RIP MJ

In January 1988 I was sitting in the back of the Brugs Beertje in Kemelstraat, Bruges (rightly called by Tim Webb “one of the finest beer cafes in the world”) with an assortment of other zythophiles including Roger Protz, Webbo himself, who got the idea for his Good Beer Guide to Belgium that night, Pitfield Brewery owner Martin Kemp, Brian Glover and Ted Bruning. We were being taken through a tutorial on Belgian beer – and Belgian cheese – by the bar’s hugely knowledgeable and enthusiastic owner, Jan de Bruyne, on a trip organised by the West Flanders Tourist Board for the just-formed British Guild of Beer Writers. As we began the tutorial, a man from the tourist board came in, and said Michael Jackson, even then probably the most famous beer writer on the planet, would be joining us later: he was flying in from judging at a beer festival in Finland …

I believed we all cheered ironically, while secretly thinking: “What a fantastic job!” However, when Jacko did arrive, he immediately showed how hard-working he was: taking extensive notes on every beer, photographing those bottles he hadn’t already got pictures of, while the rest of us were happy just to slurp and trough. Later I learnt that he made notes every time he drank a beer, and stored the notes in filing cabinets in his office in Hammersmith, so that he could track whether a particular brew was changing over time …

Now Michael is dead, and the beer world will miss him enormously. As others have said, his influence cannot be overestimated, in Europe, in America and elsewhere, after a river of books and articles over the past 30 years. Rightly, he won more tankards in the annual BGBW awards – 13, including three golds and two silvers and the guild’s first “lifetime achievement” award – than anybody else. It has to be recorded that not only was he a great beer writer, he was a fine essayist as well: I remember a beautifully written piece he wrote about being trapped at an obscure airport in the United States with nothing to drink in the airport bar except American Budweiser, and how he decided that, out of duty, he really ought to try a glass to see if it was as bad as he kept telling everybody it was … I was given his World Guide to Beer in 1979, and I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve read it since: 28 years ago it opened for me windows on brews I had hardly heard of before, from gueuze to Bavarian Weisse, and I still refer to it today.

Because of the enormous range of his beer writing, Michael found himself widely plagiarised, something he would dismiss with a shrug: despite all the fandom he received, and his own vast enthusiasm for the pleasures of beer, Michael was a quiet man, without an ounce of “side”. It’s a little-known fact about Michael that he was the first editor of the UK advertising trade magazine Campaign, and when he discovered that I had worked on Campaign too, he would speak with wry humour of the magazine’s earliest days. I remember being hugely flattered when he namechecked me in his book The Beer Companion in 1993 for something I had written on the origins of the name AK – he didn’t have to do that, but it was typical of Michael that he would give credit to others. Sorry you’re gone, Michael – along with the rest of your millions of fans, I’ll be raising a glass of something hoppy to you this lunchtime … and probably another one tonight …