Oxford Companion to Beer -- Juggernaut or Dud?

Note: I have edited the post for accuracy.

The Oxford Companion to Beer debuted this month to fairly brisk sales (it's the number two beer book on Amazon behind Palmer's How to Brew). It weighs in at over 900 pages, runs roughly 700,000 words--War and Peace is only three-quarters as long), and features the work of over 150 contributors. Mario Batali gets the key cover blurb: "If scholarly detail and accuracy for brewing is your thirst, this book will be your definitive go-to over and over again." With the imprimatur of Oxford University Press and a $65 price tag, that's what editor Garrett Oliver hopes it will become.

Oliver is the founding brewer at the Brooklyn Brewery (a fact that will later become relevant), and has lately moved into the "foremost authority" category--bolstered by writing and media appearances.

Noah Webster first started publishing dictionaries in 1806, but it wasn't until 35 years later that his completed masterpiece finally saw print (and, in turn, blew a hole in the world of letters). Reading Oxford Companion to Beer has the feel of peeking over Noah's shoulder in about 1825. It's an almost staggering document. It's probably literally five four pounds, and the dense, very sparsely-illustrated columns of text run along through such arcana as ale pole, drauflassen, and Saladin box. There are deeply technical scientific entries, biographies, style descriptions--well, every category you can think of that's even distantly related to beer. A casual glance suggest that this really is as comprehensive and definitive as the publishers hoped.

The problem is that while the categories are all represented, they are made up of some extraneous information, some essential information, and lack other information for reasons unknown. Take the category of brewery. Obviously, not every brewery on the planet warrants a mention. But doesn't the fifth largest American craft brewery? It's Deschutes, and it gets none. The 25th, Rogue, does get a mention, though. I started comparing the list of the 50 largest American craft breweries to the list in the book. The further west of New York the brewery was located, the less likely it was to be in the book. Notable exceptions omissions include Widmer (top ten), Bell's (8th), Alaskan (12), Stone (14), Full Sail (18), Summit (20). Perhaps not by coincidence, the editor's own brewery, Brooklyn (16), is included.

I questioned my own judgment here--bias runs both ways, after all, and Pac Ten guys always complain that the New Yorkers neglect them. But then I looked at the "brewing regions" Oliver deemed critical to our understanding of beer. It mainly includes countries and a few key cities or regions (Burton Upon Trent, Flanders), but also four five American cities/boroughs. They are: Chicago, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Manhattan, and Brooklyn. If your inner researcher is tingling with anxiety, join the club.

Anxiety mounts when you see that Horst Dornbusch is the associate editor and a major contributor to the work--or, at least it does if you're a regular reader of Ron Pattinson's. I will punt on Dornbusch's qualifications because everything I know about the man's work I read in critique of it (akin to understanding my blog through the writing of Doc Wort). Still, it gives one pause. As a consequence, I find myself flipping to the back of the book to see whether I should trust the entry or treat it like I would Wikipedia. So on the acetaldehyde entry, I see "Bev Robertson." Flip, flip, flip: "professor emeritus of physics, University of Regina." Okay, probably good. Bottle sizes is handled by Martyn Cornell--reliable as Portland rain. Brettanomyces, a fave of mine, is given to Chad Michael Yakobson, whom the books describes as "owner and brewer of Crooked Stave Beer Project." Huh. No idea. (I did some research, and the former Odell brewer seems quite knowledgeable.)

And this is the problem. If you're concerned about the authority of each entry, it detracts mightily from the utility of an all-in-one reference guide. Alan McLeod believes this is just fine--the book works as a conversation-starter. But that's what we have bloggers for. If you're going to shell out $65 for a reference book, you want it to be definitive. Hell, if I want some guy spreading misinformation, I can get it for free on my own blog. I purchased the book (it's actually only $38.50 on Amazon) because it's still better than anything out there. It has entries by Tom Shellhammer about hops--and he really is the foremost expert in the field. Pete Brown is in here, and his prose sings, as are historians Cornell and Pattinson, and great journalists like John Holl and Jay Brooks. (There are notable omissions, too, like Stan Hieronymus and Maureen Ogle--who talk about it here.)

But it feels like beta version stuff. A real editor needs to go through, weed out the detritus, add in the important omissions, and clean up the mistakes (crowd sourced here) and release the truly definitive work everyone had in mind when this idea was still germinating.