Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Book Review - The Oxford Companion to Beer


I've been pre-occupying myself in the last week or so with beer. Nothing new there, other than I've not been drinking the stuff. Instead, I've been reading about it. It's science and history, the brewing processes involved, the culture and customs and much more beside.

The source of this knowledge and information is The Oxford Companion to Beer and it boldly claims to be the 'most comprehensive reference book ever published about the popular and diverse fermented beverage in the world today'.

It certainly is comprehensive. Within it's 900 plus pages there are over 1,100 entries from in excess of 160 contributors. From Abbey Beers to Zymurgy, it covers a vast range of beer related topics including the biology and chemistry of beer, breweries, beer styles and on and on and on. There are 30 entries on types of barley and even over 100 entries on hops that cover geneological lineages, growing habits and flavours. As Tom Collichio says in it's foreword, the aim of this book is "to provide an exhaustive account of not only beers history but it's science and art".

It does that and the rest.

It does have it's faults, though. The disproportionate coverage of, and the importance that it puts on, American brewing, breweries and the U.S. craft beer scene is disappointing but not unexpected given that the editor, Garrett Oliver and the majority of the contributors are from the U.S. It's clearly a book that has been made with the American market in mind which would also explain the transatlantic spellings of 'flavour' and 'colour' and also no entry in the Oxford Companion for that peculiarly British of things, a 'session beer'.

As a mere beer drinker with not much knowledge of the science of brewing, having a resource of this type at your fingertips is invaluable. Every day is now a learning day as I play the random page game with my Oxford Companion. Pick a number between 1 and 900, go to that page and learn heaps of new stuff about beer.

Want a Game?

Page 66. 'Arthur Guinness and Sons' entry. Did you know that the "7.5% Foreign Extra Stout Guinness accounts for 40% of their current global sales"?


Page 689. 'real ale' entry. Did you know that ''CAMRA's influential 'Good Beer Guide' persists in "excommunicating" pubs that protect their beers with cask breather systems. Their beer rendered unreal by this judgment, a country pub can easily fade from view and finally fail, diminishing the overall beer culture"?

One more?

Page 257. 'color' entry. Did you know that "Color is an integral and important part of our experience of food and drink, and beer is no exception. When beer is poured in to a clear glass, the color is the first thing the prospective beer drinker will notice."?

Last one?

Page 739. 'Snakebite' entry. Did you know that "Snakebite is a mixture of lager and alcoholic cider that is sometimes euphamistically referred to as a 'beer cocktail"?

Some of the new stuff I've learnt is interesting. Some of it is opinion dressed up as fact. Some of it is a bit obvious and some, a bit banal.

A bit like the book.

But, despite my nit picking, I'm quite taken by the Oxford Companion. It's my new boomerang book. One that I will keep returning to in order to broaden and deepen my knowledge and understanding of my favourite pastime, Beer.

It is a worthwhile, much needed resource and one to be welcomed.

Review copy of the book provided by Oxford University Press.


  1. Wow, I don't see how it could possibly claim to be an objective reference with that tirade against CAMRA.

  2. @Owen
    I had a double take when I read the comment in the book. It implies that by non inclusion in the GBG, Camra are consigning some pubs to closure. it's a strange line to take.

  3. The anti-CAMRA entry is pretty vicious -- "non-encylopedic tone" as the Wikipedians would say. It's written by Mark Dorber, I think, of White Horse fame.