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.

16 thoughts on “What if Michael Jackson had never lived?

  1. I interviewed Michael for Off Licence News in about 1995. It was at a time when the big breweries were taking an axe to their ranges (I used my favourite headline “brews for scythe” rather too often) and the head of Bass’s take-home division in particular was very vocal about why there were too many beers in the market and consolidation was both inevitable and desirable.

    I asked Michael for his opinion on that statement. A long pause. A hard stare over the top of his glasses. “I don’t mind how forcefully you report this,” he told me, in that deliberate Jackson drawl. “But I can’t believe anyone in that position could be such a complete and utter fuckwit.”

    Of course, he was bang on the money, and I had the best intro to any of the profile pieces I wrote for OLN, mercifully asterisk-free too. Not sure the ad team were quite so chuffed.

  2. Martyn, wonderful stories–thanks.

    I agree with your underlying hypothesis: beer had become too consolidated and too monochromatic to stay as it was. Every other consumer product category went from a desperate mass market state to one with choice, creativity, and small players. It’s hard to imagine beer alone missing that transformation. MJ shouldn’t be credited with the transformation.

    But what effect did Michael have on guiding that transformation? What if the first wave of craft brewers in the US hadn’t been romantics, but disinterested businessmen who saw an opportunity in the market? We’ll never know, but I suspect that part of his legacy is profound.

    1. I agree, Jeff. Beer would likely have followed a similar path as wine did 10 – 20 years earlier. But, MJ provided structure and form. In retrospect, Michael was a catalyst for the change. I feel certain that a 21st Century beer world would have offered a much less interesting variety of choices without MJ. It flabbergasts me that so many newcomers to the industry don’t even know who he was, much less the debt they owe him for his knowledge and efforts.

  3. Sometimes it’s Bowie, sometimes it’s Eno, sometimes it’s Iggy, but someone, whomsoever, is supposed to have said that the Velvet Underground’s first album didn’t sell that many copies, but everyone who bought it went out and started a band.

    The World Guide To Beer was like that I think, and Alastair reading it and going out and starting Meantime (not straightaway) kind of illustrates that.

    Personally, meeting Michael three times, through my employment at Meantime, was a great pleasure and a privilege. One of my proudest moments as a brewer was being in Meantime’s Union pub, watching as Michael tasted a beer that I had brewed. (A smoked Bock, for the record).
    He liked it, or at least said he did.

  4. Even in waterlogged Houston, Texas, I feel the loss on the tenth anniversary of his passing. My staff & I drank a toast yesterday in his honor. I met Michael in 1982 at the American Homebrewers Association National Conference. I felt like I had met a rock star (only better!). We attended what is now recognized as the First Annual Great American Beer Festival. Michael never seemed impressed with his own stardom here in the US. He was very down to earth. He & Paddy even allowed this Texas homebrew shop owner to sleep on his floor after a conference in Cambridge a year later. Whenever we would meet, he would ask about my wife whom he met once. How he ever recalled her name I’ll never know. Not only hugely influential, but a great human being. I miss him dearly!

  5. I still use his videos in my beers class at UNLV. Sure, he got some stuff wrong, but who cares. It’s the journey that matters, and they say 10% of what we learn is proven wrong every year.

    Without Michael, the beer world would be a lot dryer place.

  6. I don’t disagree with the contributions mentioned by people such as Tim Webb and Garrett Oliver, to which many more names can be added, especially Fritz Maytag, Jack McAuliffe, Charlie Papazian, Richard Boston, the founder of the Ringwood consultancy, Bert Grant, Ken Grossman, CAMRA ‘s founders and What’s Brewing, Roger Protz, Alastair Hook, All About Beer magazine in the U.S.

    But almost all of them worked in a post-Michael Jackson universe. Would they have been what they were without him? I don’t think so. Compare AAB pre-Jackson to post – it’s like two different worlds.

    Roger Protz, a talented writer in his own right, has to his credit always been very complimentary to Jackson – he knew how important he was.

    It’s impossible to know what would have happened to beer without Jackson. All we can be sure of is he came along at exactly the right time and wrought a revolution.


  7. I think it’s a bit English-language-centered to see Michael Jackson as the one great author who had the brilliant idea to write about beer. Michel Iacta’s ‘Guide international de la bière’ was published in Paris as early as 1970. That same year Marcel Franssens wrote ‘De Geuzelambik: een levende historische getuige’, which sparked off the revival of lambic. Just because it wasn’t in English, it doesn’t mean that people weren’t already becoming aware of the richness of beer….

    1. This is the nature of the English language “beast,” if you will, and not a sleight against the other books mentioned. I hate to admit that I’m wondering if the volumes mentioned are available in English…

  8. When I was working at Carlsberg I got a phone call from someone who didn’t know what to do with ‘some English journalist’. It turned out to be Michael and the marketing department were refusing to help him because he didn’t want to write about Carlsberg Pilsner, but was more interested in the lesser-known beers that weren’t available outside Denmark.
    Horrified, I rang around all the brewmasters to hear if they would be interested in having a beer and a chat with him. It turned out that the only one who was interested was Anders Kissmeyer. (I couldn’t make it).
    The result of that trip was Carlsberg 47 getting a mention in one of his books, a container-worth of the beer sold to his beer club and a very fruitful relationship for a good few years.
    I only met him the once when I brought over a brewmaster and some crates of Gamle Carlsberg for a Guild event in London. No help from the brewery and I more or less had to carry everything myself!
    Thankfully, Carlsberg has woken up since then with regards its heritage beers.

    1. Very interesting, Arnold. I believe I recall that guild event – was there a screening of part of the TV series about the Jacobsen family, or was that anothe event?

  9. Some great thoughts here. It’s interesting to speculate on what would happen to the general awareness of brewing among the general public (rather than just those who were inspired to go out and start their own business). His books have sat on the shelves of households for years now, inspiring at least a reminding glance with a pint every so often.

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