Some four years in the making, with more than 1,100 entries and over 900 pages, “The Oxford Companion to Beer” (Oxford University Press, $65) clearly was a huge undertaking. But its encyclopedic breadth doesn’t make it any less a pleasure to browse.
As its editor, Garrett Oliver, an author best known as the brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery, points out, it can be great fun just to dip in at random and see where the book takes you.
“I find it oddly entertaining,” Oliver said. “It reminds me of when I used to go thumbing through encyclopedias as a kid. There’s a certain serendipity of suddenly seeing something on the opposite page that you want to read and then sort of bouncing around to the next thing. That came as welcome surprise.”
The book is arranged alphabetically, beginning with abbey beers (“beers produced in the styles made famous by Belgian Trappist monks”) and ending with zymurgy (“the chemistry and science of fermentation by yeast”). In between, you might learn about hop breeding and selection, discover the porridge beers of Africa or consider the long legacy of women in brewing.
“Given that it covers everything from the technical to the cultural to the historical, its place is as a one-stop overview of what the world of beer has looked like and does look like,” Oliver said. “It surprises me that some version of this book didn’t exist before.”
Oliver admits that serving as editor of “The Oxford Companion to Beer” was a daunting task. In the preface, he pays homage to seminal British beer writer Michael Jackson, who, Oliver concludes, “by all rights should have been in this chair.”
“I remember watching the last ‘Lord of the Rings’ movie and saying to myself, ‘How does anybody get all this stuff into their head at one time,’ ” Oliver said. “The answer is, you don’t look at the whole thing at once or you’d just die of fright.”
So far, reaction to the book has been very positive, including a story by New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov, who wrote that “it represents how far beer has come in the United States since those dark days before the craft beer movement took off.” But there have been criticisms, too.
“I’ve seen some comments that it’s not comprehensive enough in its coverage of actual breweries,” Oliver said. “I could have seen covering maybe another 100. But I think it was more important to cover the range of topics. In my mind, the 130 or so breweries that are covered all have some sort of cultural relevance. A brewery like Dupont in Belgium might be small, but it’s had a massive influence on so many brewers all over the world.”
Tied to the current explosion of craft brewing and culture in the U.S., Oliver said the timing of the book couldn’t be better.
“I can easily remember when you’d go to Europe and tell people you were an American brewer, and they would be openly derisive,” Oliver said. “Now people look at the United States as a font of dynamism in worldwide brewing.”
Sweetwater Brewing Co., Atlanta
$5.99/22-ounce bottle; also on draft at select metro beer bars
Profile: Ghoulash, the latest in Sweetwater’s Dank Tank series of one-off beers, seems aimed for scary Halloween sipping. The ghoulish 8.5 percent-alcohol-by-volume, “double black, double dry-hopped, double India pale ale” is a monster mash packed with 14 different hop varieties. The special effect of all that is a bright punch of citrus in the nose followed by more on the palate, along with roasted and resinous notes and hints of coffee and cocoa.
Pair with: Try this dark, hoppy beer ghoulash with smoky barbecue, carne asada and fresh guacamole, or green chili stew — or go a little crazy and open a bottle to reanimate those leftover Halloween chocolate bars.
— Bob Townsend, AJC Drink blog
Bob Townsend is editor of Southern Brew News, a bimonthly beer publication distributed throughout the Southeast: www.brewingnews.com/southernbrew