The Oxford Companion to Beer – A Brief Review

Quick, think: You are about to be dropped on a desert island where the only thing preventing you from being consumed by the cannibalistic natives is beer knowledge; what one book would you take with you? Well, there are many excellent books on the history of beer, numerous fine tomes on the production of beer, multiple lovely diatribes on specific styles or regions, and at least two quirky reads that would easily fit in the “humour” section. Until now, however, there hasn’t been a complete, encyclopedic compendium of beer information.  So it’s been with no small amount of excitement that the beer community has been awaiting the release of the Oxford Companion to Beer, edited by Garrett Oliver.

The Oxford Companion to Beer

The Oxford Companion to Beer

If you’re not familiar with The Oxford Companion series, they are exhaustive texts on their subject matter, covering more topics than you can imagine.  A quick search at Amazon will demonstrate how many books we’re talking about.  It’s not surprising that the good folks at Oxford University Press approached Garrett Oliver to edit this book.  As Garrett himself notes, it’s a job that should have fallen to Michael Jackson (the large, bearded beer writer, not the skinny entertainer with great dance moves).  Sadly, we lost Michael in 2007, so the mantle fell to Garrett.  An obvious choice, as his The Brewmaster’s Table is not just an excellent reference for beer and food pairing, but beer in general.  Garrett is remarkable brewer (in case you didn’t make the connection, he is brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery in New York), and an excellent spokesman for the craft beer movement.

But a book on beer that runs nearly 1000 pages is not a job for one person, no matter how passionate and knowledgeable they might be.  166 writers were called-in to pen over 1,100 articles that are presented alphabetically, like an encyclopedia, and are cross-referenced for easy navigation of a particular topic.  The contributors range from beer writers, brewers (big and small), agronomists, cellarmen, and academics.  To say it’s the most complete reference on the subject of beer, is kind of obvious.

As a book, it functions like an encyclopedia, or a text book; not really designed to be read from start to finish (though certainly, you could).  It is technical at times, though you don’t need a degree in science to understand it.  It covers literally everything, from regional history, to styles, to brewing techniques, to ingredients, to notable brewers and more.

Okay, I’ll be honest here: I haven’t read the entire book.  I’ve only been in possession of it for a little over 12 hours.  That being said, what I’ve read has been excellent.  I love that while the writing is fairly concise and direct, each article still retains written inflections and character from each author.  This way, while the book is clearly technical, it stays accessible and interesting.

In addition to the quality of its content, the book is beautiful and well-designed.  The cover work is simple and attractive; the type-setting befits a text, yet has elements that retain a bit of fun; and the illustrations and images are helpful, thorough and well represented.  Not surprising from a publication from Oxford University Press, but noteworthy none the less.

This book will stay within arms-reach while I’m writing about beer.  It will probably be abused somewhat, with condensation rings on the cover, spilled stout on the occasional page, notes in the margin, and the usual sort of “love” good cookbooks get in their line of duty.  I can’t wait to put it through it’s paces.

I’ll conclude and summarize using Tom Colicchio words from the final paragraph of his foreword for the book:

The Oxford Companion to Beer provides an exhaustive account of not only beer’s history, but its science and its art, at a time when people are more willing than ever to take beer seriously.  And if I had to choose one person to be my beer guide and teacher, it would be Garrett Oliver, whose passion for beer is only surpassed by his sheer knowledge on the subject.  In this volume Oliver and numerous experts have assembled beer wisdom from around the globe, creating a virtual beer symposium – the scope of which the world has never known.  And we, as readers, have a front-row seat.

Many thanks to Garrett Oliver and the 166 contributors.  I cannot imagine the time and effort that must have gone into this project.  Thanks for giving us the front-row seat.

The book is not available in Canada until October 21st, but you can pre-order it here:

5 Comments

  1. Chris M
    Posted September 29, 2011 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the review. I’ve purchased several books in an attempt to learn the technical details of brewing in order to pass the BJCP exam. Some are very accessible but not technical enough, and others are too technical or scientific and I could not follow it. I am ordering this book based on your review. It also sounds like a pretty book to have around and read from time to time.

  2. chris
    Posted October 12, 2011 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    Chris, definitely a great book for your needs. I myself have only done the BJCP reading, none of the practice or testing, but this would definitely be a welcome addition to your study guides. Enjoy!

  3. Posted October 20, 2011 at 8:08 pm | Permalink

    A great idea and much needed for the beer world.
    The problem is, it is littered with inaccuracies and some shoddy referencing. (Ray Daniels referenced his own book!!!) Even some basic British history was totally wrong. The entry on Scottish beer trotted out some of the same old inaccurate stories that have plagued beer history writing for a while.

    http://zythophile.wordpress.com/2011/10/19/the-oxford-companion-to-beer-a-dreadful-disaster/
    Martyn Cornell is an acclaimed beer historian whose two books are researched tirelessly wrote about some of his “finds” in the book at the above link. This can in no way comapare to the Oxford Companion to Wine for thouroughness and accuracy.

  4. chris
    Posted October 24, 2011 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

    Yeah, I’ve seen Martyn post, and it’s concerning. The good news, is it appears they are planning on working with people like Martyn et al to iron out some of the problems for the next edition. It bugs me that there was obviously no form of peer-review (or at least, none that was heeded; Martyn apparently made Oxford aware of some of the problems).

    It’s disapointing that the project wasn’t carried off better. The Oxford Companion series are generally accepted as gold standards. It looks like the beer one will need to be referenced more cautiously. I have no doubt that much of the content in the book is totally accurate and useful. And rarely will a book of that size and scope be perfect. But the inaccuracies seem to be a bit too numerous, and a bit too obvious to be considered within the acceptable margin for error.

    As an aside, in scholarly writing referencing your own work is totally normal and expected. Particularly if you are referencing research or a concept that is not self-explanatory; it provides the reader with the opportunity to read the full text explaining it. That more of the writers didn’t reference their own work is actually a little troublesome.

  5. chris
    Posted October 25, 2011 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

    I have to follow-up here, though I’m writing another post about this very topic. After reading Garrett’s follow-up on A Good Beer Blog, I’ve got to at least clarify my position, and it is thus: I have had nowhere near enough time in study of beer history to have an opinion whether Martyn or Garrett is “right”. Certianly, there are inaccuracies in OCB; Garrett himself will admit to that, and even noted it was likely in the introduction. I’m still going to use OCB frequently. If you’re interested in why, check out the full post, http://www.torontobeerblog.com/rant/oxford-companion-to-beer-is-it-a-reference-or-a-drama/.

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