The Oxford Companion to Beer: wait for the second edition

To lay people, the Oxford University Press is possibly one of the most prestigious publishing houses in the world. Garrett Oliver, brewmaster of Brooklyn Brewery, is undoubtedly one of the most well-known, charismatic and articulate brewers in the United States, and is also gaining a higher profile everywhere where people are taking a greater interest in beer.

So it was a big deal when OUP announced the forthcoming publication of the Oxford Companion to Beer, described as “an absolutely indispensable volume for everyone who loves beer as well as all beverage professionals”.

The book has been received with something approaching rapture in the media, described variously as “a book every beer lover must have” and “the world’s most comprehensive book on beer, to date”.

It’s a good-looking book: the deliciously legible Adobe Minion is very readable on the smooth, creamy paper. The spine looks flimsy but appears designed to flex rather than crack with repeated reading. I understand it has already sold out its first and second printings, meaning tens of thousands of copies will be thumbed and taken as authoritative in beer discourse for years to come. Dozens of respected beer authorities, and, unnervingly, the odd beer fantasy peddler, have contributed entries on subjects ranging from amylase (enzymes which convert starch to sugar) to Zentner (unit of weight for bulk hops).

There’s even an entry on aphids. Their potential to ruin hop crops notwithstanding, perhaps this entry at the beginning of the alphabet reflects early ambition for the book to be even more comprehensive than the finished version. But in view of the number of substantial topics which have been passed over, the inclusion of topics on tangential interest often seems bizarre: how many beers really include mint, or nutmeg? Is the old tradition of wassail notable enough for half a page? There is a bizarrely short article on stout, a quarter of the length of the one on cheese. This latter can be explained as an eminently forgivable piece of whimsy on the part of the Editor-in-Chief, whose passion for cheese is evidently on a par with his love of beer.

Manhattan, manioc, but not malt liquor. It’s a shame the latter is omitted; a very old term which, in Britain, once referred to all fermented malt beverages. Such a term was necessary when people still needed to distinguish between heavily-hopped Beer and lightly-hopped Ale. Nowadays the expression is extinct in Britain, but has gained a new lease of life in America where it refers exclusively to high-strength lager made with a large proportion of adjuncts.

Any book of this size will contain errors, and there are plenty of small mistakes, of the type one would expect: there is no town of Kulmbacher in Germany (it’s Kulmbach; Kulmbacher denotes something from Kulmbach, as Pilsener is something from Pilsen), nor was there ever a “Scottish & Newcastle Brewery”. The picture caption that claims “mashing out” is the term used for removing spent grain from the mash tun is a howler, though. Löwenbräu does not mean “lion’s brew”, it means “the brewer at the sign of the lion”; and so on. Keith Villa moves the foundation of Belgium back in time to the Middle Ages in the article on witbier (and devotes a suspicious, though arguably legitimate, amount of space to his own take on the style, Blue Moon). In an otherwise decent piece on coaching inns, Roger Protz writes the 174 years of independent existence of the London brewery Barclay Perkins out of history and has its merger with neighbour Courage take place in the late 18th century rather than the late 20th century it actually was. These do not spoil the narrative too much in themselves, but one wonders how errors like these, which betray a lack of fact-checking, ever got into an ostensibly authoritative work on beer in the first place.

One might also quibble with the chosen style which renders Pilsner, Altbier and Kölsch in lower case; even two formerly venerable Kulmbach breweries are named sandlerbräu and reichelbräu. But these can be placed alongside other minor annoyances, such as the lazy American use of “ale” to describe all top-fermenting beers, which occurs throughout, depending on author.

The entry on “ale” itself does sketch some of the problems with this usage; however, the article implies that it is now generally accepted, which is true only in the United States. This is a shame, since it misses an opportunity to tell the full story of how the meaning of the term has shifted over time.

An overly short section in this article comes close to suggesting that pale ale and brown ale have existed in their current forms in England since the 16th century; judicious editing could have given us a more succinct and clearer description of the way the word “ale” has been understood in different times and places. We learn that ale in Britain originally meant the unhopped beverage, distinct from the Flemish hopped “beer”, and the article on Britain repeats this, but we are not told that although the ale-brewers eventually started putting hops in their brew, ale and beer still continued side by side as distinct malt liquors, ale being lightly hopped and beer more heavily so; a distinction crucial to understanding British beer even today.

What happens when such an understanding is lacking? Well, you get a piece like Val Peacock’s piece on English hops, which conflates beer with ale and repeats the canard (refuted by Martyn Cornell) that Henry VIII “banned hops”. You get the confused and woffling piece on brown ale, which describes mild as a variant of the same. Certainly, not a few British breweries once took the short cut of bottling their mild as brown ale; but the types have completely different origins and generally enjoyed a (mostly) separate existence. The naive reader is left with the impression that any top-fermenting beer which happens to be brown can be called brown ale; we learn that Altbier, dubbel and oud bruin are “rarely referred to” as such, but not why they are not: because they come from different brewing traditions and the people who actually brew and drink them don’t think of them as “brown ale”.

When it comes to pale ale, the same problem arises. Terry Foster manages to leave the reader more confused than when he started. Belgian pale ales are mentioned, but since he does not mention any by name, it is difficult to figure out which beers he is talking about. “Pale ale originated as a catch-all term for any top-fermented beer that was not dark”, he claims. It would be more accurate to say the term has been increasingly misused for that purpose since the 1990s. We are missing a crucial bit of information: that pale ale is (along with Porter and Ale) one of the major strands in the British brewing tradition and those derived from it; again, it doesn’t just refer to any old top-fermented beer that is light-coloured.

One kind of beer that definitely is a Pale Ale, albeit in a degenerate form, is not mentioned but gets an entry to itself: “Irish red ale”, which at least admits “the term is rarely heard in Ireland”, though the entry could still benefit from heavier usage of words such as “supposedly” and “alleged”. It is amusing to note that one popular brand of “Irish red” in Ireland is — Bass brewed in Glasgow. Glenn A Payne’s general article on Irish beer is so jam-packed with information that one can only hope it is all accurate, since the sheer density of factoids is a deterrent to checking their veracity.

Scotland fares worse than Ireland. Some incredibly inaccurate things have been said before about the subject, but Horst Dornbusch has produced the most egregiously wrong claptrap ever written about Scottish beer. In a long and confused article on the shilling system, which would bewilder the naive reader even if the information contained in it were correct, terms like “wee heavy”, “twopenny” and “80/–” are thrown about seemingly at random. 60/–, a low-gravity beer derived from 20th century Pale Ales, is conflated with Two-penny, a beer from a different historical period which hasn’t existed in any meaningful sense since 1802. The shilling system is described as unique to Scotland, which it wasn’t. We are treated to a detailed description of the beers that American homebrewers create under the name of Scottish or Scotch ales, but little more than fantasies about the beers actually brewed in Scotland.

Dornbusch doesn’t know what heavy is. He thinks it’s a strong ale brewed exclusively from the first runnings of a mash. This alone ought to have disqualified him from writing the article on Scotland. However, at least he brands the drivel about Scottish beer being made with peated malt as the legend that it is; though we can probably be grateful for that to the late Greg Noonan, whose book Scotch Ale Dornbusch uses as his sole source.

Tim Hampson, who should know better, tells us in the entry on drinking vessels: “In Scotland, strong Scotch ales are sometimes served in a pint-sized tulip glass known as a thistle, named after the Scottish national flower... ” Replace “sometimes” with “never” and you’d be accurate. Scotland gets a raw deal in general: the air pressure dispense system has no entry, although every other common dispense system does (it should be noted that air pressure was not only standard practice in Scotland, but also in what was then Czechoslovakia). There is an article on “wee heavy”, i.e. the beer that Americans think the Scots drink, but none on “heavy”, the beer they actually drink (or, since we are being sticklers for accuracy, the one they drank a generation ago).

Dornbusch is no better on German beer. In one entry, in which he quotes three articles from his own website as sources, he places Franconia in “central Bavaria” (it is in the north). One can only guess how reliable the rest of the information is. This uncertainty spoils the whole narrative of his piece on Germany, as one is never quite sure which parts are true and which are invented, and the final assertion that German beer today is in as poor a state as American beer in the 1970s is laughable. It does, however, fit in with the rather sinister sub-text expressed in several places in the book: that Old Europe’s brewing is stagnant and needs rescued by “craft brewers”.

The cod history of Kölsch produced by Karl-Ullrich Heyse reads like it was copied off the back of a beer bottle. No doubt the marketing departments of Cologne’s breweries would like us to believe that “the history of kölsch goes back to the year 874 AD”. It’s complete rubbish, as Cologne has had a long history of brewing ranging from early “red” beers, gruit beers and hopped beers, jumping in the 19th and 20th centuries from top-fermentation to bottom-fermentation, and only within living memory back again.

By the early 1900s the city was dominated by bottom-fermenting beer with top-fermenting beer the speciality of tiny brewpubs. In the 1920s the proportion of top-fermenting beer was in single figures. The triumph of what we now know as Kölsch took place in the 1950s and 1960s, when largely due to the efforts of Hans Sion of the Sion brewery, Kölsch was reinvented as the ubiquitous beverage of the city with its market share rocketing from around a third to over 90%. This remarkable story of the Kölsch revival is not mentioned, sadly, for it deserves to be more widely known. It would be, after all, a splendid case study for the self-same marketing people.

Conrad Seidl, in one of several competent and informed articles, says pretty much all that needs to be said on the subject of German Pilsner beer. Unfortunately his article is immediately followed by Dornbusch woffling on about Germany, and one is left wishing that Seidl had been asked to write it all.

The book includes a surprisingly vast amount of information on hard-core brewing technology, including such packaging practices as “jetting”, and one fears that such articles may be too esoteric for the beer drinker, but too simplistic for any brewer who needs to know about the subject. The parti-gyling entry is too short, garbled and not much use unless one already understands the basic principles. However, at least it countenances that worts may be blended, in contrast to the peculiar idea expressed several times elsewhere that parti-gyling just means making one beer from the first runnings, another from the second runnings, etc. Similarly disappointingly, a mere quarter of a page is devoted to the fascinating subject of priming sugar, and barely scratches the surface.

Garrett Oliver’s own breezy writing style contrasts with the drier prose of the other authors who write on the technical side of brewing, which is no real surprise. It is a relief to see a name like Bamforth or Stempfl underneath an article and know that the information therein is reliable … until the dreadful suspicion arises that perhaps it has been mucked about with later. One certainly hopes that the technical articles are more scrupulously reviewed than the historical ones evidently were; after all, if you can’t trust Charlie Bamforth to get things right, who can you trust? — but the layman has no way of knowing.

In general (and perhaps inevitably given the target market for a book in English of this nature), most entries are heavily skewed to the Anglo-American view of things – and American more so than Anglo. Thus brewpubs, a vital part of the American beer renaissance (over half of currently operating American breweries are brewpubs), are also credited with more importance than they really deserve in the British real-ale revival (which is not to diminish the efforts of David Bruce and others), yet the huge array of brewpubs in Germany and other countries are barely mentioned.

It may have been in an effort to achieve a level of objectivity that contributors appear to have been asked to write about countries other than their own: thus we have Tim Hampson writing about German rye beer, Roger Protz on Czech lager, Horst Dornbusch on Scottish beer, Pete Brown on Prohibition. I am not sure this was such a good idea; an extended peer-review process might have been better for clarifying crucial points and eliminating subconscious bias. Those articles from the horse’s mouth such as Keith Villa on his own creation, Blue Moon, are much more successful.

Matthew Brynildson of Firestone Walker uses a third of the space devoted to the Burton Union fermentation system to present the oak fermentation system at his own brewery; this subject, interesting in its own right, should be somewhere else, as the set-up at Firestone Walker does not share the essential characteristics of the true Burton Union: that cleansed beer flows back into the casks, leaving fresh yeast for harvesting. It’s a shame that Brynildson did not get the chance to discuss the Firestone Union in a separate article, since it is apparently unique even in the hugely diverse brewing landscape of the United States.

Poking around in the book, as one does in a volume of this size and in fact as one is encouraged to do by the editor, one often wishes that Oliver had been more heavy-handed with the red pen. Contributors get to promote their own hobby horses at will and often contradict each other; thus we find Pete Brown defending weak British session-strength IPAs as a legitimate branch of the family, while elsewhere Tim Hampson dismisses one such, Deuchars IPA, as not an IPA at all. Mark Dorber uses a disproportionate amount of his short article on “real ale” to vent his frustration at the more bone-headed members of the Campaign for Real Ale who reject cask breathers on principle; this criticism (irrespective of its merits) is also brought up in the entry on CAMRA and in the one on cask breathers themselves, which seems a bit over the top for an argument that in actuality is dead and buried, at least in the UK. On the other hand, the much more intense debate on whether CAMRA should accept or promote kegged beer is not mentioned, for which we can perhaps be grateful in the short term.

Other redundant sections appear several times over: for example, three separate articles bemoan the supposed reluctance of American consumers to buy returnable beer bottles. The decision to have separate articles for bottles, bottling and bottle sizes seems odd in itself; Martyn Cornell’s meagre half page on bottle sizes could have benefited from being longer and including more details of common bottle sizes around the world, and some illustrations of bottles might be more useful to the reader than the photograph of a 1910-era bottling line. The phenomenon of one article contradicting another comes to a head here, with Dornbusch/Oliver asserting, wrongly, that the imperial pint remains a common size in the UK, only to have Cornell refute this further down the same page.

Pete Brown’s long and reasonably balanced piece on Britain (there is a separate article on Scotland, but none on England as such) has only one serious deficiency, when he misses out the long reign of mild ale as the drink of the working class in the 19th and 20th centuries – which is a shame because his writing is otherwise some of the most careful and meticulous in the book. If every contribution in this tome were up to the standard of Brown’s magnificent IPA article, it would be a worthwhile investment.

Ian Hornsey’s article on the English pub is heavy on history and has too little on the distinctive culture and etiquette of the pub. Presumably there are no pubs in Scotland; actually a discussion of the difference between English pubs and Scottish dram-shops could be interesting, but alas there is no room for it. It ends on a melancholy note which implies the pub (as opposed to the contemporary “bar and kitchen” type establishment) is in terminal decline. Only time will tell whether he is right. One feature of the pub which has vanished, but might have been worth mentioning, was class segregation of the pub, as seen in the common separation of public bar and lounge: this phenomenon is something of which younger drinkers today are often completely unaware.

No book however weighty can possibly cover every brewery that exists, but one is forced to the conclusion that the selection has been made to cover topics of interest to American beer nerds. So Traquair House is mentioned, but not Tennent’s. Of other Scottish breweries, a short, dull piece tells when Belhaven was built and who now owns it (a further snub to Wellpark is that Belhaven, established 160 years later, is named as the oldest brewery in Scotland), and an entry on Caledonian focuses on its changing ownership with just a few words about its beer. Russian River, on the other hand, is a tiny US brewery that makes some very good beer but, as far as I can tell, is not particularly more notable than hundreds of other breweries either for its past or its present. It is included presumably because it is so revered by a small number of people that they would howl in outrage if it were not. Does Boddington’s deserve a mention? Since it is sold in the US in huge quantities in widget cans, it seems it does.

Several European beers are described with the British term “session beers” despite there being no entry for that term in the book. One cannot help wondering whether the absence of an entry on the topic is a wise decision or a cowardly one, given the heat that is inevitably brought to this argument by those determined to apply it to beers of 5, 6, even 7% alcohol, rather than the “under 4%” generally accepted in Britain.

There is progress. Even Dornbusch no longer claims that Mumme and Broyhan were the same thing, as he once did (they were extinct north German beers, neither of which gets an article, and as different from each other as beers can be, Broyhan being light, pale and highly carbonated, and Mumme thick, treacly and barely attenuated). And some long-standing beer myths are rejected or at least called into question. The ale-conners-sat-in-puddles-of-beer story is, at last, treated as legend rather than fact, and Hodgson and Harwood are no longer feted as the “inventors” of India pale ale and of porter respectively, as they were for so long in beer literature. In the long and rambling entry on porter we get half a page retelling the story of how Harwood invented entire butt to replace three-threads, before the author rather grudgingly admits the tale is “probably” not true. Unfortunately, later in the same article there is a spectacular piece of Dornbuschian revisionism which implies that the term “Baltic porter” dates from the period when British brewers exported porter to the Baltic, rather than being a retrospective term coined by Michael Jackson, who in the 1980s needed to find a name for the locally-brewed descendants of those beers. Pure invention is also the notion that Victorian England had an upper-class drink called “robust porter”; it almost certainly originates with early beer style guidelines for the American Homebrewers Association, not with the Victorians – the American beer writer Stan Hieronymus has been kind enough to verify that the Great American Beer Festival did not distinguish between “brown” and “robust” porter until 1995.

Nevertheless, there is some very good stuff in the book: for one, Oliver’s own eminently sensible article on the concept of beer styles. With the words “The great musician does not resent the sheet music; the great baker does not resent the baguette”, he neatly encapsulates the joy of brewing in the discipline of a well-defined idiom and defends the notion that a beer style, to be any use, should actually mean something. But he really comes into his own when describing the flavours of beer; in the article on Belgium his prose, Jacksonesque at its best, describes beer in such detail you can almost taste it: “Wonderfully complex aromatics, very high carbonation, attendant voluminous rocky foam, and a scintillating pinprick mousse on the tongue.”

There is valuable information in the Companion, lots of it. But as the layman cannot be expected to distinguish the valuable, accurate stuff from the nonsense, the presence of the latter devalues the whole volume. Some of the genuine experts who have contributed might rightfully be annoyed at having their own works printed along the large gobs of poorly researched hack work.

Is all this important? Well, yes it is. The buyer who’s forking out £35 in the belief that he’s getting the most authoritative book possible on beer is being had. It’s foolhardy in the extreme to suggest that errors can be fixed later: they’re in the wild now and will reproduce.

Jeff Evans, for example, says in his own review of the Companion, “There are some books you trust more than others, certain writers you know you can rely on to deliver accurate facts.  When you write about beer as much as I do, it’s important to know who these people are and which are the books you can turn to to check obscure details, bolster failing memory or provide a genuine insight into some arcane aspect of the brewing process.” So even people like Jeff who themselves are regarded as experts will be using this flawed volume as a source for years to come, perpetuating all the errors that it contains.

So many questions remain. Why there is an entry for leichtes Weissbier (competently enough written by Schneider Weisse brewer Hans-Peter Drexler) but none for any other Leicht beer? Do we really need an article on beer labels that tells us such insultingly basic information as that labels “are attached to various parts of the bottle, most commonly the front”? Are we actually looking at a finished book at all, or has it been rushed out in time for Christmas?

Garrett Oliver writes in his foreword that he hopes the Companion will not be the last book of its kind. I hope so too. Beer lovers deserve better than this.


  1. Very nice.

    As one of those layman, yours and Martyn's posts have summed up the reasons why I couldn't take a punt on this volume as it stands right now.

    Hopefully somebody at OUP is seeing these concerns and get cracking on a 2nd ed.

  2. Great piece and (though I've not seen the book) very fair-looking.

    The article on Ireland is, I think, good up to a point. The point being around 1970, after which it starts to get very wobbly indeed. The Porterhouse and Franciscan Well will be heartbroken to learn that the lagers they've been brewing for 15-odd years now are not "successful". Everyone's a critic, eh?

  3. Brilliant review. Long, but didn't seem it. Very fair. (Although I still think you're being harsh on the Koelsch entry.)

    A lot seems to hang on whether people believe (a) that some small errors can be shrugged off or (b) that they structurally compromise the integrity of the whole. I certainly won't be taking anything in the Companion as gospel, however much I'm enjoying reading it, and won't cite it without double-checking another source.

  4. Woah, thanks Rob. That ate into my Friday nicely. Best get on with some graft now...

    I think, like many, I shall be waiting for the 2nd ed. shame.

  5. I can't believe they've included Horst Dornbusch's fantasy about the history of Robust Porter. It's one of the low points in historical beer writing.

  6. All very interesting points, thanks for putting together such a detailed look.

    I do wonder, however, if it's worth taking a step back and thinking about the audience for the book - it's clearly not aimed at historians and/or technical brewery staff, but toward a more general crowd. That's not to say that errors are not important and that they should not be corrected in the next edition, but I suspect we are reaching a point where we can expect to see more scholarly beer writing (and debate) appearing in something approaching an open-access, peer-reviewed online journal, with the results of that work eventually making their way into subsequent editions of books like the one discussed here.

    Again, I realize that such studies do exist elsewhere in journals published in a variety of fields, but it would be nice to see them pulled together in one place, where they could be properly reviewed by those working in the field - and I don't think anyone would argue that more solid beer history research, going back to real primary sources, would go amiss, regardless of some of the fine work that is already out there.

    If some complaints over some aspects of the first edition can kick something like that off, perhaps they have been a useful jumping-off point. As an ex-archaeolgist, archivist, historian, techie and current publishing drone, I'd much prefer to be putting my skills to work on something along those lines. Anyone else interested?

  7. Extensive, comprehensive, fair and overall fun to read review of a book.

    I haven't read the book and have decided that I won't buy it at least until a second edition. Some mistakes, as you well say, can be forgiven, but there are a few that discredit the scholarship of this volume almost completely. Which, in the end, it's a shame, because I'm sure there were quite a few people, starting with Garret, who worked really hard to put this together.

  8. What PF said in his first par. A very fair review, Rob.

    One good result I hope will spring from the debate about the OCB is that people will be a lot more careful in future about what they write about the history of beer and beer styles.

    I'm not perfect, but I wrote very little about Scotland in either of my books because I knew I didn't know enough about the subject to stay away from stupid errors (and having read Ron Pattinson's current series on historical Scottish brewing, I'm very glad I DID stay away. I'd have committed a lot of mistakes.) Similarly I stay away as much as possible from writing about historical brewing in America.

  9. Martyn,

    I steer clear of Belgian beer for the same reason. I know eff all about it. Ironic, as that's what I drink most. (I've an Abt in my hand right now.)

    Scottish beer is beautifully confusing. I still haven't got my head around it. Give me another ten years.

  10. Perhaps some of you guys should also post reviews on Amazon, there are none yet and i'd certainly appreciate knowing this before shelling out £40 on it.

  11. It's really an informative and well described post regarding beer brewery. I appreciate your topic for blogging. Thanks for sharing such a useful post.

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