Oct 28, 2011

“The Oxford Companion to Beer” Book Review

I’m not a beer historian. Admittedly, I’m not even really that good of a writer, blogger, whatever. I’m just a dude that likes to drink quality beer and record his thoughts for posterity on this here blog. My knowledge of all things beery could be classified as just above passing enthusiast. I’m able to enjoy a finely crafted brew and appreciate all that went into forming its tasty depths without getting lost in the minutia. I like it that way.

I’m just a fan of beer.

Oxford Companion to Beer Cover photo

When Oxford University Press’ The Oxford Companion to Beer arrived in the mail the other day I was beyond excited — and scared. I mean, this encyclopedic tome has more information and substance than I could ever hope to absorb after reading all of its 960 pages a couple times through. My brain would most likely be strained to its limits as each page is turned, thus causing complete cerebral implosion.

That said, I’m also not so naive as to take every word that’s written in any book as gospel. Books are written by people. People inevitably make mistakes. And seeing as how this is more than likely the first of many editions of the book, there is more than a handful of errata and misinformation within it’s pages that need updating. I can’t say that I have personally noticed anything crazy on the small amount of the book that I have already read. There are more qualified folks than I who have taken it upon themselves to point out those faults. I’d get started at Alan McLeod’s OCB Wiki — an ongoing effort “…to collectively make comments, add annotation, identify errata and suggest further sources…” in conjunction with the book. It’s a great repository for learning that, just like history itself, there are many sides to a story.

With 166 contributors from all over the globe, the information within the book is expansive and, as I quickly learned on day one, set up in a fashion that it’s not so easy to run through sequentially from start to finish. Instead, The Oxford Companion to Beer serves best as a reference book. Entries are cross-referenced with dozens of other selections throughout the pages, often leading you on a fantastic journey through history, brewing technologies and natural sciences. The book is mapped out nicely to allow for self-lead exploration on your own or to sit back for a guided tour of all things beer.

Oxford Companion page photo

As far as the content and how it’s written, there are many styles of prose to be found. That’s to be expected when you’re combining the notes and writings of as many authors as that who are involved. For the most part, however, the editors (Mr. Oliver included) have done their best to present the books contents in a fashion that should be fairly easily digestible in short bursts. I found that randomly opening to book to any given page/topic was the most enjoyable experience for me — a beer in one hand and an unknown destination in the other. Of course, you can also head straight for the index, easily look up your topic (and those related) and learn something that you may not have already known.

All in all, The Oxford Companion to Beer is a first release and, as such, it’s got plenty of issues. But for a first attempt, oh man, it’s as strong an effort as I’ve personally found on bookshelves today. I can’t wait to see how future iterations turn out as more and more information is packed into it’s pages. For now however, I’m going to check out page 433 and the Herkules hop variety.