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Oxford’s definitive beer guide

October 28, 2011, 4:00 PM UTC

Our Weekly Read column features Fortune staffers’ and contributors’ takes on recently published books about the business world and beyond. We’ve invited the entire Fortune family — from our writers and editors to our photo editors and designers — to weigh in on books of their choosing based on their individual tastes or curiosities. In this installment, contributor Lawrence A. Armour reviews The Oxford Companion to Beer, an encyclopedia of the noble brew.

FORTUNE — “The history of beer, quite literally, is the history of human civilization. Some anthropologists believe that man moved away from a hunter-gather existence to a settled agriculture-based existence largely to grow enough grain to brew large amounts of beer.”

So says Garrett Oliver, editor-in-chief of The Oxford Companion to Beer, but then he takes it back. These statements, he says, have not been verified. Picky, picky. Things like this are always hard to prove, but we have it on good authority that beer was among the provisions Noah loaded onto the ark. We know that Egyptian pharaohs stocked their pyramids with barrels of beer. We also know that beer was used in the Middle Ages as legal tender for paying taxes and settling debts.

All this makes perfect sense to me, although I must confess that I never met a beer I didn’t like. But that’s neither here nor there. The important thing is that all sorts of fascinating beer-related facts have been poured into this 920-page everything-you-ever-wanted-to-know beauty of a book that has the answer for everything—including why the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals battled it out for this year’s National League pennant in quaintly named places like Busch Stadium (BUD) and Miller Park.

In all sincerity, the book is terrific. It looks good, thanks in part to 16 pages of beautiful color photographs and hundreds of tasteful black-and-white images. It’s got the heft you’d expect from a $65 scholarly tome. And it covers all the bases—from the variety of agricultural commodities that go into beer to the vast number of ways it can be brewed, with each method imparting its own taste and texture.

Homebrewing—a process that “can be as simple as making soup from a can or as technically involved as small-scale commercial craft brewing”—is covered in detail, as well it should. An estimated 750,000 Americans are brewing at home these days. For beer enthusiasts who want to hit the road, the book includes an overview of the more than 1,200 beer festivals held around the world each year. This month features the annual Oktoberfests in Munich and Brazil. Closer to home, 20 local breweries will be trotting out their wares at the Maine Brewers Festival in Portland in November.

The book consists of more than 1,100 separate entries, presented in A to Z fashion. Some of them are surprising. I’ve always associated abbey beers with Trappist monks from Belgium, but wouldn’t you know? There’s no hard evidence abbey beers were actually brewed within the walls of a monastery. And what about Dr. Klaus Zastrow, who turned a Ph.D. in agricultural science from the Technical University in Berlin into several high-level posts at Anheuser-Busch? He ended his career as a lecturer and instructor in the Budweiser Beer School, where he helped teach members of the public the basics of the beer business.

There’s a lot to it. It’s far trickier, for example, to serve beer than wine. “Almost all beer contains some carbonation,” the book tells us, “and unlike sparkling wine it generally forms a crown of foam. Getting beer into its glass with its carbonation intact and the correct volume of foam while achieving a nice visual presentation is an art form that takes some practice.”

With microbreweries popping up right and left, and with consumers finally taking beer seriously, The Oxford Companion to Beer couldn’t be timelier. It is the work of 166 experts from 20 countries. Garrett Oliver, who wrote many of the sections himself and assembled the rest into a guide that’s fun and easy to handle, knows his business. He hosts tastings and gives talks around the world, appears regularly on radio and TV as a spokesman for the craft brewing industry. Beers created by Oliver have won national and international awards. He’s currently brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery, a respected brewery based in the borough that brought us Piel’s, Rheingold, Schaefer, Schlitz, Trommer’s and other ancient firms that produced the beers I cut my teeth on back in the Dark Ages.

–Lawrence A. Armour is deputy editor of custom content for Time, Fortune, Money and Sports Illustrated.