The Oxford Companion to Beer: It’s Good, Now Make it Better.
You’re all probably well aware of this (at least, you should be aware of it), but I’m small potatoes in the world of beer writing. Actually, I’m small potatoes in the world of beer “blogging”, let alone beer writing. It’s reasonable to assume that nobody would care, or even look to find, what I have to say about “The Oxford Companion to Beer.”
But I’m going to say it anyway.
“The Oxford Companion to Beer,” edited by Garrett Oliver, brewmaster of Brooklyn Brewery, is the type of book beer deserves; a massive collection of 1,100 A-Z entries, written by 166 contributors of notable credentials, covering almost anything you can think of relating to beer, and many, many things that you cannot. Dry hopping, acid, Foster’s, British beer history, Trappist beers, beer festivals, India Pale Ale, topics on macro and micro levels are found in great quantity. And it’s a beautiful thing to see a project of this magnitude come to fruition. Wine, in addition to having its own “Oxford Companion to Wine,” has many books like this. Why shouldn’t beer? Obviously much has been written about beer, and much of it wonderful. But not something grand, like this.
The book has received mostly overwhelmingly positive reviews. But, there have been critics. I’ve been one of them, silently. More notably, quite a few bloggers have been pointing out the book’s errors and omissions (which, of course, there are bound to be plenty of, no matter the circumstances). Alan McLeod, who has a terrific blog, set up an online wiki for corrections and commentary relating to the book. Most notably, British beer writer/historian Martyn Cornell suggested the book could be a “Dreadful Disaster” on his blog. Garrett Oliver wasn’t too thrilled with that, nor was Pete Brown, another British beer writer with quite the résumé. There’s been a lot of arguing, via blog posts, comments, and other highly visible media. And Oliver, Cornell and Brown are actually all contributors to the book.
I’ve reserved comment on this for a while, preferring to watch this unfold a bit and also, more importantly, make my way through the book. I’ve seen a lot of mudslinging, that’s for sure. There’s a spectrum of people involved, ranging from “Harsh critic,” to “Critic, but appreciative of the achievement of the book,” and “You can’t criticize this book, because it’s really big, and that in itself is enough of an accomplishment.” After reading some of the book, hearing what people have to say and allowing it all to marinate, I think I fall somewhere in the middle.
Let’s just state that the book really, truly, is wonderful. The amount you learn after the scan of one randomly chosen page is just incredible. The depth of the entries, the information within them, it’s all just glorious; a beer lover’s dream on printed paper, written by some of the heaviest hitters in beer journalism. You could be entertained by it for hours, just opening to a random page and being introduced to a world you had no idea existed.
But there are errors, some of them egregious, and worse, some of them could have been easily checked and corrected within minutes. You can understand why Cornell would be so upset, really. I’m reading one of his books right now and I can only imagine the amount of hours that were spent researching it; the very thought both terrifies and inspires me. He spent a lot of time busting old beer myths, but a lot of the myths he disproved are printed as fact in “The Oxford Companion to Beer”, a book that will no doubt be thought of as the bible among beer enthusiasts. I would be pretty pissed off, too. Probably more, actually.
Even with my limited beer knowledge, I’ve noticed some errors. They’re definitely there. I think part of the frustration here is that, it’s one thing to make errors. It’s another thing to make an error that has been made repeatedly, and which others have already demonstrated how to avoid. I get why the harsh critics have been so harsh. We don’t need beer myths to perpetuate any further than they already have. On the other hand, as a writer and musician, I understand getting defensive about one’s own work, even at the cost of missing that your critic’s point could actually be valid. And one aspect I’ve really disliked about all of this is how vehement certain commenters and bloggers have been in their dismissal of the book. It’s as if a bunch of them read the criticism and then decided to piggy back on it because they took pride in tearing down something that was bigger than they were, even if they didn’t fully understand why they were doing it, and they totally missed the point of being critical in the process.
But after all of this, I have to say, I’ve honestly loved watching all of these arguments and debates. They’re absolutely beautiful. Whether you’ve been unleashing the venom or receiving it, I think one thing we can certainly all agree on is that only good things for beer will come out all of this, because this is the sort of passion and discussion that beer, and this book, deserves. This book will be revised in the future. Better versions of it will be released and it will be for the betterment of both beer scholarship and the entity of beer itself. Because once the dust has settled, I foresee a great deal of collaboration among all of these brilliant people, and it will be a great example of how the idea of beer, and respecting beer, has advanced so much over the past few years. The fact that we’re now able to actually have these arguments is really a wonderful thing. There’s no need to be blindly vehement in criticism, and on the other side, there’s no need to thumb your nose at your critics. We can all acknowledge that this book is a wonderful achievement, but there are errors that need to be corrected. All points are valid. Now make it better. And to bottom line this whole thing: 1) If you’re going to criticize the book, do so thoughtfully. Do so while acknowledging that this book, even with its errors, is good for beer, and that the current edition still has many wonderful entries. Don’t piggy back, because no one cares. You can criticize and not be an ass about it. 2) If you’re being criticized, don’t hit the critics with the “D’YKNOW WHO I AM?” crap. No one is beyond criticism, I don’t care who you are.
One final note. Is beer worth getting so passionately upset about?
I’ve been passionately upset about beer many times before. Many times on this web site, even. And if a person pompously exhausted all of their argumentative resources into trying to convince me that I shouldn’t be so upset about it, they can screw off. At the same time, I think beer itself would be very upset if I allowed that anger to linger.