Tuesday, 17 June 2008


Not all sources are created equal. I was trying to explain this to my son Andrew at the weekend. My explanation involved a fair deal of waving around of two books. Important tools for concretising my argument.

In one hand I held "Die Herstellung Obergähriger Bier", in the other the "Vienna/Märzen" in the Brewers' Publications series. Both are books, both are about beer. Are they equally trustworthy? (If you answered that question with a "yes", eff off and leave by blog at once, Homebrew Twat.) I would say obviously not.

(Just the title "Vienna/Märzen" is enough to raise serious doubts. The two aren't synonymous. Not all Vienna lagers are Märzens and neither are all Märzens Vienna lagers.)

I always ask myself these questions:

  1. Who wrote the text?
  2. Where did they get their information from?
  3. Was the author an expert?
  4. What was the intended audience for the text?
  5. Where was the text published?
  6. When was the text published?
In arguments (I have plenty of those) it's often clear that my opponent lacks the ability to gauge the relative value of different sources. The dodgy material they use to back up their points are mostly modern and English-language, homebrewing books and the like. Most amusing was the use of the Wyeast catalogue as a reference on German beer. I prefer technical manuals. Though you have to be careful with those, too.

The lack of academic rigour in the beer world can be disheartening. What am I saying, "can be". It is disheartening.

Private sources. I have a couple of those. Archive stuff. There's a project with them I've partly finished. Combining the information from the Truman and Whitbread Gravity Books. They give the OG of British beers for the period 1926-1966. There are literally thousands of entries, from dozens of breweries. It will be an invaluable resource for researching the development of British beer in the 20th century. I'll also include details from the brewing logs of Whitbread, Barclay Perkins and Truman. Then it will span 1815 - 1966. Pretty handy, eh?

Crazy, generous fool that I am, I'm considering making the finished spreadsheet available on the web. Good idea? Or just shouting in a deaf school?

There's something that could make my super OG table even more supertastic. The OG's of beers for that last 25 years, taken from the Good Beer Guide. Does anyone have this in electronic form. Copying it all would take a long time. As a card-carrying member of the Sloth Club, I'd rather not do it if I don't have to.

Perhaps there are some public-spirited souls out there? Who am I kidding? But should there be, what about this: transcribe the OG's from one year of the Good Beer Guide. Just pick one year (my advice would be to go for the early 1980's when there were fewer breweries) and copy the details into a spreadsheet.

Here's an example of both my table and what you could fill in from the Good Beer Guide. Call be an optimist.


Ethan said...

So hold on-

Horst Dornbusch's "Bavarian Helles," a Brewers Publicatiion book as well... has a reference list of 6 pages; 65 separate names (obviously some multiple entries there) including several real German books (Urbanek; Heyse, Schumann; Gerlach et al; Narziß, Maronde; Hoepfner, Lohberg; etc) with publication dates ranging from the 40s-90's.

Seems at least minimally 'rigorous', to me.

Ron Pattinson said...

Ethan, so you aren't excited at the prospect of of 150 years worth of British beer OG's?

Ron Pattinson said...

This is a good example of academic "rigour":


Mike said...

Ethan, you've provided an excellent example of exactly the kind of source worth its weight in paper. This is the same Horst Dornbusch of the "German Beer Institute" I assume. The site that claims to be "comprehensive, authoritative and continuously updated..."

Have you never noticed on the bottom of his site: "This site is managed and maintained by Cerevisia Communications, consultants and publicists to the international beverage industry."?

On the one hand, he's accepting money from German brewers and on the other hand, he's offering "authoritative" information. I could be wrong, but it seems at least tainted to me.

Anonymous said...

I've read Eric Warner!

Ethan said...

I am totally excited about 150 years of British OGs... Not kidding, I love research- I have a PhD. Bring it on!

I do appreciate the detailed analysis of Stout you give- did you contact the author to see what his thoughts on that were? Did he have any chance to rebut your arguments? Do you see in his reference list where he went wrong? Besides the blog post, how is your deep knowledge of stout getting disseminated?

(all of those questions are earnest, not snarky, in case you're uncertain.)

Mike- so you're telling me that, somehow, the Dornbusch book is actually putting money into the "industry," that he is a shill? I fail to see how that book could be serving an agenda beyond the ones that motivate any writer/publisher.

Don' get me wrong, I do agree it is an important point- as a scientist, researcher, etc, I take issues of academic integrity very seriously. For that reason, in fact, I don't find a simple affiliation to be proof of bias. And, I don't see any necessary connection between this book and his work (or shilling, if you prefer) for the GBI. Buying that book might motivate you to buy a few Helles to compare with, or motivate you to brew one... that's about it.

Mike said...

Ethan, apparently you fail to understand the point, despite claiming that you "take issues of academic integrity very seriously."

As I very clearly pointed out, this guy takes money from breweries to promote their business. Why do you say he's "putting money into the industry"?

Secondly, I know that Ron has emailed him with corrections to the "German Beer Institute" site, which this fellow ignored.

To sum up: the man makes his living by promoting the business of his clients: German breweries. Why on earth would you believe a single word he says or writes on this subject?

Ethan said...

"To sum up: the man makes his living by promoting the business of his clients: German breweries. Why on earth would you believe a single word he says or writes on this subject?"

Because none of that inherently means he's wrong. Because every single word he writes is not necessarily in service of the GBI. Because some of the information in that book comes from, as far as I can assess, credible sources. Because you have provided no specific evidence of bias in his writing.

He writes, for example, on p62, "never use caramel, crystal, chocolate or black malts for an authentic Helles" Is that wrong? Is that shilling? Explain to me how that sentence is utterly unbelievable.
Or find some evidence of his bias beyond "he owns a German beer promotion company."

And remember, inaccuracy is also not necessarily bias; sometimes, it's just inaccurate.

Anonymous said...

Please translate this book, please?

"Die Herstellung Obergähriger Bier"

Bill from Oregon said...

Ron, I'm incredibly excited about the possibility of 150 years of British beer OG's. If I had any of the source info, I would likely help out. It's the kind of geeky thing I actually like doing.

I'm glad you mentioned Vienna and Maerzen, because I'd love to hear about the history and differences between those two. The info I've come across is rather sketchy. Perhaps this could be one of your "Summer of Lager" entries.

You bring up a good point on sources. The Fix Vienna/Maerzen book is among the weaker ones in the series. The only thing more suspect than the sources are the recipes. Many folks chalk it up to the fact that it was from the early days of homebrewing and a lot of materials, like good quality European Vienna and Munich malt, weren't available. But the recipes and info are in bad need of an update.

Still, at least those books got a lot of Americans looking at classic styles. They were readily available and easy to read. It's unfortunate that the research wasn't as accurate as it could be. I guess the down side is that they spread a lot of inaccurate info as well, and those inaccuracies have become "established fact" amongst many in the American beer culture.

I have found that the more recent editions in the series are better than the first generation, but it's ashamed that they're still amongst the only books on beer that the general beer drinking/homebrewing crowd knows of. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that older, more rigourous soures are very difficult to find and, moreover, very difficult to read and comprehend if you don't know alot about brewing or have a chemistry degree. The Classic Beer series knew their audience and made readable books. That's laudable. The lack of scholarship and revision to make them more accurate isn't.

Thanks for all the posts on British OG's of late. They are incredibly interesting and insightful.

Ron Pattinson said...

Bill, my OG spreadsheet is coming along nicely. With luck, I'll finish it this week.

I probably will write something about Märzen this summer. But not until I've filled in a few gaps in my knowledge.

The Classic Beers series has its good points. The history parts of the books, however, are usually sketchy at best. The worst (like Stout) are downright fantasy.

Mike said...

Ethan, I think my last post was quite clear. If you can't understand it, I think it explains why you think you can trust Horst's words.

BTW, you refer to yourself as a "scientist, researcher". I'm curious, what kind of scientist are you?

Mark Andersen said...

Well I've got the 2005 Beer Guide and I'm on it. I love tedious work as long as it involves beer. Now we'll see if I can make it past the letter C.

Ethan said...

Not that it matters--science is science--but I'm a cognitive psychologist.

Since you won't go beyond your initial points, though, I guess this conversation has run it's course.

Ron Pattinson said...

mark, thanks very much. I understand the work involved. I transcribed 1200 OG's yesterday.

Tom Fryer said...

I've got the third edition (1993) of the Real Ale Drinker's Almanac, which includes plenty of OG and ABV figures, plus occasionally other data such as colour. I don't have much time right now, but I'll do what I can - can't see myself transcribing more than a couple of regions in the foreseeable future, but I suppose every little helps.
This could turn into something like the SETI project... :-)