Should Beer Writers Stop Writing About History?

There have been a flurry of blog posts this week decrying the recent release of the Oxford Beer Companion, edited by Garrett Oliver, brewmaster at the Brooklyn Brewery. As part of this near-encyclopedic series, the publication is being touted as “[t]he first major reference work to investigate the history and vast scope of beer. The Oxford Companion to Beer features more than 1,100 A-Z entries written by 166 of the world’s most prominent beer experts.”

While much of the initial press has been duly positive, wider distribution of the book has led to a number of grumbles from some influential and consequential circles, including Ron Pattinson, Jeff Alworth, and Martyn Cornell, the latter of which called the book a “dreadful disaster.” Even Alan at A Good Beer Blog has gotten into the criticism game, having gone so far as to set up a wiki to catalog the Oxford Beer Companion’s mistakes. I wonder if he has seen that the Oxford University press is selectively pulling quotes from his website in order to make it seem as if he has positively reviewed the book. It’s also more than a little embarrassing that the Oxford University Press runs a long review quote from one of the contributing authors, which of course, breathlessly praises the book as “[t]he most essential beer book you can buy.”

I haven’t seen the book but for a quick peek at the Great American Beer Festival’s bookstore and am not rushing to dump $65 on the time anytime soon, but the growing criticism of the text is sort of a fascinating old versus new versus old world publishing debate. The criticisms are not insubstantial in their merits, including the continued and unfortunate repetition of pernicious beer myths ranging from the origins of porter to the alcohol levels in IPA’s and several more. Editing a 1100 entry book is certainly no easy task. But some of these cited mistakes would’ve been easy to spot (I tried to avoid them myself in Great American Craft Beer). And the Press really has to stop using that damned fake Ben Franklin beer quote to promote a book that says it likely never happened, except where the book suggests he may have said it.

Putting aside the specific criticisms (as I haven’t read the book), I am left with a thought that has often kicked around in my head in recent years: American beer writers do a terrible job of writing beer history and perhaps have no business doing it. Frankly, nearly every beer writer does a terrible job of writing about the history of the beverage, whether it be generally speaking, the origins and provenance of a style or brand, or even about the development of craft beer in recent years. Because writing about history requires research, not the mere repetition of questionable nuggets from Wikipedia or other beer writers. If you haven’t logged hours digging through dusty newspapers in a library or scoured archives at a brewing academy, it’s probably best to avoid writing about history. As a young beer writer, I certainly participated in my fair share of the reiterative beer writer dark arts. But we didn’t know better and just took the work of our writing elders at face value. Writers such as Ron, Martyn, and others showed us the folly of such poor work.

So while I likely won’t comment much on the Oxford Beer Companion, I wonder what its contributors were thinking in crafting some of these errant passages and whether they thought the book was a good idea in the first place. If the errors keep coming at the quick clip of this week, it’s a question someone clearly didn’t bother to ask along the way. As purveyors of communications about beer, we should strive to do much better in the future.

15 Responses

  1. Oh, Andy. You have made my day. I had no idea I made the O.U.P. web page. It is a quotation I stand by but I would not have thought it was all that positive. I want to make a t-shirt out of that.

    As for whether beer writers should write history, I gave up early on, too. Ron cured me. Except for the wee bits I could actually access and get my hands around like early beer in my small city and that Albany Ale thing. But I only take it as far as I can take it – hence it gets placed on a blog. But there is that part of the circle of beer writer who should write about history? Of course – the beer historians. Not the journalists, not the style guide writers and not the brewers or the brewery PR staff. Beer historians, whether pro or semi-pro or even amateur who come to the subject with the proper respect and doubt. They can do this. Because they do this well.

    • Agreed across the board Alan. History writing can be done and done well but few if any Americans have really dedicated themselves to it. I’ve often wondered whether this country lacks the resources of somewhere such as Britain or Germany, where there appear to be publicly accessible brewing logs dating back centuries. I’ve never looked so maybe we have some great ones here. If so, I’d spend some time there.

      As a simple point, we really have no idea what beer tasted or looked like before a certain point in American history. Or at least I’ve never seen a convincing discussion. There is lots to do. We just choose to be supremely lazy about it.

      • I have to agree, Andy. There is nothing yet by way of comprehensive beer history of the USA even with solid partial efforts. I do know on the Albany Ale front that there has been a real issue in identifying a log book – and I have a mole in the NY state museum in Albany working on it. We may take a stab at brewing it in 2012. But it will be very much a beer with a question mark if that is the case.

        But is that because of laziness or complexity? Or reality? I am doing work (at my level of skill) on early Kingston brewing – my town, an important CNY Tory place of refuge after the American revolution. But there were no newspapers from 1783 to 1810. Records just were not kept. I know there was brewing at Finkle’s tavern as well as the City brewery in Kingston in the 1790s but I bet they just never wrote it down. You people down there have no such excuse, of course, but these things are realities.

  2. So how are American to “strive to do much better in the future” if they quit writing about history altogether?

    What chance do future historians (from Mars or whatever non-American address you prefer) have of accurately reporting what actually happened if it isn’t written down now?

    And as a quick aside, I don’t know what library you’ve been reading dusty newspapers in, but these days even the smallest small town library will insist you use their antiquated microfilm reader.

    • One or the other Stan, of course. Chronicling events as they occur is something that beer writers (or bloggers or website commenters) do reasonably well. It’s when we try to figure out what happened long ago and presume to know it and repeat myths that we get further afield.

      Jackson’s archive had lots of dusty newspapers…

  3. We just choose to be supremely lazy about it.

    I find that sort of broad generalization offensive.

    • With the Internet, I can’t tell if you’re kidding, Stan. Of course is a broad generalization but with only a handful of exceptions, there is not a lot of beer scholarship going on in American beer writing. I think that is likely to change but do you think we’ve done well to this point?

  4. I wasn’t kidding. If you discount current efforts because 1,000 writers did a sloppy job in the past then you’ve closed the door on ever successfully interpreting history.

    To keep it simple I’ll answer the question at the top: Should Beer Writers Stop Writing About History?

    No, not as long as they get it right.

    • I’m with you, Stan. Most of the ridiculous yet persisting myths have ben debunked at this point. Some of us are willing to do the easy research that it takes to get these basic facts correct. As far as breaking new ground, I hope anyone willing to do the work has the integrity that guys like you, Pattinson, and Cornell do.

  5. First off, I’d just like to say that marketing and publicity departments, not authors or contributors, are usually responsible for generating and choosing the copy that appears on websites and book jackets or in brochures and catalogs. As often as not, these people aren’t tremendously familiar with the content in the volume that they’re promoting. Second, I completely agree that “purveyors of communications about beer” should strive for the best, but I’m pretty sure this isn’t achieved by avoiding history or archival research altogether. No writer or journalist, whatever their beat, should fall into the trap of repetition or reiteration, and hopefully any debate surrounding the Companion will serve to raise the standards that we all come to expect from superlative beer scholarship.

    • Hi Ben-

      Just a quick point. In the two books I have written, the marketing department consulted me on the copy for websites and the book jacket and I made changes in their work.

      Best,

      Andy

  6. I just want to suggest that anytime we mention dutiful beer historians like Ron Pattinson and Martyn Cornell, we really ought to be mentioning Maureen Ogle as well. Even though I think she’s writing about meat at the moment.

  7. Blame the market. The reason we have Ron and Martyn is because two careful men decided to make beer history their hobby. Neither one makes money at it. No publisher will pay to fund this research and put out a major history. In the absence of that, we’re left with academics–none, so far, studying beer–hobbyists, or very small presses to take up the slack. When a great history does make it, like Maureen Ogle’s Ambitious Beer, it has to do so by hooking into the business and popular nonfiction categories. A beer like Amber, Gold, and Black is out of the question.

  8. Oh, I should acknowledge the Brewers Publications books on styles. I haven’t read many, and I suspect some of the early books have faults. But lately, works on lambic, farmhouse ales, and Stan’s books have been wonderful. This is one case where a publisher is willing to invest in some scholarship (though I’ve heard that even BP isn’t immune to market considerations). Anyone who’s read Brewing With Wheat, for example, has to admire the scholarship that went into it. You won’t find Martyn Cornell posting a fact-check on that one.

  9. Andy,

    Not sure how I feel about the whole argument against writing about beer history in general, but I think that the fact that you wrote this is a testament to how important it is for modern day writers to document the current state of the industry, as it happens. This way, bearing Global Warming and the fate of the world, 100′s of years from now a future “Andy Crouch” will not be making the same exact argument.

    Yours forever in Blogging,

    Ashley

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