Book Review: The Oxford Companion To Beer

While The Oxford Companion To Beer has been available for a month or two, its sheer size has lead to the delay in posting my review. Not that I’ve been trying to read every page – the content runs 800+ pages and I’d rather devote all that time to 1Q84 or Breaking Bad. The broad scope and weight of the book actually makes it quite hard to review. Everything about beer is in here, from the brewing process to the industry, regional overviews, food pairings, glassware and a hell of a lot more. It has no target group within the beer community, but attempts at being a valuable resource from everyone from brewers to those just entering the world of craft beer. This makes it slightly harder to formulate a review, so this may seem more like a collection of thoughts.

But before preceding, it is essential to deal mention the giant brew kettle sized shit storm that has hit the book. If you’re curious in reading the debate about The Oxford Companion To Beer, look elsewhere because I could care less about the verbal sparring that has erupted over the book. I have purposefully not read about the controversy so that I could formulate my open on the book, which this post represents.

The most important aspect to know about the OCB is that it is an encyclopedia in  every true sense of the word. (Well, almost. More on that later.) The book is arranged alphabetically for each topic with references to other subjects. Entries are written by an international group of writers, from writers and scientists to brewers and presidents. The most famous byline is that of the editor, Garrett Oliver, Brooklyn Brewery’s brewmaster and author of The Brewmaster’s Table. The common perception is most likely that the book is his baby, but it reads to me that Garrett is just one cog in a much bigger machine that lead to the publication of this book. It wouldn’t surprise me to find subsequent editions with different editors, mainly because editing a book of this size is a beast of a job when you are the brand ambassador for a brewery like Brooklyn.

Having a beer encyclopedia is a nice change from the stereotypical beer book that is a listing of breweries and beers from certain regions of the world. There are some breweries that get entries in the OCB, but they are reserved for the canonical beer makers. (How can you not give an entry to Anchor, Cantillon or the trappist breweries?) This simple fact will help the book have a longer shelf life and not become out of date, which is a fate that is met by most beer books. The emphasis on empirical facts also counteracts the subjective opinions of taste and quality found in the a majority of other books.

As stated previously, this is not a book to sit down with and read cover to cover. This is a reference book and is best used as such. It is still fun to sit down with the book and flip through different entries, starting in “grand cru” and ending up in “brettanomyces,” but I always found the best use of the OCB was when I had a question or a topic I was curious about. Once I looked up C-hops (citra, cascade, etc) and the other time was to find out exactly how dirty tap lines affected the beer (done while writing the #25 Things To Know About Beer posts). The more scientific elements will be helpful when I get into homebrewing. It will likely be my go-to book for beer questions, but one I will never have fully read. Seems odd, but that’s just the way reference books work. (I should know – I took a whole course on them.)

The one problem I have with the book is actually Garrett Oliver’s entries, specifically those on “imperial” and “double IPA.” For those who don’t know, there is a debate in some sections of the beer community about calling beers “imperial” when they are not imperial stouts. In the entry for “imperial
written by Garrett he states the word “is a term until recently reserved for the beers specially made for the crowned heads of states of Europe, but now borrow by American craft brewers and made unfortunately vague.” Interesting and funny? Yes. An objective entry? No. I was disappointed that the editor would use the book as a means to voice his opinion. It undermines much of what the book set out to accomplish and comes across as a little petty.

Aside from that one issue, this is a fantastic book. The years of hard work have paid off in a valuable resource that is great for any beer lover. Yes, it has stirred up some controversy, but isn’t that the hallmark of a great book?

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One response to “Book Review: The Oxford Companion To Beer

  1. It made the top 100 books in today’s Toronto Star.

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