Tag Archives: Michael Jackson

What if Michael Jackson had never lived?

Back in May I was asked by Johan Holm, editor of the Swedish beer magazine c/o Hops, if I would like to write 2,500 words for the 10th anniversary of the death of the beer writer Michael Jackson, to explain to young Swedish beer drinkers who might never have heard of him who he was and why he was important.

It was one of those commissions that was a pleasure to accept (even ignoring the fee), since it gave me the chance to ask a host of people from all sides of the beer industry a question I had been pondering as that anniversary, August 30, approached – what if Michael Jackson had never lived? Was he actually that important to the development of today’s beer scene? And how relevant is he today, when the beer scene globally has changed massively, particularly since 2011, with a tsunami of thousands of new breweries opening up from Argentina to Archangel, and a host of new and revived beer styles, from Gose to barrel-aged sours, he never knew?

The answer, from all the people I talked to, was firm: yes, Michael was important, and yes, his influence continues. I also got some great stories, particularly from Mitch Steele, formerly of Stone Brewing in California, currently brewmaster at the New Realm Brewing Company in Atlanta, Georgia, about Michael’s dealings with Anheuser-Busch, which I didn’t have room to include in my piece for c/o Hops and which you’ll find below.

So what about his importance? Ray Daniels, founder and director of the Cicerone Certification Program in the United States, which educates and certifies beer sommeliers, and currently has around 85,000 certified beer servers and 2,800 certified beer cicerones in 50 countries, told me: “Michael Jackson is, quite simply, the foundation upon which modern craft beer is built. There’s not a single person who started a brewery or wrote about beer before 2000 who was not directly influenced by his work. And I’d argue that everyone since then has been either directly or indirectly influenced by him as well.”

The Danish brewer Anders Kissmeyer said: “My first personal encounter with Michael was at the first ever Copenhagen Beer Festival back in 2001. I had obviously heard a lot about him in advance, but I was still amazed by the way he conducted himself. Although courted as had he been a Roman emperor by a score of dedicated Danish fans, he still took the time to talk to anyone who approached him. It was like our very, very young craft beer scene was granted a holy blessing by Michaels – at that time the undisputed world champion beer guru – appearance and encouraging comments to us

“Michael Jackson was in the eyes of the entire Scandinavian brewing scene and myself a guiding star and a tremendous inspiration due to his extremely deep insight into the universe of beer, his never failing enthusiasm for crusading on behalf of good beer, and – last but not least – his ability to communicate his always interesting and well-founded views on all things beer related to a very broad audience. I believe that the craft beer revolutions all over the world would have been slower and less powerful had there been no Michael Jackson.”

Alastair Hook, who founded Meantime Brewing Company in Greenwich, South East London in 2000, said: “When Michael published his Pocket Guide to World Beer around about 1980, very few people wrote about beer. As an 18-year-old I used it as a travel companion for a trip to Europe and it was my main inspiration that resulted in a career dedicated to beer. What is remarkable is that I know hundreds of middle-aged brewers who have been part of the modern beer revolution who were all inspired by Michael and his work. He brought the world of beer to life, pretty much single-handed. A generation of new brewers disrupted the market as a result. The incredible choice available across the brewing world is down in no small part to his even-handed but inspirational writings.”

Jeff Alworth, author of the excellent Beer Bible, said: “Jackson’s greatest contribution was writing about beer as a product of culture. He is regularly credited with having given currency to the idea of ‘style’, and perhaps rightly so. This was a downstream effect of his larger work, though. It’s hard for me to even imagine how difficult his work would have been, driving around the Belgian countryside, stopping into funky little breweries, and trying to figure out what in the world he was drinking and how it related to anything else. He had no internet, no information, nothing but paper maps. A lesser writer wouldn’t have looked at the threads connecting those beers to the people who made and drank it, and wouldn’t have then led to the deep thinking that resulted in his ideas on style.

“He’s dinged for getting some stuff wrong, and obviously he did. He got some of the history wrong, and he got some of the styles wrong (it doesn’t make much sense to divide English browns or the tart red-brown beers of Flanders). But he got stuff wrong because he was doing such a tremendous amount of work. As a one-time scholar, I know that the process is one of creative destruction –contemporary work will always give way to the next generation when better information comes along. But creating the framework in which all that work happens is something very, very few people get to do and we are enormously lucky that Jackson was the one who did it for beer. Freud’s theories about the mind are largely discredited now, but he remains such a large figure because he gave us the context of psychotherapy. Jackson’s our Freud – but one who got a lot more right.

“The man was also a gorgeous writer. This is never mentioned, but it was critical to his success. In ways small and large, so many beer writers unconsciously echo the way he wrote about beer. It was literary but clear and always evocative. Here in the US especially, Jackson’s writing was critical in sparking craft brewing. The people who were involved in good beer in the 1970s and 1980s were romantics, and they fell in love with this world Jackson described; they wanted to be a part of it. That’s one of the most obvious ways the old guard differ from the new guard; the latter are more pragmatic, flinty, and knowing. The old-timers just wanted to become Dupont.

“I can’t guess what Jackson would have made of the past decade. There was always a strong element of the reporter in Jackson, and he was reporting on this great story of “beer” until he died. It has changed and I’m sure he’d have had evolving thoughts. He did seem to find wonder in the world of beer, and I doubt seriously that these years would have dimmed his astonishment. But exactly what flavour of wonder he’d have had – well, sadly, we’ll never know. I would bet my bottom dollar that it would have been worth reading, though.

Mitch Steele, like Alastair Hook, also owned up to being massively influenced by Jackson in his career as a brewer: “Back when I was starting out in a pub brewery, San Andreas Brewing Co in Hollister, California) in the late 1980s and early 1990s, very few people in the US knew much about the beer styles of the world. Homebrewers, who by and large were the people that were starting brewpubs and breweries at the time, had learned almost exclusively from British homebrewing books, so the beers most of us made were English-inspired ales. We all looked at Michael Jackson with extreme reverence – he had travelled the world and written about so many different types of beer, and really was the first person to categorize the beer styles of the world with names and descriptions of what the beers should be. His World Guide To Beer was my bible for many, many years, certainly well into the late 1990s. I used that book all the time when I was in charge of New Products at Anheuser-Busch, I used it to develop recipes, and I used it to educate the team at AB, because all they really knew was American and German lagers. Later, Michael’s Jackson’s Beer Companion book further defined beer styles and became an excellent resource for me.

“In 1990, the Association of Brewers (now the Brewers Association) organised a west coast brewery tour with Michael Jackson, and they all came to our little brewpub. I took off early from my day job to be there, and brought my World Guide to Beer for him to sign, which he did. We served him a bunch of beers, and he liked them well enough, and even wrote us up in his Pocket Guide to Beer, which was a great thrill. We found out after the fact that he would’ve been much more impressed if we had given him some food! It didn’t even cross our minds, we were so concerned about whether he’d like our beers or not. But he did make special mention of a woodruff ale we had brewed for the springtime, which was really great.

“Judging with Michael at the GABF, one quote that made me re-think how we were judging beers. He said, ‘What you call “flaws”, I call “interesting and flavourful”. If all the beers in the world were brewed without any flaws at all, this would be very boring.’

“When I was researching for my book on IPA, I had the opportunity to look at the Michael Jackson files at the Oxford Brookes University Library. In addition to some great notes on historical and current IPA, I also found the notes he had taken back when he visited our San Andreas Brewery in 1990, and that was pretty exciting.”

“When I was working with Anheuser-Busch, in the mid 1990s Michael Jackson visited to meet with the VP of Brewing. I wasn’t at that meeting, my co-worker went, but we all heard that Michael emphatically told Gerhardt Kraemer [vice-president for brewing at AB] that the brewers should decide what beers should be brewed. This was so against how AB operated at the time (new beers were always dictated by Marketing, with varying low levels of input from brewing) that it created a huge stir. Our brewing team was thrilled, and the marketing team was in shock. It never played out like we had hoped, but his comment made me realise that the way AB released new beers was really messed up, and since then I have sought out companies that believe in their brewers for innovation. And I remember Gerhardt Kraemer’s comment after the meeting, ‘He’s an odd fellow, isn’t he? But he certainly loves beer.'”

So: Michael Jackson, very important, yes. But indispensable? If Jackson had never lived, would we now be living in a world where all our beer is supplied by less than a handful of global megabreweries, as suggested in the cartoon up at the top there, published just after his death? No, I don’t think we can say that. He did a huge amount to popularise the beers of Belgium, for example, but Tim Webb has done arguably almost as much with his series of guides to the country, and while Michael might have been the person who introduced American brewers to the thrills of geuze, saisons and sour brown ales, they would have discovered those delights on their own anyway, eventually, through someone like Garrett Oliver, or Stan Hieronymus, or Tim.

His influence on the British brewing scene, apart from brewers such as Hook who were (and are) unusual in having a wide knowledge of European beers and brewing styles and techniques, was, to be honest, fairly minimal. And although he was feted in the US, there were plenty of others who could have taken his place. As the Canadian beer blogger Alan McLeod told me for my article in c/o Hops: “The problem is not so much Michael Jackson and the degree to which he influenced good beer. It’s that he has become code for the foundations of microbrewing and, after his death, the rise of craft brewing. If we read a bit we come to understand that people like Peter Austin [the British microbrewing pioneer] and Bert Grant [the Scottish-American microbrewing pioneer] were well down the path towards good beer before Jackson came on the scene. As were other beer writers. In the end, he is a great figure in the popularization of good beer. But he was not alone and many who also played important roles are too often lost in his shadow.”

Still, do we miss him? Yes, I do, certainly. I would absolutely love to be able to read his views on the past ten years of developments in beer. They would, without a doubt, be interesting, erudite, thoughtful and entertaining. As it happens, this year I am the same age as Michael was when he died, 65. That, I can assure you, is far too young an age to go.

Pea beer

The jokes write themselves with this one, so I’m going to try to keep it as straight as possible: brewing with peas is an ancient tradition, going back at least 400 years in Britain, and it still takes place in Lithuania, the United States and Japan.

There are no peas, I believe, in Eye Pea Ay

The earliest mention I have found for peas in beer is from Gervase Markham’s The English Housewife, published in London in 1615:

Now for the brewing of the best March Beer, you shall allow to a Hogshead thereof a quarter [eight bushels] of the best Malt well ground, then you shall take a Peck [a quarter of a bushel] of Pease, half a peck of Wheat, and half a peck of Oats and grind them all very well together, and then mix them with your Malt …

This, Markham said, would make “a Hogshead of the best and a Hogshead of the second, and half a Hogshead of small beer, without any augmentation of Hops or Malt.” Even though the hop rate was just a pound a barrel, the strong beer, brewed in March or April, “should (if it have right ) have a whole year to ripen in”, Markham said, and “it will last two, three, or four years if it lye cool; and endure the drawing to the last drop.” That is probably more down to the strength of the beer – at some five and a half bushels of fermentables per barrel, the alcohol per volume was quite likely north of 11 per cent – than any magic the peas brought to the brew.

A few words about the word “pea”, incidentally: it began as “pease”, singular, with “peasen” the plural. By the 15th century “pease” was often being used as both the singular and plural, and as a “mass noun”, like rice or malt. Eventually , by the 17th century, “pease” was misanalysed as the plural of a singular “pea”. “Pease” and “peasen” survive today only in “pease pudding” and in place names such as Peasenhall in Suffolk.

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Michael Jackson and the invention of beer style

British Guild of Beer Writers trip to West Flanders 1988, Poperinge Hop Museum (for key, see below – click to enlarge)

How long have we been talking about styles of beer? Fewer years than you might think. In the firestorm set off around the beer blogging world by the zythographers’ union‘s recent seminar on the subject of beer styles (see, for example, here and here and here, and also here and here, and here as well) one perhaps important point seems to be missing. The expression “beer style” is entirely an invention of the late Michael Jackson, it’s barely 30 years old, and it’s only been “mainstream”, in the sense that “everybody” uses it when talking about beer, for a couple of decades.

I was invited to be one of the speakers at the British Guild of Beer Writers’ “beer styles” seminar in the Old Brewery at Greenwich, but to my deep regret I couldn’t make it. However, here’s a little taste of what I would have said had I been there, based on the research I did for the forthcoming Brewery History Society magazine “Michael Jackson” special edition.

The perhaps remarkable thing is that before Michael Jackson wrote The World Guide to Beer in 1977, nobody used the expression “beer style” at all. I searched through books on beer from the 1830s to the mid-1970s, and they talked about “divisions”, “species”, “kinds”, “varieties”, “types”, “classes” and “families” of beer, but never “styles”.

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Michael Hardman MBE – Mighty Beer Enthusiast

Congratulations to Michael Hardman, one of the four founding members of Camra, appointed an MBE (that’s Member of the Order of the British Empire for my overseas readers) in the New Year’s Honours List “for services to the Campaign for Real Ale and the brewing industry”.

Since Michael has probably done more, in his way, to promote the cause of good beer in Britain than almost anyone else alive or dead, and yet remains remarkably little known even in the UK, an MBE is the least recognition he could get from his country for 37 years of service to the national drink, with Camra, with Young & Co as the London brewer’s long-serving PR man and, until very recently, as PR man for Siba, the independent small brewers’ organisation in the UK. An MBE is what they give you for being school lollipop lady*.

Without the pioneering efforts of Michael Hardman, first chairman of Camra, first editor of What’s Brewing, Camra’s newspaper, editor of the Good Beer Guide from its second edition in 1975, when it became a proper, professional effort, to 1977, there would probably, today, be fewer than half a dozen small breweries in Britain making cask ale, less than a thousand pubs selling it, and there certainly wouldn’t be the 550 or more new breweries in the UK that drinkers can currently enjoy, all direct beneficiaries of the good beer movement that Michael Hardman helped push-start.

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One for the Curmisagios

When I was researching the etymological roots of various European beer-related words, I discovered there had been a Gaulish personal name, Curmisagios, which translates as “the beer seeker”, or, if you like, “the beer hunter”. Among the tribes who lived in Gaul, home of Curmisagios, were the Belgae, whose own name was borrowed in 1790 by the subjects of the then Austrian Netherlands for the short-lived Etats-Belgiques-Unis – United States of Belgium – they set up during a soon-crushed rebellion against the Emperor in far-away Vienna.

The name Belgium was revived 40 years later, in 1830, by the Roman Catholic Flemings and Walloons of the old Austrian Netherlands for their own new country after they rose against the Protestant Dutch who dominated the post-Napoleonic United Kingdom of the Netherlands. In the 20th century the beers made in Belgium were championed by Michael Jackson, who – some of you can see where this is going already – called himself the Beer Hunter, and who was thus, in the language once spoken in ancient Belgium, the Curmisagios.

Tomorrow I’m travelling to the seminar on wood-aged beers being organised by the Zythographers’ Union in Yorkshire, and I am sure Michael’s benign influence will be felt at the event, even though his death a month ago has robbed us of his presence. He would, I know, have had pertinent and insightful comments to deliver on beer in wood. Every person there will be sorrowful he’s not around to let us have his opinions and experiences, gathered from 30 years of hunting beers across the planet.

For me, the most influential book he wrote during those 30 years was the Michael Jackson’s Beer Companion from 1993, mainly because of its 40-page section on matching food and beer, and cooking with beer. I began my own experiments with beer cuisine by trying out recipes from the book, before going on to try to invent some ideas of my own. One of the dishes from the Beer Companion I’ve made several times is a Belgian dish involving strips of lamb cooked in a beer-and-cream sauce which is a definite dinner party winner.

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There Are No Favourites in Our House

Michael Jackson, whose funeral was yesterday, used to complain that people kept asking him what his favourite beer was. It annoyed him, I think, because it showed what a limited view the questioners had of great pleasures and deep enthusiasms, as if you could only like football by supporting one favourite team.

I have a favourite wine – Sauvignon Blanc for whites, Shiraz or Zinfandel for reds – and I have a favourite whisky (Lagavulin, thanks, though I wouldn’t spurn The Macallan). But what that shows to me is that I’m not a huge enthusiast for wine or whisky, and certainly not a real wine or whisky lover. Jancis Robinson or Robert Parker won’t have a favourite grape variety, and if I went into my local cigar specialist down the hill, I am sure the proprietor would tell me he doesn’t have a favourite cigar. Like Michael, I believe anyone who has a favourite beer doesn’t like beer that much (and Mr Jackson wouldn’t have had a favourite whisky; he showed as much enthousiasmos for, and knowledge of barley spirit as the undistilled version.)

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