I finally obtained a copy of the much talked-about Oxford Companion to Beer a few days ago, and although its spine is barely cracked, I have something to say about it. Or rather, the discussion it has generated.
I believe the publication of this book to be a significant point in the development of beer writing, not because of what it contains, but because of how it has been reacted to by others, even some of the contributors. If you have followed the online chatter, you will know that this reaction has been both good and bad, considered and coddling, but almost always volatile. I think this is a very good thing.
I’ve been writing about beer for over two decades and have been by-and-large friendly with most of my contemporaries. In a way, beer writing has been a lovely international social club, to the point that for some writers, myself very much included, one of the great things about attending the Great American Beer Festival or the Great British Beer Festival or Zythos is not the event itself, but the chance to meet up with the rest of the “clan.”
With the arrival of the Oxford Companion, however, some ranks have been broken, or perhaps more precisely, existing fissures have become apparent. Most publically, Martyn Cornell and Ron Pattinson, both contributors to the book, have exposed errors within the text, some admittedly minor in appearance and others more significant, but all nonetheless notable mistakes within a scholarly text. Companion editor Garrett Oliver has shot back in his defense, a tad too aggressively in tone for some.
Me, I’ve sat on the sidelines, book not in hand, and thought how nice it was that there was finally developing some significant self-criticism within the world of beer writing. And although it makes me decidedly more nervous about the publication next year of my and Tim Webb’s World Atlas of Beer, that there are others out there who will identify errata and offer corrections is something which will ultimately contribute to the further development and maturation of this particular field of study.