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.