Monday, 6 August 2012

The Oxford Companion to Beer edited by Garrett Oliver

 The Oxford Companion to Beer (OCB) is an impressive looking tome from a respected publisher. However, its arrival was not greeted with universal acclaim.

Thought after a quick look noted beer historian Pete Brown called it "the most essential beer book you can buy" saying "you simply have to buy this" beer writer Martyn Cornell was not so impressed. Taking advantage of previews on Amazon he called it a "dreadful disaster" due to the "total garbage" he'd spotted.

These early salvos set the tone and gushing reviews were soon bogged down in trench warfare. Wave after wave of blog commentators went over the top in relentless attacks, leading editor Garrett Oliver to go ballistic in his Brooklyn bunker and launch an intercontinental attack on Martyn Cornell accusing him, amongst other things, of McCarthyism. Contributer Roger Protz went even further, and losing all sense of proportion compared critics to Nazi book burners.

Amongst the fog of war I couldn't see a decent in depth review between the gushing puff pieces and the pointed, but small and specific, attacks. Whatever the book turned out like I was far too curious by now not to own a copy so onto my wish list it went.

 Flicking through the book my thoughts were as mixed as the reviews. The entry on Brettanomyces answered a question my research hadn't, and the entry on the aleurone was excellent. But I'd also come across a howler that had made me want to fling the book to the floor. As someone who worked with bacteria for many years I can confidently say that Staphlococcus and Clostridia are most certainly not Gram negative.

I joined the OCB wiki set up by Alan McLeod so I could point out the mistakes I'd spotted but I still wasn't quite sure what to make of the book. Was I just nit picking about minor things or was it fundamentally flawed? Garret Oliver himself had pointed out that it's impossible to have a work of this size without some mistakes, and Roger Protz said that the Oxford Companion to Wine had around 1,000 errors in the first edition. To get a general feel for the book I decided to start reading it at the beginning and read it though until I'd finished the letter A.

I had to raise an eyebrow when I saw that of the 46 people important enough in the history of beer to get an individual biography three were presidents of the USA. Some quick flicking shows that this is not because of they had any great connection to beer but simply American bias. I certainly can't think why else the fact that George Washington stopped for a pint before fleeing the British is considered sufficiently important to deserve an entry.

When I got to the meat of the book a few other things started to stand out. Most of the entries are written as if they're for an encyclopaedia, which is certainly what the book looks like. Some are written as if they're magazine articles, chatty in style and offering opinions but not very clear with the facts, and some are written as histories of the particular subject they're covering.

They quality, as well as the style, of the entries varies. Some are absolute gems, some seem a bit lacking and some are just plain wrong. I had hoped it might be possible to work out a rating system for the authors, e.g. Charles Bamforth is consistently good, Garret Oliver seems to waffle on and  Horst Dornbusch I viewed with caution as he has previous form. Some entries are referenced, some aren't and some have only references to websites.

The cross referencing is equally erratic, some entries clearly link in BOLD TYPE to other related entries of interest, whereas the next entry on a similar subject may be devoid of any cross references, e.g. the entry 'American hops' includes cross references to Willamette, Nugget, Cascade and Galena but though they're mentioned in the following entry 'American hops, history' they are not cross referenced.

A major flaw in my author rating plan came to light when I followed a cross reference to an entry on 'Downy Mildew' by Keith Thomas of Brewlab, a brewing scientist I have a lot of respect for. It talked only about disease in barley, which surprised me as I know it's also an important disease in hops. A bit of googling later I found out the entry was actually about 'Powdery Mildew', an entirely different disease, caused by an entirely different organism.

At this point I realised the problems with the book couldn't be put down to individual authors, the editing was also seriously flawed. As complete entries by respected academics could be entirely erroneous mistakes could no longer be glossed over as minor matters. Despite the quality of some of the entries the OCB cannot be trusted.

Despite this the OCB won the prestigious André Simon prize. David Gleave, the person awarding it stated:

“Garrett Oliver worked with 166 contributors to compile what is the first serious reference book on beer. In addition to his contributors, he assembled an Advisory Panel to peer review each piece submitted before it was forwarded to him. The result is a book that is easy to read yet one that will remain a serious reference book for years to come.” 

From my looking at the book I don't think it was even proof read, let alone peer reviewed, at least not in the sense I understand it i.e. having other experts in the field review the work submitted before publication. It may well be used as a reference book for years to come but the hit and miss quality of the entries means it cannot be used as a serious reference book.

Having said that I'm glad I've got the book. You get a lot for your money at the Amazon price of £18.90, and even though you can't treat it as an encyclopaedia it makes a great coffee table book, full of interesting stuff, even if the information it contains needs to be treated with caution.


  1. Another review that makes me want to wait for a revised edition. Plenty of other books to read first.

  2. I was too impatient to wait.

  3. even if the information it contains needs to be treated with caution

    But that's the killer for me. If I picked up the OCB I would know in advance that some bits of it were untrustworthy - but how would I know which bits?

    Perhaps what we really need is a wiki where experts in particular (sub-)areas flag up the OCB entries that are totally reliable.

    1. There is one and ed linked to it in his post!

    2. The trouble is most beer books I read have errors in them. The Brewers Apprentice certainly did, and it made similar grandiose claims as the OCB.

      I've defintely learnt stuff from looking at OCB entries, though you need to get onto the wiki and google to check things out as well. Not an ideal situation, but as I said I've still learnt stuff so I've found it useful.

    3. Steve - I thought the point of the wiki was to identify the entries that aren't reliable.

  4. I think Oliver made two disastrous errors in stewarding the book. The first was to rush the book out in time for the Christmas market. The second was to hire a charlatan to help out in the final stages.

    It is a great shame, because Oliver is an excellent writer, but the editing can only be described as shoddy. I know that a book of this size will inevitably have errors, but is it too much to ask for one article to not openly contradict another one elsewhere on the same page?

    Some people said my review was fair, though negative.

    1. That's an excellent review. The book certainly looks rushed, and great brewer and writer he may be but I can't help but wonder if Garret Oliver was the right man for the job.

    2. I think you only need look at his response to the critics to see he was most definitely the wrong man for the job.