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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 replies on “Oxford Companion: Good, not Perfect”

“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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

‘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.

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.

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.

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.

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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