The Oxford Companion to Beer
Added: Saturday, December 3rd 2011
Beer has come of age with the publication of the Oxford Companion to Beer. It joins the same stable as the Oxford Companions to Wine and Food and at last gives the world's most popular alcoholic beverage similar status to wine. It has been a long journey from Michael Jackson's World Guide to Beer in the late 1970s, which first drew attention to the diversity of beers available and the styles of individual countries, to the Oxford book. It's edited by Garrett Oliver, the brewmaster at the Brooklyn Brewery in New York City. Oliver has built a deserved reputation as a fine interpreter of classic beer styles and he is also the author of a seminal volume, The Brewmaster's Table, which matches food with beer.
The world-wide interest in beer and the resulting rise of craft brewing is reflected in the fact that the companion was reprinted within weeks of its first appearance in the United States. The hefty tome runs to 920 pages and is in effect an encyclopaedia that offers knowledge on every possible beer front, for connoisseurs, brewers, historians and scientists. Even the most casual user of the book cannot help but appreciate that beer is far more than just a quick refresher and that there are many more styles and types of beer than such shorthand terms as ale and lager suggest.
The companion makes it clear that beer, whether it is warm or cold fermented, is the result of craftsmen and women using considerable science-backed skills to turn a blend of cereals and climbing plants into a palatable alcohol. Beer has for too long walked in the shadow of a wine snobbery that assumes that beer is an inferior beverage. The growing interest in vintage beers, oak-aged beers and revivals of India Pale Ale should dispel such myths. The section devoted to Belgian lambic shows that spontaneous fermentation today provides a link to the earliest beers made in the Old World of Egypt and Mesopotamia: beer, in short, beer has history as well as taste on its side.
For beer lovers with a passion for style, this is more a treasure trove than an encyclopaedia. The history of porter and stout, pale ale and IPA, and modern Pilsner are given long and detailed essays. There are potted histories of around 150 breweries, ranging from modern global giants to such historic innovators as Bass and Courage. Every beer style is carefully delineated and there are brief biographies of leading figures in both modern brewing and the history of beer: Catherine the Great and George Washington feature as a result of their devotion to porter and stout. The Tsarina imported Imperial Russian Stout from London while the first American president brewed porter at home.
Supported by academics, Oliver (pictured above) devotes a substantial proportion of the book to brewing. Here is everything you would ever need to know about the myriad varieties of barley and hops, how they are prepared for brewing - turning barley into malt and, as a result, transforming starch into fermentable sugar remains for me as much a miracle as brewing science - the various forms of fermentation and the finished products in bottle, cask and keg.
As brewing is a natural process, things can go wrong, and a number of essays deal with such matters as bacteria, viruses and diseases.
But things usually go right and the Companion not only extols the pleasures of beer but also discusses food matching and the trend among craft brewers to experiment with herbs, spices, fruit and confectionary. Garrett Oliver's own love of good food shows in a section on cheese, its different styles, and the pleasure of beer and cheese matching. Sections on pub games, drinking customs and drinking vessels add to the general fascination.
The Companion is hard to put down. Cross-referencing ensures that a quick glance at one item will inexorably draw you into many other related sections. It's a joy to read and it has already widened my knowledge and appreciation of the subject. It's not cheap but this is more than a book about beer. It's an investment.
The Oxford Companion to Beer, edited by Garrett Oliver
Oxford University Press, £35
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