Thursday, September 06, 2007
I learned today with sadness, that Michael Jackson -- also known as the Beer Hunter -- died of a heart attack at the age of 65 on August 30. He was by far my favorite beer critic.
It was through Jackson's evocative prose -- which was enjoyable in itself -- that I first learned about the many styles of beer, what makes a beer good, how important it has been to Western culture, and the many ways it can add enjoyment to one's life.
Beer, the drink I shunned in my youth when all I knew of it were the likes of Budweiser and Miller, is not, as it turns out, simply a cheap way for numbskulls to get drunk. It is an endless adventure for the senses, a proud Western tradition, a gift produced by the happy union of art and science, a pleasant accompaniment to good conversation, and many other things besides. I have Michael Jackson to thank for making me properly acquainted with a drink that is both the product of the efforts of thinking men and a fitting reward.
He didn't just teach me about beer. He taught the world about it and some argue that he helped revive interest in, and thereby saved, some of the more obscure styles, such as the lambics I love.
The enduring legacy of Michael Jackson, who has died aged 65, will be that he elevated beer from the belief that it is a simple refresher to its true status as one of the world's great alcoholic drinks, with a long tradition and deep roots in the history and culture of many societies. Jackson was a tireless writer and lecturer. He showed to the millions who read his books, heard his talks or watched his television programmes and videos that beer comes in many styles and is often made with the addition of fruit, herbs and spices alongside malt and hops. He broke beer free from the narrow concepts of ale and lager and revealed the myriad varieties available, some - such as the lambic beers of Belgium or the sati beers of Finland - so obscure they might have disappeared but for his enthusiastic support.Notice that Jackson is describing a drink whose purpose is to celebrate life.
Those of us who naively thought that Britain brewed ale, the Irish made stout, while the rest of the world produced lager were forced to rethink our ideas. Beers brewed by Trappist monks, sour red beers, spiced wheat beers and lambic and gueuze beers made by spontaneous fermentation put Belgium on the map.
It was a theme Jackson was never to abandon. His book The Great Beers of Belgium ran to five editions, the last published in 2006. The success of the World Guide turned Jackson into a full-time beer writer. He launched what proved to be the first of seven editions of his Pocket Beer Book, which divided the world into beer-producing countries and then gave detailed tasting notes of the best brews within each country.
Readers were regaled by descriptions that lifted beer from the mundane and informed them that malt could be biscuity, juicy and roasty and have hints of toffee and butterscotch, while hops added citrus, perfumy, spicy and peppery notes as well as bitterness.
That purpose is as far from drinking oneself into oblivion as the swill I once called beer is from the real thing. Michael Jackson loved beer, which is to say he knew beer and what made it worthwhile.
As an example of that, and to share one of the closest things I have to a memory of the man in action, here is a narrated picture sequence of him showing his readers how to taste a beer, from his Great Beer Guide, which I once received as a Christmas gift. Click the image for greater detail and to read the steps.
At this point, it is fitting to quote from another obituary:
Starting in the mid-1970s, Mr. Jackson was credited with reviving worldwide interest in a range of beer styles and traditions, some long-forgotten. He also helped popularize the Campaign for Real Ale and the U.S. microbrew movements, which championed better-quality beer.Ironically, I did not have a beer on the day of his death, and I left work tonight at a quarter past nine, missing my home brewing club's monthly meeting, where I am sure they raised a toast to the man.
He said he wanted his work "to elevate the understanding, the diversity and the nobility of beer." His devotion to improving beer coverage was considered distinctive, he said, in an era when "newspaper men talked beer, drank beer and wrote about wine."
He worked to dispel the image of the slovenly beer guzzler by focusing on the enjoyment of exquisite beers over terrific meals.
Charlie Papazian, president of the Colorado-based Brewers Association, said Mr. Jackson "portrayed the human and cultural side of beer. Never before had beer been embraced in that manner. His all-encompassing approach was that beer was about the human experience -- the exchange of ideas, commerce and economy, improving quality of life." [bold added]
Knowing I could probably make it to my usual beer emporium before ten, I racked my brain on the way over there after work. I would try something new in his honor, and preferably something he wrote about in one of his books.
I noticed Pawel Kwak on the shelf and recalled that it was traditionally served in a very distinctive glass in Belgium. I could picture the glass and its wooden holder from memory and in that way, I knew which beer to buy. His judgement has never failed me.
So tonight, I raise a glass of Pawel Kwak to the memory of Michael Jackson in between taps on the keyboard.
I owe the man an enhanced quality of life, a fine hobby, and a small circle of friends who also appreciate good beer. Thank you, Mister Jackson!