Many men have gone through life sipping beer and whisky, though few have made a career of it. Perhaps only one, English journalist Michael Jackson, managed to convert sips of fermented grain into prose that would ignite the imaginations of brewers, whisky makers, and drinkers alike.
Michael Jackson's journalism career began in 1958 at his hometown newspaper, the Huddersfield Examiner. He developed a taste for craft brews even as they were retreating from the market in the face of an onslaught of mass-marketed light lagers. Jackson turned his journalistic eloquence to describing the flavours and aromas of craft brews in such loving detail that even casual readers longed for a pint.
Jackson published his first book The English Pub: A Unique Social Phenomenon in 1976. His second book The World Guide to Beers made him an international beer star.
The World Guide to Beers
Jackson's 1977 book The World Guide to Beers classified and popularised beer styles, informing beer enthusiasts of their favourite beverage's cultural and historical background. Back in the 1970s, mass-marketed fizzy light lagers glutted the market, and the idea that beer could be as varied and complex as wine came as a revelation.
Focusing on good beer as a natural complement to an excellent meal, Jackson encouraged people to take beer seriously as a beverage. No one took beer more seriously than homebrewers, whom Jackson referred to as the "shock troops of the beer revolution." Soon Jackson was a sought-after speaker at brew festivals and beer-tasting events around the world.
The Beer Revolution
The beer revolution was a response to the substitution of insipid mass-produced malt beverages for flavourful, traditionally crafted beers. Jackson was active on all fronts of the revolution: Britain, Belgium, the United States, and the homebrewing movement.
The British drinking man wasn't ready to trade his pint of bitter for a thin, carbonated lager. British ale aficionados formed the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) in the early 1970s to promote traditionally made ale. Jackson joined CAMRA early on, and worked to popularise the cause.
Belgium's brewing tradition began centuries ago, when Trappist monks produced beer in abbeys. Belgian ale, distinguished by a complex flavour profile that can feature fruit, wine, citrus, and sour notes, had all but disappeared from the market when Jackson began singing its praises. He worked tirelessly to promote Belgian ale, and through his writings created a Belgian ale revival. The Crown Prince presented Michael Jackson with the title of Honorary Officer of the Ridderschap van de Roerstok in 1997, an award previously given only to brewers.
The craft brew tradition in the United States suffered several crippling blows in the 1900s. Prohibition closed every brewery and brewing tavern1 on 16 January, 1920. When Prohibition was lifted in 1933, only half the number of breweries were opened and brewing taverns were gone forever, replaced by bars. Post-Prohibition era distribution laws meant to control the public's access to alcohol instead concentrated market control in the hands of a few distributors. A series of mergers and acquisitions gave 95% of the beer market to three large breweries. When Jackson's classic The World Guide to Beers hit the bookshop shelves, the United States had only 49 breweries, including two craft breweries2. Homebrewing still laboured under the stigma of criminality, and few Americans had tasted real ale.
If Jackson was respected in Britain as a writer and a sensible voice for reform, then he was idolised in the United States as a beer prophet. He wrote and spoke passionately about beer, persuading the American public to demand better beer. He wheedled, needled, and cajoled beer merchants into carrying better beers. And he conducted numerous beer-tasting events for the new generation of American brewers and beer-drinkers.
In brewing circles, he earned many affectionate nicknames such as the Beer Hunter 3, the real Michael Jackson4, the Un-Gloved One5, and the Bard of Beer. Brewers and publicans sought his opinions as eagerly as beer-lovers sought his autograph. He democratically treated all brewers - from inexperienced homebrewers to seasoned professionals - with respect. As an authoritative beer advocate, he celebrated the beer he analysed, advising beer judges to judge a beer on its own merits without being too clinical or deconstructive.
Not content to influence the way beer was made and consumed, Jackson also changed the way many beer drinkers were viewed. No writer could have removed the unfortunate association between beer drinker and beer-swiller; but, Michael Jackson popularised the image of the beer connoisseur, a bon vivant with an educated palate who knowledgeably pairs beer with food.
Books and More
Jackson travelled extensively, reviewing beers around the world. His books include:
- Michael Jackson's Great Beers of Belgium, 1991.
- Michael Jackson's Beer Companion, 1997.
- Ultimate Beer, 1998.
- Little Book on Beer, 1998.
- The World's Great Beer Styles, Gastronomy, and Traditions, 2000.
Jackson shared his enjoyment of good whiskies in The World Guide to Whisky, 1987, Michael Jackson's Complete Guide to Single Malt Scotch, 1999, and Scotland and its Whiskies, 2001. He was particularly proud of the James Beard medal he won in 2006 for his 2005 book Whiskey: The Definitive World Guide.
Of course, as new breweries and distilleries opened, he regularly revised and republished his books as he wrote new columns for some seventeen publications.
Jackson lived with diabetes for years. In December, 2006, he revealed he had been battling Parkinson's disease for at least a decade. He drank in moderation, so it was something of an insult that Parkinson's disease brought him slurred speech and poor motor control. With his customary wit, he joked that he planned to write a book called I Am Not Drunk. He did not permit his health conditions to prevent him from attending his numerous speaking engagements or interfere with his writing and publishing schedule.
Michael Jackson died of a heart attack on 30 August, 2007 at age 65. It seemed he knew the end was near. In his last column - dated 22 August and eerily titled Did I Cheat Mort Subite? – he addressed his health problems and his mortality.
Over the course of his 30-year writing career, Jackson encouraged and chronicled the brewing revolution, critiquing brewpubs, microbreweries, and regional craft breweries. His readers responded by patronising these establishments and thereby building the market for tasty, traditionally made beers. As of 2006, the US had 1,552 speciality breweries6, per the 2007 Brewers Almanac. Increasing numbers of pubs on both sides of the Atlantic feature cask-conditioned ales, more restaurants serve locally made beers in addition to wines, and supermarkets carry an ever wider selection of regional and bottle-conditioned beers.
"No one goes into a restaurant and requests 'a plate of food, please'. People do not simply ask for 'a glass of wine' without specifying, at the very least, whether they fancy red or white, dry or sweet, perhaps sparkling or still...when their mood switches from the grape to the grain, these same discerning people often ask simply for 'a beer', or perhaps name a brand, without thinking of its suitability for the mood or the moment...beer is by far the more extensively consumed, but less adequately honoured. In a small way, I want to help put right that injustice."
Michael Jackson's Beer Companion, 1991