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.

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