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Must. Take break. From OCB.

So much for my plan to get through the week without writing about The Oxford Companion to Beer so that I, you know, have time to read more of it for pleasure.

Clay Risen, who blogs at The Atlantic online and presumably immediately reaches a larger audience than all us beer-specific online trolls put together, has written in defense of the book. And he hauled out the big paint brush, the one you use for broad strokes.

• He writes: “Nevertheless, online critics have made an intramural sport of identifying the book’s omissions.” And: “It’s a shame that would-be critics have spent their entire time fact-checking the precise rules of the Royal Court’s brewing guidelines under Henry VIII (subject of one catch), because they’ve overlooked the achievement of the book as a whole — though, given their vehemence, it’s a good bet they weren’t going to give it a chance in any case.”

Because Martyn Cornell and Ron Pattinson both contributed to the book, it hardly seems they weren’t inclined to give it a chance. Both have written in comments several places that they’d rather not be in the position to make corrections.

• He writes: “But what I find striking is how relatively few errors have been identified in the weeks since the book has been out. The Wiki has only about 40 entries, and most of them deal with matters of interpretation. In a book that may have upwards of 100,000 factual statements in it, the presence of a few dozen errors, while regrettable, is pretty impressive.”

Not sure where that 100,000 number comes from, but if 40 errors have been spotted in 1,100 entries that already amounts to something amiss (admittedly sometimes very small) in more than 1% of the articles. More important, the measured (and very long, so set aside some time) review at I might have a glass of beer makes it clear why every single mistake makes a difference: “One can only guess how reliable the rest of the information is.” You would think, as a journalist, that Risen would appreciate this.

• He writes: “As a dedicated drinker all but ignorant of the chemistry behind brewing, I feel I’ve already learned a lot — and I’ve only read through the five entries that start with ‘acid-.'”

Hold it. He’s only on the a’s?

29 Responses to Must. Take break. From OCB.

  1. Zac November 1, 2011 at 8:45 am #

    Stan, you make good points and it seems that Risen is certainly not the best person to defend the OCB, but he has a point as well. I think he has two, in fact. First, this is a monumental achievement for beer. Even the resulting criticism demonstrates how important beer scholarship has become. I suspect each edition will be more accurate than the last.

    Second, many of the “errors” are issues of interpretation and not necessarily fact. I’m not sure why we’re throwing the baby out with the bath water over differences in interpretation. That said, I’ll probably wait for the second edition before purchasing my copy.

    Part of Riden’s criticism from what I gather has to do with the cannibalistic tendencies of niche communities. Take indie rock, for instance. Pitchfork is notorious for celebrating a band when they’r unknown only to pan them once they gain outside recognition. The same happens in politics, particularly on the left. There’s a constant criticism within as opposed to joining forces versus a common enemy.

    Still, I think all the criticisms are valuable to the process and I look forward to the day when the OCB is accepted by the layperson, experts, and everyone in between.

  2. Mike November 1, 2011 at 9:03 am #

    I read Risen’s review. It was not objective. The OCB is an accuracy disaster. Hiring a “celebrity” as editor was clearly the primary cause for most if not all of the problems. Also, the phrase “you get what you pay for” seems to hold true here as well.

  3. Steve November 1, 2011 at 9:12 am #

    “Hold it. He’s only on the a’s?”

    Hah — and how does he know he’s learned so much? He’s just writing off all the criticism as sour grapes? I mean, what if the mistakes are, in actuality, mistakes? Which, based on the sources, I have to believe they are, so I’d be back to Barm’s conclusion on reliability.

  4. Bailey November 1, 2011 at 9:23 am #

    “I feel I’ve already learned a lot” — and some of it might even be accurate.

  5. Joe Stange November 1, 2011 at 9:27 am #

    Risen’s wading into the OCB dog fight distracts from what I think are two more important points: (1) As beer writers we need to do a better job of writing to a general public rather than each other and geeks, and (2) we really could use more (good) beer guides.

  6. Bailey November 1, 2011 at 9:33 am #

    Joe — agreed — one of the reasons our review of the OCB was pretty positive, despite some reservations. It’s the *kind* of book we need and a big step in the right direction.

    Stan’s “Brew Like a Monk,” however, is both (a) scholarly and (b) very accessible. Compelling, in fact, with plenty of narrative and lots of fascinating characters. With a spot of redrafting, a cartoon cover, and retitled e.g. “One Guy’s Wacky Quest to Learn How to Brew Like A Belgian”, it might even crossover…

  7. Mike November 1, 2011 at 9:38 am #

    Zac, you wrote: “Second, many of the “errors” are issues of interpretation and not necessarily fact.” What do you base that on? From what I have seen of the book, the errors are solely errors of fact. You mean there are even more errors?

  8. Zac November 1, 2011 at 9:56 am #

    Mike, I could be mistaken, but it seems that most of the responses to the criticisms have suggested as much. Honestly, I don’t know the exact count of errors and how many of those could be disputed. Still, when there are disagreements over historical works, it often comes down to interpretation. I’m certainly open to being proven wrong on this point, but I don’t think history can always come down to one truth.

    That said, I don’t think the OCB is perfect by any stretch of the imagination. What I do see is a moment for beer scholarship to take a step forward and possibly crossover. So, throwing out the OCB for fixable or even debatable errors seems shortsighted.

  9. Jeff Alworth November 1, 2011 at 10:16 am #

    If I may indulge myself for a moment. He really takes me to task–but fails to mention me by name. Asimov, of course, gets the explicit mention. But he cherry picks a complaint of mine–that I found the selection of breweries and beer locations to be regionally biased–as evidence that I’m suffering from parochial pique. I trust that means he’s a regular reader–thanks, Clay!–because that’s a regular feature of mine. But it isn’t present anywhere in my review. But mainly I’m peeved that he couldn’t break me off an explicit mention. Criticize me, fine, but do me the honor of mentioning my name.

  10. Mike November 1, 2011 at 10:44 am #

    Zak, as I wrote, I have found a monumental number of errors of fact. For example, the book says that Hendrik Verlinden first commercialised the Belgian tripel. What would you say if I told you that Verlinden probably never made a tripel in his life? Is that interpretation?

  11. Zac November 1, 2011 at 10:53 am #

    Mike, that’s one error. I’d be curious to see what the breakdown of errors actually is. What’s the percentage of factual errors like the one you bring up? How many of the errors could be argued as a matter of interpretation.

    I’m not saying you’re wrong, but I’m really interested in the breakdown. Does anyone know the answer?

    Oh, and it’s “Zac.” Thanks. 😉

  12. Ron Pattinson November 1, 2011 at 10:56 am #

    More than 40 errors have been identified. I found a couple of dozen in just two articles. And not differences in interpretation, but statements that were in conflict with the facts.

    I didn’t even write about all the errors I found.

    That’s just two articles.

  13. Zac November 1, 2011 at 11:03 am #

    Fair enough. Ron, in your opinion, are these errors fixable or is that a job almost as monumental as pulling the entire OCB together in the first place?

  14. Jeff Alworth November 1, 2011 at 11:22 am #

    As I mentioned in my post today, I do think too little attention has been put on the technical entries, which to my (largely uneducated) eyes look pretty solid. Since Oliver’s a brewer, he’s packed the book with those, and they are worthy of praise. Even if you just skip the histories, that leaves probably 400 pages of good stuff.

    Credit where credit is due…

  15. Mike November 1, 2011 at 11:22 am #

    Zac, sorry about the misspelling. Yes, I only gave one error as example. There is no need or even possibility of listing every error in the book. There is already a pretty good, though incomplete list here:

    Why, I wonder, did you write “Second, many of the “errors” are issues of interpretation and not necessarily fact.” when you clearly do not have an accurate idea (I’m looking specifically at your last post) of how much and what is wrong with the book?

  16. Stan Hieronymus November 1, 2011 at 11:41 am #

    Zac – To your point at the top, I agree that simply getting the book out is a monumental achievement. And I can understand that editors and contributors who poured a lot of effort into it are frustrated by what they hear from a vocal (probably) minority.

    How do you weigh hundreds of well done entries against a relative few – wait, isn’t this the stuff I’m supposed to be saving for a ‘real’ review? – with errors that could have easily been avoided. Heck, Martyn was nice enough to make a list of myths to avoid in “The Story of the Pint.” How long has Ron been rubbing the truth about Scottish beer in our face?

    It’s these false tales being retold that has “raised the temperature” of the conversation, and then the number of small errors (dates right one place and wrong another, the poor city of Kulmbach being renamed) that lead a reader to feel unsure about everything else they don’t already know about.

    Eliminate the obvious errors and then the volume is lowered for discussions that include interpretation. I think this is a good example. Read what Pete has to say and then scroll down to Martyn’s comment.

    Also, I don’t know who else (if anybody) is reading this, but we spend a lot of time calling each other by first names around here (here meaning a circle of blogs where the conversation is going on) and I wonder how many other people really care.

    Mike – Please take care. Let’s keep the conversation to the conversation. And I should always be careful to include an OCBeerCommentary link.

  17. Stan Hieronymus November 1, 2011 at 11:42 am #

    Bailey and Joe,

    Thanks, Bailey. The nice thing is that stories are a perfect teaching tool, so work well in a “how to” book. But, just like the IPA story still mis-told so often on US labels, Marytn and Ron have discovered great factually correct narratives that would have worked perfectly in place of the myths that were printed. So they have the right to be just as frustrated as Oliver & Co.

    Joe – I thought Matt Kramer’s reaction to what Asimov wrote about OCB was interesting. Aside from the required shot at beer drinkers, that is. “We live in an age where if something isn’t either intuitive or instantly enjoyable, then it’s at fault, not us.” You are correct that books like this will broaden the market. We need something between real simple and real geeky.

  18. Zac November 1, 2011 at 11:42 am #

    Jeff, I just read that post. (My work is really going to suffer today.) I wonder why so little attention has been given to that aspect. Do you suppose it’s because most of the critics are historians more than they are brewers?

    Mike, no worries. It’s happened my entire life. Sorry on my end as well. Your example was a good one. I didn’t mean to imply that you needed to list them all. I’m more interested in the breakdown of errors. It would be good if each author were able to comment on each error. That would either lead to corrections or at least some recognition of the debate.

    I have seen the Wiki and it’s almost as daunting as the OCB itself. However, my problems is that in the entries I’ve looked over, I haven’t seen a discussion as to whether the assertions on the wiki are even accurate. There also isn’t any way to identify who is claiming what. Most of the entries also lack any sort of documentation. It seems as if the process of correcting errors in the OCB is a long, long way from being complete.

    You’re right about my comment for the most part. I was sharing an impression I garnered from responses to the criticism. I probably shouldn’t have stated it so adamantly. Posing it as a question might be more constructive. It just seems that after reading Oliver’s response to the criticism and a few others (even Riden), it is shortsighted to dismiss this entire book.

    As I’ve stated before, I have a hard time with those who state history as fact when often times what they report is one interpretation of events or documents. We all know that the history in the US has been twisted in such a way to meet political and cultural ideals, but Howard Zinn has proven much of what we thought was truth to be a collection of lies. Surely, if there’s as much debate in American history circles as there is, beer scholarship must be open for some interpretation.

  19. Mike November 1, 2011 at 12:46 pm #

    Zac, I know many of the people who are writing the Wiki (including myself) and for the most part, I would trust them. Oddly, the error I wrote about was written by someone I also know and I find it hard to believe that he made such a basic error (he’s not a professional writer, btw). I believe some of the articles were changed after they were written and published with incorrect information. Martyn Cornell even said that is exactly what happened to him. So, some work was possibly well done, but then changed later by some anonymous editor in NY or somewhere.

  20. Zac November 1, 2011 at 1:01 pm #

    Mike, you know them and trust them, but surely they have documentation to back up their assertions. I’m sure they’re experts, but shouldn’t they be held to the same standard as the OCB?

    Of course, a lot of the errors I read in the Wiki have more to do with inconsistencies within the OCB. The kind of problem you suggested in regards to anonymous editors might very well be the cause for such issues.

    Either way, it’s all very interesting and will probably be good for beer scholarship in the long run.

  21. Martyn Cornell November 1, 2011 at 2:23 pm #

    From a blog last month talking about the “did Shakespeare write Shakespeare” controversy currently back in the news:

    “Early modern theatre history thrives on myths and strong (if hollow) assertions.”

    So it’s not just beer.

    Zac, part of the problem is that many of the errors in beer history can’t be refuted with countervailing facts, it’s that there’s no evidence to back them up, so that, eg “Ralph Harwood invented porter” – no, there is nothing at all to confirm or verify that claim until one commentator 60 years after the event and another 80 years after the event, and the silence otherwise is deafening.

    But it’s certainly true that where evidence DOES exist, the wiki needs to be rigorous in demanding that it be recorded, and if the counter-argument is the LACK of evidence, that needs to be recorded as well.

  22. Zac November 1, 2011 at 2:27 pm #

    Great point. Thanks, Martyn.

  23. Mike November 1, 2011 at 2:52 pm #

    Zac, if you look through OCB, you will find that quite a few writers quote their own works. Garrett Oliver would be one of those examples. And as for my own corrections, I only fix Belgian beer articles because I know Belgian beer and have several books written by Belgians that are scholarly and the best sources for information about Belgium. I assume that if you wanted to find out something about the US, you wouldn’t look in an Italian book, for example.

    And, if you look in the article I quoted above (tripel), you’ll find that no sources are listed. Why shouldn’t they be?

  24. Zac November 1, 2011 at 3:01 pm #

    Mike, you’re absolutely right. I’ve been sort of looking through the entries more closely (to the detriment of my own work) and there is a lot of specific sources listed. It’s good stuff, in fact. Hopefully, Oliver takes the wiki seriously and makes the appropriate corrections.

    Thanks for sticking with me on this and not attacking my ignorance. This has been helpful in understanding the issues with OCB. I really want to celebrate this book’s release (and it looks like it’s still an amazing accomplishment), but there’s some work to be done before the second edition.

  25. Alan November 1, 2011 at 3:04 pm #

    Not to get all “you said what about the wiki!!” but, Zac, you can track each word in the wiki by checking out each page’s history section. The sweet thing about the wiki app is that this is an automatic function and any fiddling with the text is archived. Also, you will see that most entries do link or reference source materials. They may not be the best or even reliable but the function of it (and my hope for it) is that corrections get made where they need to be made.

    And this is not to contrast it to the OCB itself, only to point out that unlike Risen said the wiki is to overlay, add and, yes, make corrections but also to note stuff that the OUP may want to alter. I was advised that some alterations may occur between printings.

  26. Zac November 1, 2011 at 3:09 pm #

    Alan, totally agreed. I know how a wiki works, but I think I was hoping for links within posts and some discussion between contributors. A closer look has shown me this. Thanks.

  27. Alan November 1, 2011 at 3:17 pm #

    Have a look at “A” – some are not as well cited as I wold have hoped but others are. Not all are linked in the citation but those looks pretty good. I may add some editorial “please add citation” remarks but I am still thinking about format and manners and things like that.

  28. Zac November 1, 2011 at 3:22 pm #

    Yeah, I looked there and randomly throughout the wiki. If you couldn’t tell, I’m no beer historian. (Don’t laugh.) I know generally how beer has developed over time, but minute details of beer’s narrative doesn’t interest me. That’s cool. I’m glad that there are people like you and others who are into it and committed to making it right. I look forward to reading a corrected OCB when it comes out.

    You should add “please add citation” remarks as that’s how it works on Wikipedia. I hope the project is a success, FWIW.

  29. Alan November 1, 2011 at 3:39 pm #

    I actually am not all that keen on beer history either:

    But I do like me a good concordance for anything.

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