He has been called “the Johnny Appleseed of the craft brewing movement”. He more or less single-handedly invented the concept of a beer style. He was given a prestigious award by Crown Prince Philippe of Belgium in 1994 for his service to Belgian breweries. (The service in question? He helped prevent the breweries from going extinct.) He wrote more than a dozen books on beer and whisky, and his writings have influenced a generation of brewers and beer drinkers, whether they know it or not. Today marks the tenth anniversary of his death.
I’m talking, of course, about Michael Jackson. No, not that Michael Jackson. I’m talking about the original Michael Jackson, the British author and beer evangelist whose 1977 book World Guide to Beer (and its 1988 update) introduced enthusiastic but rather provincial beer-drinkers to the vast variety of beer around the world. The founder and past president of the Brewers Association, Charlie Papazian, calls it “the most important book I ever read”.
Jackson didn’t just write about beer: he took beer seriously as a cultural product, a beverage tied to local customs and traditions, a drink with a history and a story. To that first generation of American homebrewers who rejected the idea that “beer begins with Bud and ends with Miller” (as Jackson put it), but who didn’t really know what exactly they should be striving toward, the World Guide was a revelation.
If you haven’t been exposed to Michael Jackson’s writing, do yourself a favor and get your hands on some. (You could start here.) One thing in particular that stands out is the fact that he goes out of his way to put beer in context. He doesn’t just catalogue what a beer tastes like; he also gives you a sense of how it has been brewed through the years, how it is tied to the city or country that brews it, and how it can be enjoyed paired with different types of food. (He was one of the first writers to take food pairing seriously as an essential component of beer literacy.) He’s not interested in cranking out a BuzzFeed list of favorites. Instead, as he says, “There is a classic style of beer for every mood and moment” (New World Guide, p. 12).
To commemorate his life today, let me draw attention to his description of the beer scene in the Pacific Northwest in the late 80s, when he could still truthfully say, “Washington State has six or seven microbreweries”. His experience in the PNW still rings true:
Americans say it always rains in Seattle. It doesn’t, but the weather is sufficiently temperate to encourage people to savor beers in bars, cafés, and restaurants instead of spending their entire drinking lives cracking cans at barbecues and beaches. Beer is talked about, and written about, in Portland and Seattle. There are no finer cities in the United States in which to drink it (New World Guide, p. 219).
Well, that last sentence isn’t true anymore. But we won’t hold that against him.