Nine hundred twenty pages long, with more than 1,100 entries penned by 166 contributors, the recently published Oxford Companion to Beer (Oxford University Press, 2011) aims for a much more comprehensive knowledge of beer and brewing than the plethora of ratings guides, homebrew texts and brewer bios currently on the market.
Edited by Garrett Oliver, brewmaster at the Brooklyn Brewery, this fat hardcover volume contains entries on highly technical terms such as amylase, first wort hopping and real extract, as well as aspects of beer-geek culture such as breweriana (“any beer or brewery-related item that is collectible”) and ticking (“a peculiarly English beer-related hobby involving the tasting of as many different beers as possible...widely compared to trainspotting”).
Readers will find entries on VIPs of the brewing business such as August Busch IV and Fritz Maytag, as well as politicians like Jimmy Carter (who signed a bill during his presidency legalizing homebrewing).
The entry on Benjamin Franklin debunks the spurious quote printed on about 10 million t-shirts: “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.” The book prints the correct quotation, in which Franklin offers wine, not beer, as “a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy.”
George Washington is cited as “an early practitioner of homebrewing.” However, the entry contains a major gaff when it mentions a recipe for small beer that Washington allegedly jotted down in his diary in 1737 when he was a colonel in the Virginia militia. Washington was five years old in 1737, and that’s a little young for even a child prodigy to be making beer and commanding troops! (In all fairness, the same mistake is contained in Stanley Baron’s 1962 tome Brewed in America, one of the sources listed).
Inevitably, any work of this scope will contain some outdated or inaccurate information. Beer blogger Alan McLeod has catalogued a list of errors. But the number of flawed or disputed entries is small compared to the total. (Besides, that’s why we have second revised editions.)
A lot of the language is dry and technical, but there is also some highly opinionated and passionate writing between these covers. Horst Dornbusch, associate editor and expert on all things German, contributes a lively entry on Hildegard von Bingen, a 12th-century abbess whom some credit as being the first person to mention the use of hops in brewing. Much more than an herbalist, Hildegard was “a mystic, prophet, composer, brewster, prolific writer on religion and the natural world, and advisor and physician to German emperor Frederick Barbarossa,” writes Dornbusch. Hildegard lived to age 81, he adds, speculating that “her daily ration of well-hopped beer may have given her a life that was as long as it was enjoyable.”
Oliver invites controversy when he writes that the late British beer writer Michael Jackson, who published numerous works on beer and whiskey between 1977 and 2007, “was arguably the single most influential voice in food and drink of the 20th century.” Jackson, contends Oliver, “essentially invented the concept [of beer style] from whole cloth.”
Is Oliver saying that prior to Jackson beer drinkers couldn’t tell a pale ale from a porter, or a pilsner from a hefeweizen?
Not at all. “Before Jackson, the way people referred to beer was much more general,” Oliver explained in a phone interview. Many people talked about India pale ales, for instance, but no one talked about how an IPA was supposed to taste, nor how an IPA was supposed to be made, nor what historic conditions gave rise to such a beer . “Jackson was the one who pulled it all together.”
So who is The Oxford Companion to Beer marketed at? Professional brewers? Homebrewers? Connoisseurs? Wholesalers and retailers who want to be able to talk intelligently about the rapidly expanding number of beers they keep in stock? All of them, actually, although Oliver singled out the latter.
The price on the cover is $65, but copies have been selling on Amazon.com for under $40. Or you can purchase the Oxford Companion to Beer for $85 in an attractive gift box, along with a 750-milliliter bottle of The Companion, a wheat wine that Oliver brewed with Dornbusch and Thomas Kraus-Weyermann — a collaborative beer to celebrate a collaborative book.
According to Dan D’Ippolito, Brooklyn Brewery’s communications coordinator, “This is the only time I can think of that a Brewmaster’s Reserve beer was bottled.” The bottled version of The Companion is refermented with a champagne yeast, which likely gives it a drier, spritzier profile than the draft version, he adds.
However, the gift pack with book and beer is only being sold at the brewery in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn.
“I don’t think this is something we can sell through Barnes and Noble,” laughs Oliver.