Oxford Companion: Good, not Perfect

Detail of text from the Oxford Companion to Beer

We like The Oxford Com­pan­ion to Beer (ed. Gar­rett Oliv­er) a lot more than we were expect­ing to and, although far from per­fect, it cer­tain­ly beats any oth­er catch-all on the mar­ket.

So, let’s get the big flaws out of the way. First, entries dif­fer wild­ly in tone of voice and occa­sion­al­ly con­tra­dict each oth­er. Wikipedi­ans would describe some as “not ency­lo­pe­dic in tone”. But then, each entry is attrib­uted, and this is point­ed­ly not an ency­lo­pe­dia with a cap­i­tal E – it’s a ‘Com­pan­ion’, sug­gest­ing some­thing less for­mal.

Sec­ond­ly, every tenth entry is writ­ten through the weird prism of Amer­i­can home brew­ing cul­ture, with phras­es like “true to style” and “Ger­man ale” occur­ing in pieces which stri­dent­ly expound very shaky his­to­ry, cit­ing less than cred­i­ble sources. But then crit­i­cal read­ers (like wot we are) will spot these entries a mile off and take them with a pinch of salt. They don’t ruin the whole book.

Final­ly, on the sub­ject of sources, there are too few pri­ma­ry sources cit­ed, and many instances where one con­trib­u­tor cites anoth­er contributor’s book as the source for an entry. Cliquey-ness? Lazi­ness? Pri­ma­ry sources inspire a great deal of con­fi­dence in a read­er and any seri­ous attempt at his­to­ry should use them.

Hav­ing said all of that, those flaws and a few oth­ers do not mean there isn’t a great deal to enjoy.

The more tech­ni­cal entries cov­er­ing con­tem­po­rary brew­ing prac­tices, hop and bar­ley vari­eties and chem­i­cal process­es are fas­ci­nat­ing and (to us at least) seem well sourced and cred­i­ble. Every time we pick it up, we learn some­thing new, and feel inspired to read more else­where.

A few years ago, when we want­ed to buy a friend a primer on beer, the best we could find was the Eye­wit­ness Guide edit­ed by the late Michael Jack­son. Although the Oxford Com­pan­ion is expen­sive, it is now the best book to buy any­one want­i­ng to get a good overview – or at least to begin to appre­ci­ate the com­plex­i­ty and depth – of the world of beer.

If noth­ing else, it will hope­ful­ly spur oth­ers on to pro­duce sim­i­lar, big­ger, bet­ter books. With apolo­gies to those who have worked hard writ­ing them, we don’t need any more vari­a­tions on 750 Beers to Try Before You Need Your Stom­ach Pumped, where porno­graph­ic pic­tures of beer are accom­pa­nied by tast­ing notes.

Note: we got a free review copy from Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press.

16 thoughts on “Oxford Companion: Good, not Perfect”

  1. With apolo­gies to those who have worked hard writ­ing them, we don’t need any more vari­a­tions on 750 Beers to Try Before You Need Your Stom­ach Pumped, where porno­graph­ic pic­tures of beer are accom­pa­nied by tast­ing notes.”

    Amen to that.

  2. Didn’t send me one either. Though I think read­ing the whole thing would be a painful expe­ri­ence.

    My wor­ry is that the shit his­to­ry, because it’s in a book as seem­ing­ly author­i­ta­tive as this, will be tak­en as gospel. I fore­see many argu­ments where it gets thrown at me as a source.

  3. There’s def­i­nite­ly a dearth of prop­er cita­tion in beer books gen­er­al­ly. I sup­pose it’s because they’re almost always in the matey-blokey pop­u­lar his­to­ry style.

  4. Pingback: Twitted by OkellsAles
  5. Not sure how they’ve decid­ed who to send review copies to – none of the con­trib­u­tors, appar­ent­ly!

    Ron – I know what you mean, but then it’s prob­a­bly bet­ter to have peo­ple cit­ing this book at you (in which some arti­cles are sort of OK) than Roger Protz’s 300 Beers, or the Eye­wit­ness Guide. I think read­ing it will dri­ve you mad but, on the oth­er hand, there are glim­mers of hope. The arti­cle on Kuepper’s Koelsch refers to it as a Ger­man ale (boo!) but the more gen­er­al arti­cle on Koelsch doesn’t, refer­ring instead to top fer­ment­ed lager, or some­thing like that. It’s a step for­ward and, hey, if it even­tu­al­ly leads peo­ple to your blog or Martyn’s, then it’s a good thing. We were wor­ried that it would come in aus­tere Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press dark blue with a sug­ges­tion of acad­e­mia about it but, no, the ‘author­i­ty’ is kind of down­played, except in the ludi­crous­ly bump­tious blurb which describes in terms bet­ter suit­ed to a sequel to the Bible.

    TBN – I’ve nev­er under­stood the idea that cita­tions turn off casu­al read­ers. End­notes don’t do any harm, sure­ly, parked out of the way, at the back, with the oth­er bor­ing bits? The Oxford Com­pan­ion has some blokey-matey entries, too, as well as a plen­ty of Gar­rett Oliver’s trade­marked “beer and food dance a waltz togeth­er while wine watch­es for­lorn­ly from the cloak­room” schtick.

  6. I dis­agree: I think it’s bet­ter to have a gen­er­al guide like Michael Jackson’s books that then leads the read­er to inves­ti­gate fur­ther, rather than one like this that pre­tends author­i­ty, but doesn’t live up to what it promis­es.

  7. Barm – I see what you mean and per­haps we take for grant­ed that peo­ple will read crit­i­cal­ly, con­sid­er sources, etc., when many won’t. I don’t real­ly think that this book claims more author­i­ty than many oth­ers, how­ev­er – all beer books, how­ev­er shod­dy, label them­selves “defin­i­tive” while their authors claim to be “world renowned experts”. The Oxford imprint brings a cer­tain expec­ta­tion of aca­d­e­m­ic rigour and, in a way, it’s a shame this didn’t come from anoth­er pub­lish­er.

    What’s a real shame is that Gar­rett Oliv­er (inter­est­ing chap and excel­lent brew­er though he might be) was the best edi­tor they could find.

  8. every tenth entry is writ­ten through the weird prism of Amer­i­can home brew­ing cul­ture, with phras­es like “true to style” and “Ger­man ale”’

    Well put! That is exact­ly what I feared: the ESBs and the Wee Heavys and Irish Reds and the VERY CLEAR dis­tinc­tion between bar­ley wine, old ale and stock ale. All with pat post-hoc psue­do his­to­ry to back it up.

    I think it’d wind me up too much.

  9. Brauk­erl – the odd thing is, some of them are kind of OK. There’s no entry for ESB and, where it does crop up, so far, it seems to be acknowl­edged that it’s a spe­cif­ic Fuller’s beer which defined a style for US home­brew­ers. The entry on Koelsch talks about top fer­ment­ing Ger­man beer which is lagered, or words to that effect, and seems to have been care­ful­ly thought through.

    Hav­ing said that, the entry on Eng­lish Hops, I noticed today, repeats the myth that Hen­ry VIII banned the use of hops in Eng­lish beer. Grr. Lazy.

    1. Oh, and I was wrong – there is an entry for ESB, as “Extra Spe­cial Bit­ter”. Again, though, gets it right – a Fuller’s beer which has become a (very vague) style in the US.

  10. The entry on Kölsch is pret­ty poor too. It implies it has been the dom­i­nant style in Cologne since the mid­dle ages, which isn’t true. Bot­tom-fer­ment­ed beers took over there like they did almost every­where else, and the come­back of mod­ern Kölsch in the 1960s is a fas­ci­nat­ing sto­ry that deserves to be men­tioned.

  11. Barm – I get hints of that sto­ry from the entry. I reads it as:

    1. Cologne has a long his­to­ry of brew­ing
    2. pale, Bohemi­an-style, bot­tom-fer­ment­ed beers were a threat
    3. at some point, the brew­ers of Cologne fought back
    4. and in the 1980s for­malised what a beer need­ed to be to be con­sid­ered Koelsch.

    The real prob­lems are I think:

    (a) the line about the pro­duc­tion of Koelsch being rig­or­ous­ly con­trolled in the mid­dle ages when I guess what he real­ly means is that the pro­duc­tion of beer in Cologne, which was by def­i­n­i­tion “Koelsch”, if not Koelsch (you know what I mean…) was being reg­u­lat­ed and
    (b) between points 2 and 3: it’s pos­si­ble to read the entry as sug­gest­ing that the fight-back hap­pened in the 19th cen­tu­ry when, as you say, it took a lot longer than that.

    But, any­way, I still kind of like it because it’s not the Amer­i­can home­brew­ing man­u­al ver­sion of the his­to­ry of Koelsch, and that’s a step for­ward. Could be wrong, but I *sus­pect* more dodgy edit­ing has led to this, rather than bad research/writing. This author has clear­ly tried to get it right.

    Still don’t hate the book, but, real­ly, I do think this ver­sion need­ed a bit more lager­ing before dis­pense.

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