October 25, 2011

Garrett Oliver: The Adult in the Room?

Ed: This is a long post with no art.

Since I spent some time summarizing the criticism that Brooklyn Brewery founder and brewmaster Garrett Oliver has received for his editing of The Oxford Companion to Beer, I wanted to spend a few moments doing the same for his response, which is now up on OCB Wiki Alan McLeod started to help gather edits, corrections and marginalia for the opus.

You should go and read it if you have a lot of time. And if you've read or joined the criticism of Oliver, you should make the time.

He starts by meeting Martyn Cornell's withering comments head-on, and weaves an eloquent defense of his work and tactics. I stated before that perhaps it would have made sense to have a professional writer handle this job, and it occurs to me I did not include the disclaimer that it is not Oliver's writing ability that lacks. On the contrary, anyone who has read Brewmaster's Table or, really, anything Oliver has written knows that the man can use words. I'll come back to that in a second, but it's worth pointing out now.

He rebuts some of the specific historical claims, pointing out the difference between seeing historical documents and interpreting them. Particularly compelling are his rebuttal to the origins of cider (he argues that humans have fermented everything possible since they first arrived, which is probably true) and his takedown of Cornell's weakest point - arguing about how "likely" the rise of the India Pale Ale style was in the 1700s:
“Foaming at the mouth” – these his own words – [Cornell] even goes on to complain about the use of the word “unlikely” to describe the rise of India pale ale, saying that such use is “unsubstantiated and unexplained assertion-making.” No doubt Mr. Cornell, having been there personally in the late 1700s, found the rise of IPA to be very likely indeed. In fact, by now I feel certain that he predicted it himself in the broadsheets.
As that makes clear, though, Oliver's purpose in responding is not substance but style. He is smart, he can write, he knows beer, and so by extension the claims that he was just "a dupe, a cretin and a liar, piloting a project populated by lazy idiots" seem to ring false on a instinctive level. He reassures us with comforting numbers ("“The Oxford Companion to Beer” is a peer-reviewed work, and 166 learned people from 24 countries expended many, many thousands of hours, for virtually no remuneration, to bring it about. I can assure you that neither I nor any of the OCB contributors have “made anything up”."), and later admits some small oversights - he left out Centennial hops ("an actual error"), and Leipzeiger Gose was a casualty of timeline - in a kind of humility that manages to avoid ever acknowledging that he was exactly wrong so much as overambitious.

Oliver devotes a good deal of time and space to answering open-ended questions about process and reception, and does so - again - with excellent thoughts and prose. They are interesting and valuable to those of us who care and who will read and own this book no matter what.

What he did not do was answer all of the specific factual errors (as some of them really are), particularly the major ones about the origins of stout and porter as styles. He does not explain why Cornell and Ron Pattinson were not allowed to just write the history parts on which they are experts. His jabs aside, he does not get down in the mud and trade blow for blow with Cornell. He defends the inclusion of associate editor Horst Dornbusch - a nemesis of beer historians thanks to his willingness to repeat myth and legend without evidence - with Dornbusch's credentials as "a Fulbright scholar, a brewer, a brewing consultant, a writer, a translator, and spent 10 years in magazine editing."

Indeed, he recasts the entire debate as not one of being right or wrong, but as one of history, interpretation and progress. In Oliver's telling, the victory is in the effort and process and existence of this colossal work, not in whether some nerds want to debate tiny details about origin and derivation.

History, far from being pure science, is a thing in constant motion, with much or it arguable or interpretable in various ways. People still argue about the precise make-up of George Washington’s false teeth, and he was the founding president of the United States, spoke before thousands and sat for portraits barely more than two centuries ago. I feel very confident that the OCB’s percentage of errata, though it must surely be more than zero, is probably as good as that of The British Museum, and no one is speaking of tearing that down. No one is more interested in the factual accuracy of the OCB than I am. However, it is famously said that “the perfect is the enemy of the good”. Well, I have not, in my time on this earth, seen perfect yet. I do not expect to, either, and any wise person will approach attempts at perfection with at least an ounce of humility. Beer is a human thing, and one does well to remember that. We have made, I think, a very good start, and no one, least of all me, has claimed that the work is or will be finished any time soon.
Some of you know that in a former life, I used to be a political blogger. I've also, at times, worked in communications in politically sensitive fields. So perhaps I can't help but see this in political terms. But the one thing that Oliver's response reminded me most of was... Mitt Romney.

If you've been following the circus that is the current race for the GOP nomination, you have seen the rise and subsequent fall of Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, and Herman Cain as major contenders. As they all scramble now to get back in the race, the one thing that remains clear is that the electorate wants an alternative to the frontrunner, Romney. To listen to analysts, the alternative has to be acceptable to "the base" (which does not like the professional Romney), and must play to the "Tea Party." That generally means that we are seeking someone who is VERY far-right, and gets people excited with the small conservative geek credentials Romney - a former moderate governor of a liberal state - will never have.

Romney's strategy for each of these challengers so far has been to act above the fray. He makes the debate as not about who is more right on any one issue, but who is competent, presentable, and can represent the community the best. He plays the adult in the room.

Oliver has always played that role for the craft beer world. He is always impeccably dressed, arguing for beer's place in the finest restaurants with his aforementioned verbal strength. His brewery has resisted the "extreme" beer rush and focused on restrained balance, all while maintaining a genial relationship with Sam Calagione (the plain-spoken jeans-wearing man who embodies all things extreme in beer). He's the mature one.

I am certain this debate will go on, because many of Cornell's points are real and unsanswered. Some will say that it is all well and good for Oliver to talk about incremental progress, but his job was to edit a book that was accurate, and he still appears to have failed in at least some major ways. His vague description of how the breweries were chosen - which avoided specifically addressing the seeming correlation between availability in Brooklyn and inclusion in the book - probably did not satisfy anyone with a gripe. Perhaps all of it will be fixed in the second edition. Most likely, the Internet has made us all aware of the eternal fact that there is no such thing as a definitive anything.

When I said before that perhaps Oxford University Press should have had a writer tackle this task, it was my hope that a career with words might have allowed a different editor to avoid some of the pitfalls. I still believe that. Perhaps, though, that belief is naive. Perhaps there will always be a zealous fringe, and no amount of accuracy or fairness would forestall this debate. And if one believes that to be the case, then one can easily see how the OUP would want, first among all things, a statesman. By having someone with the skills and gravitas to recast the debate, you can relegate bloggers and nitpickers to the jabbering crowds trying to stand in the way of progress.

And for those of you who think I'm being melodramatic:
And [the criticism] goes on, reminding me of nothing so much as McCarthy’s House Committee on UnAmerican Activities... All the negative comments I have seen so far are about historical matters. Well, even though Mr. Cornell has surely done yeoman’s work digging up old brewing records, the reading of a historical record and the interpretation of it are two different things.
It is excellent writing indeed. Bloggers are laborers, and perhaps they ought to leave interpretation to the scholars. Worse, by criticizing factual errors in an encyclopedia, they send the message that we should not even try, and that all who do are... Communists?

For what it is worth, I do not have much of a dog in this fight. Yes, I'm a blogger, but I also understand the strategy and importance of Oliver's work with OUP, and I don't necessarily disagree with his overall point. What I find interesting is where this puts craft beer - and craft beer writing - as an industry, in meta-terms (what Jeff Alworth or Alan might call "navel-gazing"). It's a signal that the maturation of the industry - both existentially and economically - is a becoming a bigger and bigger issue.

Oliver has been saying for a while that it is time for us to stop being geeks and join the mainstream, that sustained non-niche success requires us to sit at the grown-ups table. While Cornell - a scholar and respected writer himself - may seem not the ideal stalking horse, here he is.

UPDATED: Via Adam Nason's site, we learn that Cornell himself finds it odd:
It worries me that he attacks me as “the blogger Martyn Cornell”. I’ve written two books about the history of British brewing and the history of British beer styles, which have involved many years of research – that’s my bona fides – and I’d like to hope I have a reputation as a beer historian rather than a blogger.
Yes, Martyn, but he's drawing battle lines.

Craft beer is now clearly large enough for two communities, and with the OCB, the "adults" are trying to establish - both internally to the geeks and externally to the rest of the world - that they will take us to prime time (perhaps kicking and screaming, if necessary). To them, public squabbling over history is unseemly and sets us back. Of course, there are those geeks who have no interest in mainstream acceptability. To them, beer is important in part because of its small community and inaccessibility to squares. The last thing they want is for bloggers to shut up about small things so that a big shiny book can sell better. Most of us, of course, have elements of both parties.

Every niche culture that ever "made it big" went through this process of purists versus evangelists, or evolutionaries versus revolutionaries if you like. Some, like American wine 40 years ago, managed to keep a balance. Some, like video games, keep having the debate. Some, like comic books, never quite resolved it and have paid the price.

Craft beer is there, and, while there was never a mystery as to which side Oliver was on, it looks for the moment like he's done being friendly with the other camp.


  1. You know what's interesting? The backlash was almost certainly inevitable. It's a chicken and egg argument: Since there's no centralized reference for beer facts, it makes researching a centralized reference for beer difficult. There was always going to be a huge amount of difficulty with cross referencing, accuracy and historical fact. Even were it perfectly accurate, people would still question the manner of representation or the phrasing of the work.

    The truth is that if it wasn't Martyn Cornell criticizing the OCB, it would have been someone else. Garrett Oliver made himself a target when he accepted the role of Editor in Chief, and honestly, he should be lauded for doing the hard thing.

    I think, as well, that you're right about the division of the beer world into two camps. It essentially means that since there's now more territory to fight for on a conceptual basis, there are people fighting for it.

  2. Thanks for covering this topic. Your posts and comments on other blogs have helped to keep things in perspective.

    I find the whole thing to be silly. Maybe I'm naive, but do wine enthusiasts spend this much time debating the history of their favorite beverage or do they just sit back and a enjoy a drink?

    Personally, I could care less about the minute details of beer history. Sure, some history informs what we do today, but the nit-picking (or pissy nit-picking) turns one off from wanting to learn that history.

    All these authors and bloggers should just get together and have a pint.

    That said, let's get back to the art.

  3. Wow, great post! Very thoughtful and definitely enlightening. I was excited when this book came out, and disappointed to hear that it had some inaccuracies and questionable "facts." But I think it's important to continue the debate. Those of us who love a thing so deeply that we cherish its myths, legends, AND history need this debate, plus it educates the newbies in the room (such as myself).

    And Zac - where do you think the beer world learned to bicker over historical minutia? From the wine world. :)

  4. Yes, Jen's quite right. Longtime oenophiles inform me that the most dominant voice in wine, Robert Parker, drives historians and the geeks of wine totally bonkers with his predictable ratings and his inattention to what they consider details.

    Parker, like Oliver, isn't writing for them.

    Looking forward to getting my copy of the OCB this week and having a chance to see it firsthand.

  5. Hey Greg.

    This is only the second post I've seen about the issue. And I've decided not to go to the breakfast tomorrow. Garrett already made his response without my questions, it seems.

    To me he seems to be a guy that is never wrong ever, like the king of the debate team. No matter what, he's got an answer for it. You know the type.

    Nice post. I enjoyed it a lot. I thought, though, that you should have included a few adjectives in the Sam Calagione sentence to hit on his musical prowess. :)

    Talk to you later.