It's a shame that would-be critics have spent their entire time fact-checking the precise rules of the Royal Court's brewing guidelines under Henry VIII (subject of one catch), because they've overlooked the achievement of the book as a whole -- though, given their vehemence, it's a good bet they weren't going to give it a chance in any case. Thoroughly illustrated and beautifully typeset, the book is precisely what a companion should be: an engaging, subjective, erudite guide to the interested novice and, at the same time, a quick reference for the initiated. As a dedicated drinker all but ignorant of the chemistry behind brewing, I feel I've already learned a lot -- and I've only read through the five entries that start with "acid-."
One thing lacking in the Oxford Companion to Beer is any guidance on where to actually find the stuff. Fortunately, Christian DeBenedetti provides a useful, if necessarily incomplete, guide in his The Great American Ale Trail (for which Oliver somehow found the time to write the preface). A young and talented beer journalist, DeBenedetti provides extensive descriptions of beer bars, stores, breweries, brewpubs, and restaurants with extensive beer lists (11 Madison Park, one of Manhattan's toniest eateries, also boasts one of the country's best beer inventories). Tucked between are travel itineraries, regional overviews, and general musings about the culture of beer in America. What could have been a dry mash note to the nation's beer havens is, in DeBenedetti's hands, a fluid, entertaining handbook.
That said, like any travel book, this one is defined and thus limited by DeBenedetti's interests and experience. Anyone who picks up the The Great American Ale Trail can think of a bar that was wrongfully overlooked. Them's the breaks: this is a guide, not a directory. Still, it's frustrating to see large swaths of the country left out completely. Yes, the best bars and breweries may be in Oregon, Colorado, and New York, and they deserve coverage. Then again, anyone passingly familiar with craft beer will know that if you find yourself in Bend, you absolutely have to visit Deschutes. How many know, on the other hand, that Wilmington, North Carolina, has a robust beer-bar scene?
There are also some suspiciously impersonal write-ups of several out-of-DeBenedetti's-way spots, which make a reader wonder if he actually visited them in person. His sole entry for Tennessee is the Yazoo Brewing Co., with a fine and fun taproom that he mistakenly says is open just for growler fills (that's only true on Wednesday; Thursday through Saturday it's open for pints). He also implies that Sue -- Yazoo's sublime, 9-percent-ABV smoked imperial porter -- is available on site; in fact, because Tennessee law restricts the sale of beers about 6.25 percent ABV to liquor stores, you won't find it at Yazoo. You also won't find DeBenedetti discussing any of Nashville's other great breweries and bars, including Blackstone and Boscos, both of which boast chestfuls of beer-festival medals.