Snakes, space, and spiders

April 3, 2013

The Oxford Companion to Beer


Garrett Oliver is the brewmaster of The Brooklyn Brewery and one of the world’s foremost authorities on the subject of beer. As his
Oxford Companion to Beer is published on Oxford Reference, he considers the evolution of the encyclopedia, and raises a glass to the compelling nature of reference content.

When I was a kid, we considered a rainy weekend day unfortunate, but also an opportunity. On a sunny day, the entire outside was a playground, and its gravity was easily able to overcome the tractor beam emitted by the television set. When the sky closed in, however, the television was often outcompeted by another center of the house – the mantel. Upon the mantelpiece, running nearly five feet long over the fireplace, was the Encyclopedia. The encyclopedia was a mystical object, its parts arranged alphabetically, and reaching for a volume was like selecting a magic wand for its particular talents. I had varying moods, as everyone does, but on average my favorite volume was “S”.

“A” was, of course, pretty cool, but “S” appeared to be the king of all the letters. Fat and heavy, “S” sat out in the center of the row and lorded it smugly over the other letters. Rain pelting the windows? Never mind, because “S” is for “snakes”, “S” is for “space”, “S” is for “spiders". All the books were vividly illustrated, and a few had see-through plastic pages of elaborate art. Fire belched, legs splayed, serpents slithered. The world would recede, and I would disappear far into S-world, emerging hours later, hungry and vaguely disoriented. The book seemed lighter when I slotted it back onto its throne, as if I had removed weighty things from it and placed them directly into my mind. Brand new sneakers could make me run faster and jump higher, but the encyclopedia conferred omniscience, the best power of all. By the end of a rainy weekend, I could be very powerful indeed.

I worked on The Oxford Companion to Beer for more than four years. When the first copy of the book arrived at my office, I removed it from the box and inspected it. A handsome jacket, nice paper, a respectable heft, ten fingers and ten toes. I put it back in the box and took it home. The sun was warm that day, and I took the book up onto my roof, took off my shoes and sat down under the sky.

And suddenly, unexpectedly, it happened. “A” was for “adulteration”, a dizzying compendium of the various compounds and ingenious techniques used over the centuries to deceive unsuspecting beer drinkers. “E” was for “East Kent Golding", the earthy fruity hop variety that adorned the first pale ales in the 1700s. From there I bounced to “I”, for “India Pale Ale", the undisputed king of modern craft beer styles, created in 18th century England to be consumed a world away by colonists in India. And the roof dropped away as I vanished into a world entirely familiar to me, but wholly more fascinating than I’d realized it was. And when I looked up, the sun, previously high, had dropped behind the brownstones across the street. I got up, went inside, and had a celebratory beer.

“F” is for “France". A week ago, I sat in an apartment in Paris, a weekly rental I’d booked online. It was a good move. I had my iPad, a cup of coffee, a fresh pain au chocolate and a pain au raisin, and yes, I did intend to eat both pastries. Much better than a hotel room, and only a four minute walk to the Metro at Republique. As I riffled through various things on the iPad, I thought back on the special powers of the old paper and cardboard encyclopedia, the nearly lost art of culturing intellectual serendipity, and the ability, with my little tablet and tenuous wi-fi connection, to pull the entire world to my Parisian table.

What’s been gained and what’s been lost? Well, it depends. We are good at finding things nowadays, and that’s wonderful to be sure. We are less good, perhaps, at what the French call “vagabondage”, an ability to wander somewhat aimlessly, whether physically or intellectually, until we happen upon something of interest. Modern technology, on our desks, under our arms and in our pockets, is pretty amazing. And when it’s used judiciously, we lose nothing. Instead, we gain a Golden Door, and we can take it with us everywhere we go. “S” is for “sour beer", a delight of the brewing renaissance rather than a problem of the past. Do you know of it? Welcome, friend – please step through. New powers await you here.


Garrett Oliver is the brewmaster of The Brooklyn Brewery and one of the world’s foremost authorities on the subject of beer, and editor-in-chief of The Oxford Companion to Beer.