When I first heard about the Oxford Companion To Beer I was very excited. I figured this would be the awesome coffee table book that I had been waiting for to annoy Kayla with by taking up our whole coffee table. The book was released. Then there were rumblings on Twitter about it, and Martyn Cornell, one of the foremost beer historians in the world, wrote this piece on his blog detailing some initial inaccuracies and why he thought the overall effect was a “disaster.” Then Ron Pattinson, another respected beer historian, wrote an eye opening review of Horst Dornbusch’s horribly inaccurate entry on Old Ale. After everything Pattinson has done to show that Dornbusch is at best a lazy and at worst completely incompetent author on brewing history, I’m really not sure why they let him write anything in the first place.
Then Andy Crouch comes along and asks, “Should beer writers stop writing about history?” in his latest blog post. He has some very good points in his post, but I like the comment on it from Stan Hieronymus in which he says, “No, not as long as they get it right.” But that’s the problem; they don’t get it right, over and over again. Stan may get it right, but he is one of the exceptions to the rule and probably the best American beer writer right now. Brew Like A Monk and Brewing With Wheat are both mind-blowing books, for anyone interested in Belgian or wheat beers. I have a lot of respect for Ray Daniels, but citing your own previous articles does not equal scholarly research on the level that we should demand of the Oxford University Press.
I studied history in college when I was at UCSB and got reamed multiple times for using insufficient sources on papers. When I chose to write an article on India Pale Ale for West Coaster I turned to the two people who have consistently shown enough primary evidence to be believed: Pattinson and Cornell. I don’t have the time or resources to scour the globe for ancient brewing logs and textbooks, but these guys have luckily done much of the work already and have the raw data to prove it. Anyone writing about beer history today is holding us back as a whole when they disregard the current research and repeat the old myths that we should have moved past at this point. It’s telling that those two did actually contribute to the Companion but were passed over for other writers in key subject areas where they were clearly the most qualified.
The Companion will likely become a default authoritative text for the average beer enthusiast, simply due to its name (and beer-celebrity editor Garret Oliver). I don’t doubt that there is a lot of good information that outweighs the bad, but the already-shown inacuracies cast doubt upon everything written at this point. Hopefully a second edition is quickly put together taking into account the many criticisms. Something tells me it’s going to take way too long though.
Beer writing is a funny thing because there is so much overlap between the technical and the historical. There are many experts on brewing science, but that doesn’t endow them with infallible historical knowledge. Stan is right–we have every right to keep writing about history as long as we are willing to do the work that it takes to get it right, which really isn’t that much in many cases at this point. If I read one more article calling historical IPA a strong beer, I’m going to choke a bitch!
As brewers, we often sell a romantic story in a bottle. IPA, Porter, Stout, Oktoberfest, Pilsner–they all reference a history that we want to think about every time we take a sip. But when it comes down to it, beer is a continuously changing product. The beer we make today doesn’t taste at all like the beer brewed 150 years ago; however, the names and the stories persist. If we’re going to use those stories to market our product, can we at least not abuse them?