Book review: The Oxford Companion To Beer

There are many impossible jobs. Managing Nottingham Forest. Jeremy Clarkson's charm tutor. Cat-herding. To that list, let's add the editorship of beer guides.

Garret Oliver, brewmaster of Brooklyn Brewery, says he was minded to "politely refuse" the offer of being editor-in-chief of The Oxford Companion to Beer. With the book weighing in just shy of four pounds in weight,  there's over a thousand contributions by over a hundred writers. Is that potential burden too great for even Garret's immaculately be-suited shoulders?

Time for an admission. I haven't read every word of the book. Because it's not that kind of book. It's a dip-in-and-weave-around. Always wanted to know chapter and verse on 4-vinyl guaicol? You got it. Curious about the use of sorghum in African brewing? Sorted. If I wanted to read about hops for a week - and, yes, I get weeks like that on occasion - I could happily skip between the finer points of science as presented by the likes of Charlie Bamforth and Matt Brynildson. The page on the characteristics of essential hop oils is the kind of concise eye-opener that I daydream about.

It's when you get into the realms of history that this rich tapestry of beer reveals several dropped stitches. The perpetuation of hoary old porter, stout and scotch ale myths is bad enough. But why the contributors didn't reference books by the likes of Martyn Cornell and Ron Pattinson, both of whom have researched the styles, I can't be sure. Actually, why Cornell and Pattinson didn't get to write these style entries themselves is just as much of a mystery.

There's frustration. The cross-referencing doesn't always, er, reference: 'beer engine' links to 'swan neck' but not vice versa. Some entries seem illogical - why write about Hogarth's classic print 'Beer Street' but not show it? Copyright?

So, by turns, the book is lovable, engaging, annoying, frustrating.

It's the black labrador of the beer book world.

It gets on your nerves by repeating old mistakes. It stinks on occasion and lets itself and its owner down when it shits on the vicarage lawn. But it looks at you with big brown eyes and you forgive it. Because day it, day out, it gets it right more often than in gets it wrong. It's a slightly slobbery but still engaging companion.

The simple fact is this: someone had to contribute, someone had to edit, someone had to publish a work of this scope and scale. Somebody had to start the project that others will refine, amend, append and improve. Garrett Oliver and the Oxford University Press can't please all the beery people all the time. But at least they've made the impossible job a little easier the next time around.

Thanks to the Oxford University Press for the review copy


  1. Yes, brilliant. A very balanced review, with a bonus mention of dog shit.

  2. Good review - I feel the same way. Great start with some surprising errors. Being a Brit I was stunned when Horst Dornbusch was writing about British beer styles and history and not Martyn Cornell and Ron Pattinson whose well researched blogs and books really should have at least been used as a reference.

    I have however enjoyed leafing through and reading numerous entries. This book is a much needed addition to the beer writing world. I think the 2nd edition will be out in two years or so with much better accuracy on those areas that need it.