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Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Oxford Companion to Beer -- Juggernaut or Dud?

Note: I have edited the post for accuracy.

The Oxford Companion to Beer debuted this month to fairly brisk sales (it's the number two beer book on Amazon behind Palmer's How to Brew). It weighs in at over 900 pages, runs roughly 700,000 words--War and Peace is only three-quarters as long), and features the work of over 150 contributors. Mario Batali gets the key cover blurb: "If scholarly detail and accuracy for brewing is your thirst, this book will be your definitive go-to over and over again." With the imprimatur of Oxford University Press and a $65 price tag, that's what editor Garrett Oliver hopes it will become.

Oliver is the founding brewer at the Brooklyn Brewery (a fact that will later become relevant), and has lately moved into the "foremost authority" category--bolstered by writing and media appearances.

Noah Webster first started publishing dictionaries in 1806, but it wasn't until 35 years later that his completed masterpiece finally saw print (and, in turn, blew a hole in the world of letters). Reading Oxford Companion to Beer has the feel of peeking over Noah's shoulder in about 1825. It's an almost staggering document. It's probably literally five four pounds, and the dense, very sparsely-illustrated columns of text run along through such arcana as ale pole, drauflassen, and Saladin box. There are deeply technical scientific entries, biographies, style descriptions--well, every category you can think of that's even distantly related to beer. A casual glance suggest that this really is as comprehensive and definitive as the publishers hoped.

The problem is that while the categories are all represented, they are made up of some extraneous information, some essential information, and lack other information for reasons unknown. Take the category of brewery. Obviously, not every brewery on the planet warrants a mention. But doesn't the fifth largest American craft brewery? It's Deschutes, and it gets none. The 25th, Rogue, does get a mention, though. I started comparing the list of the 50 largest American craft breweries to the list in the book. The further west of New York the brewery was located, the less likely it was to be in the book. Notable exceptions omissions include Widmer (top ten), Bell's (8th), Alaskan (12), Stone (14), Full Sail (18), Summit (20). Perhaps not by coincidence, the editor's own brewery, Brooklyn (16), is included.

I questioned my own judgment here--bias runs both ways, after all, and Pac Ten guys always complain that the New Yorkers neglect them. But then I looked at the "brewing regions" Oliver deemed critical to our understanding of beer. It mainly includes countries and a few key cities or regions (Burton Upon Trent, Flanders), but also four five American cities/boroughs. They are: Chicago, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Manhattan, and Brooklyn. If your inner researcher is tingling with anxiety, join the club.

Anxiety mounts when you see that Horst Dornbusch is the associate editor and a major contributor to the work--or, at least it does if you're a regular reader of Ron Pattinson's. I will punt on Dornbusch's qualifications because everything I know about the man's work I read in critique of it (akin to understanding my blog through the writing of Doc Wort). Still, it gives one pause. As a consequence, I find myself flipping to the back of the book to see whether I should trust the entry or treat it like I would Wikipedia. So on the acetaldehyde entry, I see "Bev Robertson." Flip, flip, flip: "professor emeritus of physics, University of Regina." Okay, probably good. Bottle sizes is handled by Martyn Cornell--reliable as Portland rain. Brettanomyces, a fave of mine, is given to Chad Michael Yakobson, whom the books describes as "owner and brewer of Crooked Stave Beer Project." Huh. No idea. (I did some research, and the former Odell brewer seems quite knowledgeable.)

And this is the problem. If you're concerned about the authority of each entry, it detracts mightily from the utility of an all-in-one reference guide. Alan McLeod believes this is just fine--the book works as a conversation-starter. But that's what we have bloggers for. If you're going to shell out $65 for a reference book, you want it to be definitive. Hell, if I want some guy spreading misinformation, I can get it for free on my own blog. I purchased the book (it's actually only $38.50 on Amazon) because it's still better than anything out there. It has entries by Tom Shellhammer about hops--and he really is the foremost expert in the field. Pete Brown is in here, and his prose sings, as are historians Cornell and Pattinson, and great journalists like John Holl and Jay Brooks. (There are notable omissions, too, like Stan Hieronymus and Maureen Ogle--who talk about it here.)

But it feels like beta version stuff. A real editor needs to go through, weed out the detritus, add in the important omissions, and clean up the mistakes (crowd sourced here) and release the truly definitive work everyone had in mind when this idea was still germinating.


  1. Five pounds? Deschutes left out? Brooklyn Brewery included? Hmmmm. I'm not sure I need a beer reference book, but I'm sure I don't need this one. Us Pac-12 guys are biased and hard-headed like that.

  2. Jeff, do you mean that Bell's, Widmer, etc. are *not* in the book? I couldn't tell if you meant that those were the top 50 breweries included or the ones left out.

    I haven't held the book in my hands, but it seems like it will be a pretty good reference, and maybe that's all it meant to be.

    Very cool of Alan to set up a corrections Wiki for it.

  3. I believe you mean 1825 and Pac 12. There I have fixed your errors. Hack.

    I'm saving my bones for the Beer Bible. Who do you want informing you about beer Noah Webster or God herself?

  4. Bill and Patrick: errors resolved. Deschutes, Widmer, et al, were not included in the book.

    As for all this nouveau "Pac 12" business--I said what I meant. I'm no Pac 12 man--anyone who allows Utah and Colorado to sully their conference loses all claim to "Pac." But we may be detouring to a separate matter...

  5. Oh, and I should say, Patrick, that you get the award for quixotic comment that both praises (oblique reference to Beer Bible) and condemns ("hack"). Well done.

    For what it's worth, I am pleased that the OCtB is in a totally different format than the Beer Bible. It's difficult to compete with 150+ writers...

  6. I'm like a drill sergeant, I tear you down and then build you up. Though I am better at the former...

    You are a Pac 10 man? You mean a dinosaur unwilling and afraid to accept change, stuck in a world that has passed you by, head in the sand?....wait, I guess you are right, you are a Pac 10 man.

    See, I'm good at the snarky stuff!

    But you shouldn't sell yourself short: one Jeff Alworth is worth at LEAST 150 average beer writers. Okay well maybe at least 2....1 and 1/2?

    See, I'm hopeless at the positive stuff - being positive is never funny anyway.

  7. You dare disrespect the addition of Colorado to the Pac? Is that state not the home of the GABF and Denver, the rival beervana? The beer gods aren't going to take kindly to comments like this. #detour

  8. I am not sure that I meant that it is "just fine" when I wrote that it will "trigger any number of arguments, plenty of scurrying for further sources and the occasional drifting of the book across the room." That sounds like wiggle room to me.

    I don't expect there to be a definitive all in one guide. I certainly don't take Mario Batalia's word on anything as definitive - however lovely a man he and however lovely his food might be. I have a library of pushing 100 beer books and this is one of the best. But it's structure in the form of short essays by definition means it leaves gaps. Hence the wiki, to which you were good enough to link. But that will leave gaps, too.

    Beer is too big for one book.

  9. Chicago, Milwaukee, Manhattan, and Brooklyn are the critical American beer cities to understand beer, huh... jeez. I understand Milwaukee, from an historical perspective, and I'd put St. Louis in with that, but the rest? The mind boggles...

  10. Brooklyn and Manhattan aren't cities, they're boroughs of New York City.

  11. Alan, fair enough.

    Shawn, true, which is even more egregious. (Sometimes I try--really--to write in a way that limits parentheticals. And when I got to the borough business, I considered it, but I thought, "nah, no one will call me on it."

    But as this thread amply illustrates, someone's going to call me on everything.

  12. And to prove that I'll point out that Amazon lists the shipping weight at 3.8 pounds.

    Today The Street has an interview with Rob Widmer. Not sure it will be very educational for Portlanders, but perhaps for the rest of the world.

    In it the writer says that in 1986 Widmer "unwittingly became the first in America to offer seasonal beers."

    Should "seasonal beers" have been an entry so that he would have been saved the embarrassment of overlooking Anchor's Our Special Ale?

  13. The conference blew the geographic purity when it added ASU and Arizona. The Pac-8 was the last time the conference had anything to do with "Pacific."

    I'm going to be in Boulder on Saturday to watch the Ducks crush the Buffaloes, then probably head over to Avery Brewing afterward for a cask IPA or a draft-only sour. If that's what conference expansion means to me, I'm not terribly upset.

  14. Philadelphia gets a mention as well.
    So that's five american cities.

  15. Well, thanks for the praise, Jeff, and I hope my bits are OK, but from what very little I've seen I'm extremely worried about some of the rest of it. In a quick glance I found far, far too many errors that simply should not have been there. And the problem will be that too many people will assume, as they ought to be able to, that if it's in the Oxford Companion to Beer, it must be right …

  16. Hey Jeff, good points, but I have to point out that Alaskan Brewery is indeed in the book. I only know that because I wrote that particular entry.

    And I have to second Martyn's worry. With so much scrutiny I hope I didn't screw anything up either.