Garrett Oliver has an encyclopedic knowledge of all things beer-related. The longtime brewmaster of Brooklyn Brewery in New York has a great reputation for his knowledge and expertise, so it’s no surprise that the editors at the Oxford University Press enlisted him as editor of The Oxford Companion to Beer.
Oliver compiled more than 1,100 entries penned by 166 contributors (including himself) and presented them in alphabetical order. From classic beer styles and world-class breweries to scientific terms and units of measurement, The Oxford Companion to Beer is overflowing with sudsy information. Unlike The Brewmaster’s Table, his previous book, which organizes noteworthy beers by region and style, suggesting food pairings along the way, the Oxford Companion is just what its name implies: a companion for beer lovers interested in every aspect of making, serving, handling, and enjoying beer.
Most of The Oxford Companion to Beer is aimed at brewing professionals and homebrewers. From chapter to chapter the pages are filled with technical language. “Beyond its most basic levels, brewing often becomes a highly technical pursuit,” writes Oliver in the book’s colorful preface. “And we’ve not shied away from this aspect of the craft, although we have hopefully avoided details that are too dry or esoteric to be of any interest to anyone but scientists.”
He partially succeeds. Some of the book is pretty dry, but trying to define and explain what endosperm modification, strike temperatures, vicinal diketones, or aroma units in a lively fashion can be tricky.
Fortunately, much of The Oxford Companion to Beer is comprised of engaging mini-chapters on classic beer styles, brewing cities, historic breweries, and contemporary trends. Rich with details and insight, it’s both educational and fascinating.
For casual beer drinkers contemplating their next excursion to the beer store, the Companion comes in handy, particularly the entries and cross-references on classic styles and modern trends. The short bio on Arthur Guinness (founder of the Guinness brewing empire in Ireland), a brief history of Oktoberfest in Bavaria, or an overview of traditional Trappist ales in Belgium will give you plenty of new candidates for your beer wishlist.
Contributor Vincent Cilurzo makes a case for the sophisticated acidity and agreeable flavors of sour beer that connects with an entry by Bill Taylor on traditional Lambic, Faro, and Gueuze ales (sour, spontaneously fermented wheat beers made in Belgium), many of which are currently available in the local market, including Boon, Lindemans, and Brasserie Cantillon.
In an entry simply titled “Britain,” writer Pete Brown covers the history of ale in England and Scotland (going back to the Roman Empire days) and winds through the birth of commercial brewing and the evolution of such traditional styles such as Bitter, India Pale Ales, Porter, Stout, and Barley Wine. It nudges you to seek out pints of toasty Fuller’s ESB (Extra Special Bitter), a smooth Young’s Special London Ale, a roasty Samuel Smith’s Taddy Porter, or a malty-sweet Smithwick’s Barley Wine.
Randy Mosher’s entry on Anheuser-Busch covers some of the legendary company’s more controversial big-business practices and mergers over the years, but it also touches on the flavor profiles of their flagship brands. It’s one of several references to golden lager styles that remain popular despite the growing interest in craft beer.
The Companion features most of the pioneering microbreweries of the 1970s and ’80s, including Anchor, Sierra Nevada, New Belgium, Boston Beer Company, and Oliver’s own Brooklyn Brewery. They are the granddaddies of the modern craft beer scene, and they’re all still actively producing odd specialties.
As with fine food or other alcoholic beverages, the more a beer lover knows about beer, the better they can enjoy it. A few moments with Oliver’s Oxford Companion to Beer will surely help any drinker better appreciate their next pint.