On The Oxford Companion to Beer and Beer Writing

I finally obtained a copy of the much talked-about Oxford Companion to Beer a few days ago, and although its spine is barely cracked, I have something to say about it. Or rather, the discussion it has generated.

I believe the publication of this book to be a significant point in the development of beer writing, not because of what it contains, but because of how it has been reacted to by others, even some of the contributors. If you have followed the online chatter, you will know that this reaction has been both good and bad, considered and coddling, but almost always volatile. I think this is a very good thing.

I’ve been writing about beer for over two decades and have been by-and-large friendly with most of my contemporaries. In a way, beer writing has been a lovely international social club, to the point that for some writers, myself very much included, one of the great things about attending the Great American Beer Festival or the Great British Beer Festival or Zythos is not the event itself, but the chance to meet up with the rest of the “clan.”

With the arrival of the Oxford Companion, however, some ranks have been broken, or perhaps more precisely, existing fissures have become apparent. Most publically, Martyn Cornell and Ron Pattinson, both contributors to the book, have exposed errors within the text, some admittedly minor in appearance and others more significant, but all nonetheless notable mistakes within a scholarly text. Companion editor Garrett Oliver has shot back in his defense, a tad too aggressively in tone for some.

Me, I’ve sat on the sidelines, book not in hand, and thought how nice it was that there was finally developing some significant self-criticism within the world of beer writing. And although it makes me decidedly more nervous about the publication next year of my and Tim Webb’s World Atlas of Beer, that there are others out there who will identify errata and offer corrections is something which will ultimately contribute to the further development and maturation of this particular field of study.

12 Replies to “On The Oxford Companion to Beer and Beer Writing”

  1. You know what would really contribute to the further development and maturation of this particular field of study? Citations.

    I would hazard a guess that there are some highly respected established beer writers out there who fear being called on their sources because they’ve built a career on the everybody-knows beer factoids which people like Cornell and Pattinson insist on showing are untrue.

    The game’s up, guys: show your workings-out or risk damage to your reputation.

  2. I agree completely with the idea of “citation, or it didn’t happen”, and when I write for, eg, the journal of the Brewery History Society they insist on proper citations or it doesn’t get published. But commercial publishers, in my experience, HATE texts studded with footnotes, believing it puts buyers off, which is why you won’t find a popular book on beer with footnotes.

    1. I am very late to this thread, just beaming in from Edinburgh. As a reader, I don’t like footnotes much–they clutter the page and impede the digestion of the text. As a writer, however, I love them. They’re little flags that say, “don’t blame me!” and point the reader to a different culprit. A decent and usual compromise is a bibliography, which allows careful readers the chance to glance at the source material and judge whether the writer was using the same old sources, or something more primary.

  3. Frankly I thought Garret’s response made him more endearing. I have thumbed through a copy of the book and was fairly impressed. It seems to be a well laid out, well written and well put together book for the most part… that I don’t really see much point in owning myself.

    Personally I’d be far more interested in an online equivalent. The technical information is for an audience that is not me for the most part, and the historical information has either been covered well by others (Beaumont, Jackson, etc.) or niche/pedantic enough to fall in to domain of Cornell and Pattison. The stuff that interests me is too current and too active to be useful in book form at this point. I want a detailed history of Cantillon’s last four years, or the life and times of that obscure mid-western Canadian brewpub that only lasted a year, etc. Essentially, the Oxford Guide meets Wikipedia with the time and space to indulge in obsessive minutia without the limits of a physical book. Now if anyone can tell me how to turn that into a viable business model… that would be great! 🙂

  4. i have been following the discussion from the beginning (yes it it quite in the brewery!!). although i do not have the knowledge nor the authority to take sides on the issue i do believe, as Mr. Beaumont aptly mentioned, that discussions like this will ultimately be beneficial to the beer culture.

  5. I think this book has exposed a fairly deep schism between how North American beer geeks view the world of beer and how Europeans view it. Many, if not most, of the articles about Belgian beer, for example, could easily be taken from the pages of Ratebeeradvocate.

    Another deep schism exposed by the book was in the attitude toward scholarship and accuracy. Martyn Cornell detailed, mostly dispassionately, some of the factual errors in the book. Garrett Oliver responded by claiming that Martyn had called him names (he had not). This schoolboy kind of behaviour doesn’t belong in a serious discussion among adults.

    The problem from the point of view of the publisher, it seems to me, was in appointing a celebrity as editor rather than a professional journalist or writer. I thought the name “Oxford University” was worth more than that.

  6. Stephen, with your name and Tim Webb’s, I have much higher hopes for a better book than the crap produced by Garrett Oliver. (Sorry, forgot to add that to my original reply.)

  7. “C’mon, Mike, “crap” is being a bit harsh, don’t you think? I still have yet to delve deeply into the OCB, but even with Martyn’s and Ron’s misgivings, I have little doubt that there lurks some fine scholarship within its pages. I just read Juliano Mendes’ entry for ‘Brazil,’ for instance, and I bet it will open some eyes with respect to what’s happening in the southern Americas. (As will the World Atlas of Beer, I should not hesitate to add.)

  8. Stephen, I know Belgian beer quite well, though not as well as Tim Webb. What Garrett wrote about Belgian beer (he wrote most, but not all the articles) – well, why not ask Tim what he thinks of it? You don’t have to take my word for it.

  9. I’ll make a comment I’ve made elsewhere. While the history pieces were widely criticized, they are only a small portion of the book. Oliver, a brewer, seems far more interested in the technical and scientific aspects of the craft. Nowhere have I heard criticisms of these entries–far, far more numerous–nor do the writers give me pause. They are authorities in their fields, not journalists or writers.

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