Firstly, my thanks to Linda and the kind folks at OUP for sending me a copy of this hefty beast. I’ve finally found some time to have a little look at it and it’s been quite rewarding. It aims to be the beer equivalent of the well regarded Companion to Wine and at one level, the Companion to Food and Drink. And in many ways it succeeds.
Let’s be clear from the start. This is a scholarly work. With over 1100 entries and 166 contributors, it lays a serious claim to be the most comprehensive single book ever published on the subject. It certainly goes beyond the usual detail often found in the books that bestride the beer-buffs bookshelf. That’s not to say that it’s not for the layperson or that it’s densely written. It isn’t, but some of the articles may lead to some head scratching amongst non-brewers.
As is usual with these kinds of books, I found the best way to appreciate it was by dipping in at random. This is made easier by the alphabetical layout, which is heavily cross-referenced, but there is also a more narrative approach with subjects gathered together by topic. Dipping in I immediately discovered what a beer week was and why some imbibers develop red noses.
Of course, there is more to the subject of beer than simply lists of beer styles and hops etc. The Companion discusses issues such as social media, beer culture, and many other relevant topics. No doubt some of which will be debated. Speaking of controversy, I know you, like me, are eager to discover what it has to say about those little plastic beer angels...sparklers.
Well, it starts well by admitting there is heated debate about their use. Indeed to quote:”So heated is the debate over the sparkler that even the usually bombastic CAMRA sidesteps the issue.” Bombastic, eh? Ooh er.
Sadly, the article then goes on to try to simplify matters by perpetuating the myth that it is mainly a geographical divide. Oh well, nobody’s perfect. Garrett, I am available to write the correction for the second edition.
Quibbles aside, I think this will find itself on many a bookshelf come birthday/Christmas time. Anything that tries to raise the serious profile of beer and put it where it belongs; alongside the likes of wine and whisky, is to be commended. Just check the sparkler facts next time.
Update: The book is proving hugely controversial among beer aficonados now that they have had time to go through it. There seem to be huge gaps in its accuracies. On the chemical/brewing side-which is what I examined first-it's fine. So you can find all about hops and the brewing process, for example. However, when it comes to things like historical data-Scottish beer, for example, it's very patchy. So it's a case of buyer beware. Or wait till the second edition.
The Oxford Companion to Beer is published by OUP and retails at £21.00