For newcomers to wine, it's easy to find a guide to follow, but good luck finding their equivalents when it comes to navigating the world of beer
America is a beer-drinking country -- we consume about 10 times as much per capita as wine -- but you'd never know it from the state of beer-related journalism. Most newspapers have a wine columnist, but few have a part-timer for beer; the New York Times turns to its wine writer, Eric Asimov, for the occasional write-up. That's not to say there aren't great beer writers, or great beer magazines, books, and blogs. But compared with wine, they're few and far between -- and, to put it as kindly as possible, not exactly aimed at the mainstream, non-beer-obsessed public.
This is a problem, especially during the current craft-beer renaissance. Newcomers to wine can follow a reliable guide like Asimov or the Wall Street Journal's Lettie Teague; good luck finding their equivalents (i.e., deeply knowledgeable but layman-accessible) in the world of beer. And while it's possible to find entire shelves of authoritative books on the Napa wine scene or the history of cabernet sauvignon, anyone looking for a comparable resource on brown ales or wet-hopping will find, at best, an ever-changing Wikipedia page.
The book is precisely what a companion should be: an engaging, subjective, erudite guide to the interested novice and a quick reference for the initiated.
Which is why the Oxford Companion to Beer was so highly anticipated in the months leading up to its publication -- and why it has been so viciously criticized upon its arrival. Edited by Garrett Oliver, the brewmaster at the Brooklyn Brewery, the book includes more than 1,100 entries by 166 contributors, covering everything from acrospires (the tiny sprouts that grow out of grain seeds) to the Zatec hop region in the western Czech Republic. Like other books in the Oxford University Press "companion" series, this is decidedly not encyclopedic: As Oliver makes clear in the introduction, while this is arguably the most comprehensive book on beer, it is by no means all-encompassing.
Nevertheless, online critics have made an intramural sport of identifying the book's omissions. There's no entry on Oregon's Deschutes Brewery, nor is there one for Avery or Stone, all three of them powerhouse craft breweries. Such absences would matter more if the book pretended to objective universality; as a companion guided by Oliver's subjective perspective, their absences are points for debate. Deschutes makes great beer, but is it important enough to the history and culture of beer that it warrants its own entry? Reasonable people can disagree, but Oliver clearly doesn't think so. The book, already 920 pages long, can only be so big.
More trenchant criticisms have come in the form of attacks on the Companion's accuracy, often under breathless headlines like "The Oxford Companion to Beer: Juggernaut or Dud?" and "A Dreadful Disaster?" There's even an unofficial Wiki for errata and clarifications. Many of the critics, like the British beer writer Martyn Cornell (who is, awkwardly, a contributor to the book), really know their stuff, and have identified several mistakes. Some of them are quibbles with language, some are outright errors.
Except for baseball fans, few groups get as worked up over details as beer geeks, so I'll set aside the relative importance of such errors to others. Cornell clearly thinks they matter; he nearly has a coronary while writing that "the lack of proper research shown by even the small number of examples I've quoted here, and the repetition of inaccuracies that they represent, threaten to wipe out much or all of the advances that have been made over the past 10 or so years in getting the history of beer into proper, accurately researched shape." (Presumably he doesn't mean the entries he wrote himself.) But what I find striking is how relatively few errors have been identified in the weeks since the book has been out. The Wiki has only about 40 entries, and most of them deal with matters of interpretation. In a book that may have upwards of 100,000 factual statements in it, the presence of a few dozen errors, while regrettable, is pretty impressive.