Mistakes in an Authoritative Volume About Beer

No, I’m not talking about The Oxford Companion to Beer. Not this time. Rather, the appearance of this story (thanks to Mixellany Limited for the referral), reminded me of that seminal series of food and drink books from the 1960’s, Time-Life’s Foods of the World. Or more specifically, the Wines and Spirits edition.

Written by Alec Waugh, Evelyn’s brother, and consulted on by Sam Aaron, Alexis Bespaloff and André Gros-Daillon, the book totalled 208 pages, including Glossary, Index and Credits, and featured all of two and one-quarter pages devoted to beer. Not much room in which to make howling mistakes, you might think, but then you would be wrong.

Consider the following, which admittedly echoed (or instigated?) what was thought of in my youth as common knowledge:

In the United States there is also a sweet potation called bock beer. It is made by using the sediment collected from fermenting vats when they are cleaned in the spring of each year. Bock beer is available only at this time, for about six weeks, and it was a good moment in New York in April, 1934 after the repeal of Prohibition to see the newly reopened bars placarded with the slogan “Bock is back.”

Adding commentary here would be gilding the lily, surely, save to note that, by comparison, the misrepresentation of the Imperial pint bottle as a “popular size” in Britain would seem a trifle.

4 Replies to “Mistakes in an Authoritative Volume About Beer”

  1. Is there a relativity in relation to inaccuracy? It is an interesting point to me that I hope the exercise of the OCB wiki will elaborate. 90% of entries being 1% off is far different that 1% of entries being 90% off.

  2. Huh – so now I know where that story came from. My PhD supervisor told me this story at some point during grad school and I just said “yeah – that isn’t what bock is at all”.

  3. The story is repeated, qualified with the term “reputedly”, in Alexis Lichine’s Encyclopedia of Wines and Spirits (1967 ed.). I suspect Time-Life got it from that. The idea seems to have begun in the 20th century. I can’t find a similar story from the 1800’s, at least as far as Google Books goes.

    I think it may originate as a misunderstanding of lagering. By the end of the 1800’s, traditional lagering periods, i.e., for bottom or “sedimentary” fermentation, were much abbreviated. Most lager by then was “shenk” beer, that is, beer originally brewed in the winter for early consumption. But it all became shenk (or shank, schenk) with the advent of mechanical cooling. Bock beer was a lager originally made in the early winter and stored until spring/early summer.

    Bock – like any lager long-aged – would have thrown a thick sediment that usually was filtered out when the beer was racked. Maybe the long aging of bock, a specialty whose palate derived in part from this factor, lived on (in America anyway) longer than the aging of regular-strength lager. And so before the bock could be used, its storage vessels were “cleaned” of their sediment and people associated the sediment with the beer, by transposition. Cleansing too in the English brewing lexicon meant clearing the beer of most of its yeast, so, “we’re cleansing the bock” might have become, “we’re cleaning the bock vat”…

    Or maybe because bock was dark it wasn’t that well-filtered (whether long-aged or no) and the cloudiness reinforced the idea of drinking sediment, whereas most other lager say by the 1930’s, was blondish and clear.

    Somehow the idea of bottom-fermentation seems at the, um, bottom of this story but it must be in a way that explains why ordinary lager wasn’t viewed the same way.,

    That Time-Life volume, as indeed all the series, was excellent. The photography in it has a kind of day-glo quality that to me evokes the 60’s perfectly. The writing was very good, assured but relaxed, engaging but also (usually!) authoritative. They should do it again for today.


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