The Oxford Companion to Wine was first published in 1994 and is now in its third edition. It is widely regarded as the authoritative work on wine by both connoisseurs and those in the trade, with contributions from the most well-respected writers in the field of viticulture and oenology. It is, in short, a book for people who take their wine seriously.
That in 2011 the Oxford University Press published an equivalent volume for beer is the clearest sign yet that our poor relation of the drinks industry is suddenly finding respect among the public at large. But does The Oxford Companion to Beer rise to the task of being beer’s authoritative work?
English beer writer Pete Brown is probably better known for his matey-blokey beer history and travel books, like Hops & Glory (the definitive story of IPA) and Shakespeare's Local (a history of one not-so-well-known London pub). His latest is a rather different format, however. The Pub, subtitled "A Cultural Institution - from Country Inns to Craft Beer Bars and Corner Locals", is a glossy, lavishly illustrated, coffee-table job, highlighting 50 different pubs around the UK.
It's more than a work of pub pornography, however. The book also has a practical remit, documenting an additional 250 pubs to the ones featured, so despite a total lack of portability it also has a very useful reference function. If you're going to a specific part of the UK and looking for particularly pretty or otherwise noteworthy pubs to visit, this book is of real help. The pubs are set out region by region with a couple of exceptional examples given a double-page spread of photographs and Pete's personal account of the place. These highlights are interspersed with single-paragraph descriptions of other pubs in the region, all with details of facilities available, address and contact details.
The recent surge in craft brewing and specialist pubs in London means that the Borough of Southwark is perhaps not the standalone beer mecca it once was. That said, it remains home to such luminaries as The Rake, Brew Wharf, The Market Porter and The Dean Swift, as well as more understated beery excellence down at Harvey's Royal Oak.
The modern visitor supping his Kernel IPA in The Rake may not be aware, however, that Southwark's beeriness stretches far back into history. Borough High Street was the thoroughfare along which Kent's precious hop harvest was transported north each year and the old Hop Exchange building is still standing in the area. One of London's most famous breweries was also based in Southwark: Thrale's, later Barclay Perkins, later yet Courage. The first Russian Imperial Stout was brewed here on the south bank of the Thames. The stories of London and its beer are bound up together in Southwark and it's this history that Pete Brown explores in Shakespeare's Local: Six Centuries of History Seen Through One Extraordinary Pub.
There's no shortage of reference books about beer on the market, from the wordy official guides published by the house of CAMRA to the glossy encyclopedia-style tomes that come from the likes of Dorling Kindersley, more often than not bearing the name of the late Michael Jackson on the cover. The former can tend towards being stuffily prescriptive while the latter are generally so broadly pitched that there's very little for the beer enthusiast to chew on. The amount of free beer information on the Internet these days makes it difficult to justify shelling out cash on a beer reference book, other than for the look and feel of the thing. UK beer writer Ben McFarland has attempted to bridge this gap by creating a lavishly illustrated guide to world beer that also highlights the real quality beers and breweries of which those in the know speak reverentially.
World's Best Beers is subtitled One Thousand Craft Brews From Cask To Glass in the US, and 1000 Unmissable Brews from Portland to Prague in Europe. With opening pages decorated with Orval and Aventinus, you know you're in the hands of an genuine enthusiast.