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”.

In The World Guide to Beer, however, Michael devoted a section to what he called “The classic beer styles”, though he still differentiated between “beer styles” and “beer types”, saying:

If a brewer specifically has the intention of reproducing a classical beer, then he is working within a style. If his beer merely bears a general similarity to others, then it may be regarded as being of their type.”

(The World Guide to Beer, 1977, p14)

The term “beer styles” still seems not to have been in universal use in the 1980s, and Michael’s first Pocket Guide to Beer in 1982 still talked about “types of beer”, as well as styles. It is not until the New World Guide to Beer in 1988 (the same year as that picture above) that he appears to have abandoned the idea of “types” entirely for the concept of “styles”, producing a “Family Tree of Beer Styles” with just two basic divisions, top-fermenting and bottom-fermenting, and all the many other styles, from lambic to bock, branching off.

The big push to the idea of beer “styles” came when the extremely influential American beer writer Fred Eckhardt seems to have picked up on Michael’s terminology in 1989 and ran with it in his self-published book The Essentials of Beer Style: A Catalog of Classic Beer Styles for Brewers and Beer Enthusiasts. This, and Michael’s books, were hugely important in forming the way American homebrewers thought about beer categorisation, and fed into both the Beer Judge Certification Program and the rapidly expanding boutique or microbrewing movement in the United States. When, subsequently, beer “appreciation” websites such as Ratebeer.com (founded 2000) sprang up in the US, they naturally used the “beer styles” ideas pioneered by Michael and used by the BJCP to help their contributors categorise the beers they were rating.

(Addendum – since I wrote this, Stan Hieronymous has revealed the existence of a pamphlet written by Fred Eckhardt and Itsuo Takita in 1977, the same year as the World Guide to Beer, called Beer Tasting and Evaluation for the Amateur, which apparently talks about “bottled beers types and categories”, but NOT “styles”, underlining again that “beer style” was not a concept used by anyone before Michael Jackson invented it.)

Why did Michael come up with the idea of “styles” of beer? In my piece for the BHS I speculate that it was because of his background in journalism – but you’ll have to buy the magazine to read more about that.

But is the concept of “beer style” a “good thing”? Well, it’s fun for geeks like me to explore the idea (you’re not a geek, of course – you’re a connoisseur). But brewers and drinkers got on fine without talking about “beer styles” for several millennia before 1977. And the average British pubgoer probably recognises exactly three beer styles – lager, bitter and Guinness. So: for geeks/connoisseurs – yes. For punters, and probably for brewers – not so much.

Meanwhile this is as good an excuse as I’m going to get to run a picture I’ve been meaning to upload almost since I started this blog, from the first ever British Guild of Beer Writers trip abroad, to West Flanders, in February 1988, courtesy of the West Flanders Tourist Authority. There we are at the Poperinge Hop Museum, including one man, Tim Webb, who, inspired by this trip, would make a career out of producing beer guides to Belgium. Sadly, at least two people in the photograph, Michael, and Danny Blyth, are no longer with us.

1 Michael Jackson, journalist and beer writer; 2 Ted Bruning, journalist and beer writer; 3 John Simpson, cartoonist; 4 Roger Protz, journalist and beer writer; 5 Unknown Belgian; 6 Mike Bennett, journalist; 7 Brian Glover journalist and beer writer; 8 Danny Blythe journalist and beer writer; 9 Martin Kemp, owner, Pitfield Brewery; 10 Tim Webb, beer writer 11 Iain Dobson, administrator, Campaign for Real Ale; 12 Martyn Cornell, journalist and beer writer; 13 Tim Clarke, travel company owner; 14 Lynne Arblaster, travel company owner

19 thoughts on “Michael Jackson and the invention of beer style

  1. Well put, Martyn, and as a local (North American) observer of the craft brewing scene since the 1970’s, I find myself in substantial agreement with these remarks.

    And that’s a great picture, somehow the black-and- white makes it even more evocative.

    My take on Michael’s development of the concept of beer style was that it was a quasi-literary effort. He saw the romance inherent in the history of India Pale Ale and Russian Stout, for example. He brought it out by linking these beers to the general history of their time (various political, economic and social aspects). He situated beer in a broader context, in other words. It was only this particular vision of his that enabled people to think of Imperial Russian Stout, say, as something special, historical, to be rescued: it wasn’t just a strong stout, it was one Catherine the Great drank, that was aged at Thrale’s for 7 years that a famous English writer had written of (Boswell I think), and so forth.

    He traded on nostalgia – for Empire, for lost times of greatness – and in many cases on the yen for travel.

    But it was more than all that: in the end he translated his personal vision of these beers into one which resonated with many, many people.

    He was very much of his time. Today, the Internet and cheaper travel allows people to know and experience so much more than formerly. He wrote (his main early works) just before the world was starting to open up in this way.

    One more thing I’d like to add, is that I believe Michael Jackson had stated that Hugh Johnson (the internationally known wine writer) was an influence. And (I wish I could find online Wahl & Henius’s book) there were schema of beer types before Michael’s work which appear to have had some influence on him. But in the end, he was sui generis, a true original.


  2. “American Handbook to Brewing” by Wahl & Henius is also at http://homeroastnbrew.info/wahl.

    It was originally scanned by Spencer Thomas, a member of my homebrew club (Ann Arbor Brewers Guild), but this is the best place to find it now.

    It has been a major resource in my recreation of pre-prohibition American lagers. I now have a paper copy which I had rebound.

  3. Hey thanks Jeff. I found it earlier actually too from a link on Ron Pattinson’s European Beer Pages, from archive.com. The google link didn’t work for me but I thank Stan for passing it on, clearly it works “full view” in some parts of the world.

    Wahl & Henius’s book (1902) was a technical work, directed to different branches of the brewing and malting trades. Still, its references to many types of European and American beer are impressive, it’s the first modern-sounding world survey, in English anyway, I know of. On page 701 the authors classify beers by fermentation method: bottom-, top- and spontaneous. Under each they list numerous beer types (not “style”: Martyn is surely right that the term does not pre-date Jackson). Under top-fermentation they list ale, Porter, stout, Weiss beer, indicating the first three to be English. But in other parts of this large book, they expand in effect on such list (and ditto for the lager types listed under bottom fermentation). For example, they discuss Broyhan and Graetzer on page 821 and mention in passing Gose and Kotbusser. They discuss American cream ale in some depth. They discuss how to brew lambic, mars and faro, and state what gueuze is.

    Almost all these beers, and all the lager types they mention, were discussed in Jackson’s early books. Obviously Jackson put out his own vision of how beers should be classified: I would call it literary/consumer/travel-oriented. And he included some beers not found in Wahl & Henius. But the “building blocks” had to be found somewhere and I wonder if Wahl & Henius was one of Michael’s sources.

    I look forward to Martyn’s extended article on Michael Jackson. That is a must-buy as is all of Martyn’s writing. We must look back with respect, but all beer history fans owe a large debt to Martyn, and Ron in his fields, for their important work in recent years. Martyn’s conclusions with respect to the origins of pale ale are hugely important in my view, and that is just an example.


  4. You know Martyn sometimes you blow my mind and change the way I think about beer. For instance my first interaction with this blog was to argue against your claim that pale ale and bitter were one and the same. I wouldn’t take that stand now and recently have in fact have used that entry to back up my now argument that they are the same. Other times you end up proving hypotheses that I have with hard evidence as in this case.
    I was making the (then) unsubstantiated claim the modern beer styles were based on MJ’s work on Adrian Tierney-Jones blog at about the same time as you posted this. Brilliant.

  5. It’s worth noting that the term “styles” didn’t catch on immediately (at least in the U.S.) “The Connoisseur’s Guide to Beer” by James Robertson (published in ’82) refers to the “types” or “forms” of beer, but not “style.”

    I’d always assumed the term was taken from the wine world.

  6. […] Apparently the phrase “beer style” to describe a particular type of beer was first used 30 years ago by beer writer Michael Jackson. Just like any form of categorisation, a style description is important if only so that you can order something from a list with a reasonable expectation of what you are going to receive. Little has changed outside, nothing inside […]

  7. That was a great weekend! – At t’Brugs Beertje the decision was made that the beers of Belgium should be introduced to the British beer drinker. – The rest is history! – Hi Martyn, by the way!

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