Wheeler's _Brew Your Own British Real Ale_ contains a great store of recipes for commercially produced British real ales. The first half of of the book is devoted to general discussions of beer and brewing. Wheeler's treatment of these topics is nowhere near as useful as Palmer's in _How To Brew_; the real value of the book is in the recipe section, which contains recipes based on information from the original brewers. I have enjoyed this book a great deal and I have found the recipes to provide a useful survey of British brewing conventions---my own brewing of British beer styles has improved as a result. Below I list a number of criticisms, but please don't lose sight of the fact that Wheeler's book is a great compendium of recipes and overall a great resource for anyone interested in producing ale in authentic British styles. Now to the criticisms:
(1) Wheeler gives malt bills in weights rather than percentages; percentages make it easier to convert a recipe to your own brewing system given a known target original gravity and your system efficiency.
(2) Recipes do not list the color ratings for the various malts included. "crystal malt" is not especially useful when a range of crystal malt from 10 L through 135 L and higher is available. I have had good success with British Crystal 77 L from Simpsons, but surely this is not the malt that all commercial brewers use for all their beers.
(3) In cases where I have an independent, reliable source for a brewery formula, Wheeler's recipe is often substantially different. Riggwelter from Black Sheep, for instance, is listed as containing sugar, but when interviewed on The Jamil Show on 3/29/2010, the head brewer claimed that sugar was not in the formula for Riggwelter. Additionally, from tasting comments in the same program, it was clear that a major flavor of the beer was contributed by pale chocolate malt (around 200 L), whereas Wheeler seems to have achieved the same color using a smaller amount of higher kilned chocolate malt (around 400 L), which would contribute a substantially different flavor. In another recipe, Adnams Explorer is listed as using exclusively Liberty hops, but Adnams claims to be using Columbus and Chinook on their own website; Liberty and Chinook are pretty dissimilar! Some of the variation surely comes from the revision of commercial formulas over time, but these examples don't inspire confidence in the accuracy of the recipes as a whole. Other recipes, like those for Fullers ESB and London Pride---see data given by Fullers in the the Sept/Oct 2008 issue of Zymurgy---and Worthington White Shield, seem to be spot on, but about half of the recipes I have independent sources for seem to be substantially different.
(4) A huge factor in the final flavor of a beer comes from yeast strain selection and fermentation practices. There are many different yeast strains available to home brewers, and Wheeler gives little advice about how to select appropriate strains for each of his recipes (his comments on yeast strains are generic and not tailored for different recipes). The recipes would be improved if Wheeler provided some guidance as to which sorts of yeast are more appropriate to particular beers---homebrewers have ready access to around 20 strains of yeast originating from British breweries, and each strain produces a different beer from the same wort.
(5) The author says that in many recipes he includes a small addition of black malt to correct for color (perhaps because of a faulty assumption about the color level of a crystal malt addition, or perhaps as an alternative to brewers' caramel coloring or an extract like sinamar). Even in small quantities, these black malt additions will change the beer flavor. The basic strategy is fine, but it would have been nice to know exactly where a malt addition is made by Wheeler to correct color and where it reflects the actual practice of the original brewer.
(6) Dry hopping quantities are not given; dry hopped beers all contain the same generic instruction: "dry hop with a few cones of [insert hop variety]". A half ounce per five gallons seems to work pretty well in most British styles where dry hopping is appropriate, but that is at best a rule of thumb. Regarding hop schedules in general, Wheeler says that dry hopping and hopping in a hop back or whirlpool are more common than late kettle additions in commercial practice, but that his recipes substitute late kettle additions (sensibly since few home brewers use a whirlpool or hop back). nonetheless, it would have been nice to know where a late kettle addition in one of Wheeler's recipes corresponds to a commercial brewer's late kettle addition and where it corresponds to a hop back or whirlpool addition.
Points (2) through (6) suggest that the recipes are substantially a product of Wheeler's interpretation and inference just as much as they reflect commercial practices. I don't mean to suggest that Wheeler has made lots of bad interpretations and inferences, just that the book would be more useful if Wheeler had said where he was extrapolating or guessing and where he was using information from the original brewer. Of course many people just want a collection of recipes that will make nice tasting beer in roughly the intended style, and these collected recipes will certainly do that, but these recipes are not going to *clone* the commercial beer in many cases, even if you chance on an appropriate yeast strain. All of that said, I still recommend the book to any homebrewer interested in developing a better understanding of the range of British beer styles, especially in concert with other resources (like K. England's yeast strain chart available on Zainasheff's Mr Malty website). Those of us interested in British brewing and beer styles are indebted to Wheeler for his work in collecting so much information from commercial breweries and in general to the good work done by CAMRA to protect and preserve traditional British ale.