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.