the knowledge of beer tremendously!).
    However, any discussion among serious people with a sense of decency and dignity is usually conducted in an atmosphere that furthers an understanding of the subject matter. I did not see much of that in the blogosphere! It is OK not to agree with me; it is also OK not to like me, but I am old-fashioned enough to believe in gentlemanly discourse.
    Targeting contributors personally does not further any cause. Instead, it merely insinuates, falsely (!), that the editors and many of the contributors are either stupid, immoral, or indifferent. As for my own person, my academic and professional past should be sufficient evidence that none of these attributes apply to me. Suffice it to say that I have (well) been educated in two countries, am fluently bilingual (English is not my native language), have been, in one of my previous lives, a long-time book editor with a major global publisher, have been a Fulbright Scholar, have owned a craft brewery in the 1990s (where I did my own brewing and once won a bronze medal at the GABF), and now, as a consultant, I count several leading corporations in the international brewing industry among my clients.
    I hope everybody is aware that Garrett Oliver initially did not want to take on the project but was somehow persuaded to shoulder the task anyway; and he has been quite upfront about the fact that he underestimated the magnitude of the project. Had the project not been overwhelming, I would not have been involved in it as an editor; just as a writer of a few minor pieces.
    The critical blogosphere, riding on its high horse, and wallowing in self-indulgent rectitude, unfortunately, does not (or does not want to) understand the challenges that were involved in producing the OCB. Here are a few pieces of reality for everybody to chew on … and then try to walk in Garratt’s or my moccasins!
    • Of the more than 1100 entries in the book, almost a quarter of them were still unassigned even five months before the editorial deadline. None of the international experts approached wanted to tackle them, even though the list of open entries was distributed repeatedly to all contributors. Guess who wrote these entries at the last minute?
    • In addition, about one-quarter of assigned entries did not come in at all, probably because the designated experts, not used to penmanship, had writer’s block.
    • Probably one half of the entries that did come in were between one-half and one-and-half years late.
    • Several authors plagiarized their texts, some even straight from Wikipedia (we fixed that as much as we could, under time pressure).
    • Garrett and Oxford made one crucial mistake upfront, asking foreign-language authors to submit their entries in English. Need I say more? It usually took quite a bit of work to bring these entries up to the linguistic level of an Oxford University Press publication!
    • Some entries were highly academic, though accurate, and needed to be “translated” before they became accessible to a general audience.
    • More than half of the entries had still not been handed off to the Oxford editor just half a year before the editorial deadline (and before I got involved in the project).
    • As the book reached the final stages, we recognized that the initial key word list had gaps, even though the list was put together at the start of the project by an august team of international experts! We added several dozen entries during the last half year before the deadline, many written by guess who!
    I could go on and on. After almost four years of valiant and mostly solitary work by Garrett, about half a year before the drop-dead date, the book was in trouble, which is why I was asked to join the editorial team as the associate editor. If you think that book could have been postponed; or that Oxford should have hired a stable of fact checkers, you are naïve. Modern publishing, like anything else, is about commerce and efficiency … and Oxford had already invested too many resources into the book to walk away from it or accept a delay or the investment of more resources.
    In retrospect, I am almost sorry I took on the task. With all the nastiness that the book spawned in certain quarters, it really turned out not to be worth the effort, objectively! Just so that you understand the level of my contribution: For almost five moths I worked almost without interruption 14 hours a day, seven days a week to help Garrett salvage the project. I did most of the first cuts of the still unprocessed entries (including most of the ones by non-native writers). Garrett did the final edits. He and I pumped out an average of 15 to 30 entries a day, even on Christmas Day and on New Year’s Day! In addition, we wrote the unassigned entries ourselves. If I had not jumped in, the book might not have come out; it certainly would have missed it publication deadline! I gave the book my very best, but the Monday morning quarterbacks, not having played the game, decided it was not good enough.
    My pay-off? Less than the cost of a Lufthansa ticked Boston-Munich and back, for months of work, while putting my clients’ needs on the back burner! I usually don’t talk about this aspect of the making of the OCB. However, this is the reality. The beer community can reject this book, of course, or it can look at it as the foundation tome, which, as it goes through its second and third, etc. printing, and as the fabulous crowd sourcing for corrections (which both Garrett and I support) can serve as THE vehicle for bringing beer closer to the general public — just as the Oxford Companion to Wine has done after having being in print, in several revised editions (and there were some serious revisions there!), for almost two decades. Frankly, the OCB is the best vehicle you’ve got. Make it better, or lose that platform for the future.
    After two years of silence and a deluge of invective, I now feel strongly that it is high time that I speak my piece. Sorry folks, given the mountain of work I had to do in such a short time, and the gigantic intellectual, factual, multi-lingual, linguistic, and literary challenge I had to master … for about a buck an hour! … let the one who sincerely feels he or she could have acquitted him/herself better, under the same circumstances and conditions (no utopia, please!), at the same time, please, stand up.
    Horst Dornbusch
    (Proud) Associate Editor of the Oxford Companion to Beer

  9. Very interesting post, heartened to see that “the fabulous crowd sourcing for corrections (which both Garrett and I support) can serve as THE vehicle for bringing beer closer to the general public”

    BRILLIANT – crowd sourcing is the way forward for this project – the howls of derision and finger pointing and correcting can now be translated into something positive.

  10. I am not sure why the response to having the detailed and accurate researching and organizing of critique and correction to what is still apparently the “the best vehicle you’ve got” is such unhappiness. The wiki project was directly supported by Garrett and, as I was informed, the publishers. That otherwise an admittedly fairly failed project was found to be a fairly failed project must be expected – except if we are still living in the world of good beer where such things are not said. A club where the insufficient is embraced. I feel badly that the project went so badly off the rails. I am proud that I got to help alert people to it at an early date.

  11. Apart from the hurt feelings (with which I sympathise – it’s horrible having your work torn to shreds) I don’t get much out of Horst’s comment. Yes, it must have been horrible for the editors to deal with badly-written and plagiarised entries – but the badly-written and plagiarised entries were precisely what people complained about (at least, the ones the editors didn’t catch). Yes, it must have been awful for the editors to have to write a whole series of entries quickly because contributors dropped the ball – but the result was that a lot of entries were rushed, which (again) was precisely what people complained about. It’s not just the “Monday morning quarterbacks” (whatever that means) who decided the book wasn’t good enough – Horst has basically admitted that it wasn’t good enough. And you can’t celebrate the crowd-sourcing effort of various critical beer bloggers while also accusing those same critics of wallowing on their high horses, or whatever.

    Final thought – a lot of the reaction the book got when it came out was essentially pushback against the way it was being marketed, both officially and by some bloggers. Many of us are stubborn and pedantic types, and reacted badly to the marketing fanfare and to the “maybe there are one or two tiny errors but never mind, let’s move on” tone of some blog coverage.

  12. Now that the “time for calm reflection” has arrived, I can confirm that what worried critics of the OCB in advance has come to pass. Again and again here in Norway I tell people that what they’re writing about beer is wrong, only to have them tell me that they know they’re right, because they got it from the OCB. But of course it was proven to be wrong long before the book was published.

    Quite frankly, if I, a random IT consultant, know it’s wrong, professional beer writers spending four years on a landmark reference work have no excuse for getting it wrong.

    1. Absolutely. Surely any professional tries to keep abreast of his subject and should actually have a sound knowledge based on keeping himself informed.
      Blogs like this one and Ron’s are full of well researched information ,assimilating facts about beer does not require hours of research because the results of other people’s work are generously made freely available.

      1. Having plodded through the entire OCB pointing out error I saw I can say from personal experience it does indeed take and awful lot of hours.

  13. I do tend to agree that the personal attacks on the editors were uncalled for. However the problem here is that an *Oxford* Companion to Beer (or anything) is always going to command such a lot of respect, and always going to be quoted as the definitive source of all knowledge, that it has to be correct on pretty much all points.

    Herr Dornbusch is, in effect, putting the blame for the book’s shortcomings upon the publishers, and that may well be fair comment, but the simple fact is that the book just didn’t live up to expectations and has a high (too high) percentage of poor content.

    Herr Dornbusch has been very candid here, and credit to him for that – he states that the publishers were never going to shell out for a team of fact checkers. A cynic might say that they have got beer writers, bloggers and the beer community to do the job for them for free.

  14. Interesting how I ended up here as a discussion on Mild and how at this time I am training for the Cicerone using the British/Irish course book and how wrong the information might or is wrong. Then we find that the information in the OBC is wrong. Well golly I have had my heart set becoming the only Certified Cicerone in Wyoming, taking my love of beer into a professional setting and from here on, as much knowledge as I can muster. For personal reasons, I have made this giant leap of faith, studying time, finances, and much more, for this. I will seriously put a lot of thought if it is wise to continue in this vain. I am willing to take suggestions for any other programs (also looking into the MBAA Beer Steward Program. Thoughts?) to help this career move. Of course I am also studying to make my previous work in the coffee industry official. Any thoughts would be great!

  15. Jay,

    I find the years of silence following your request for an expert to recommend a viable alternative to the OCB to you for your studies to speak volumes. The OCB is far from perfect, but for someone in your position, I believe it is a great starting point.

    As with anything you read in print (especially online), be skeptical of what you read. Be sure that you’re reading it correctly, and in the right context. Look for verification. I note that Martyn was grateful for being corrected at least twice in these comments above.

    I proudly contributed to the OCB, and I was even prouder to see the outpouring of post-publication “support” for the project (even if this support was, at times, somewhat vindictive and arrogant). I’m glad to see the number of contributors continue to swell, even after publication.

    However, I’m dismayed to see that the Wiki of corrections appears to be breathing its last breath with a complete cancellation date scheduled for less than a year from now? I was looking forward to reading the 600 words regarding my entry on taxes.

    Anybody have any updates on the Wiki or Vol 2 of the Companion?

  16. And the wiki is dead… long live the wiki.

    Or not. Is that information just lost now, or will it be rolled into a v2. I hope someone backed it up…

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