In this second post – and maybe I’ll do more – on “what if” scenarios, I’ll consider what our modern beer scene would look like had the writer Michael Jackson (1942-2007) not existed. Jackson was the Briton who authored the landmark The World Guide to Beer in 1977 and wrote other influential books, including a widely read Belgian beer tome and multi-edition pocket guide.
He considerably shaped the modern beer landscape through his detailed yet literary evocations of beer style, and by devising or popularizing beer terminology (“beer style”, “craft brewery”, “session beer”, “dry Irish stout”, etc). His pioneering travel video The Beer Hunter, countless lectures and appearances, beer dinners, and prolific magazine journalism helped spread the message for decades before his untimely passing.
Of course, before Jackson there were consumer writers on beer: British ones, American ones, notably. There were authors of home brewing manuals. There was even a group in the U.K., the Durden Circle, devoted to historical beer recreations.
Some of the early American beer books – I described them in an article a couple of years ago in the journal Brewery History – were similar in style and language to books on wine then gaining a general audience. Those beer books resembled some of what Jackson wrote and of course he was influenced himself by some of this earlier writing.
Jackson certainly acknowledged indebtedness to a wine writer still active, Hugh Johnson, author of an influential (annual) pocket wine guide.
Craft brewing in the U.S. started before Jackson’s books first appeared, notably at Anchor Brewing in San Francisco, in Sonoma, CA by Jack McAuliffe, and by others, some of whom had been home brewers before going commercial. CAMRA of course was in existence in 1971 and doing its good work in Britain to revive interest in real ale, or cask-conditioned beer. New breweries had started to appear in the U.K. in its wake.
An important aspect of the pre-Jackson world was the growing interest in beer imports, a relatively small business before the 1980s if one excepts large-selling, premium brands such as Heineken, Beck’s, Tuborg, and similar.
And so we would have all this today – beer imports, a home-brewing movement, craft breweries, beer writers, historical recreations of past styles. What wouldn’t we have?
We wouldn’t have the emphasis on beer style we have in 2019, a phenomenon so intense it has led to the creation of new beer styles and the amazing taxonomy of beer types catalogued and described by the BJCP, say. And I don’t think we would have as many, and as many literary/philosophical, and historical, beer writers.
Instead, the dominant trope would still be national – thinking of beer as German, British, Belgian, Czech before it was Helles, Bitter, Trappist, Pilsener. Beer menus from the 1800s and mid-1900s, of which I have analyzed many in these pages, show this markedly. As just one example, consider the beer menu from Los Angeles c.1980 discussed in this post.
So dominant was this way of thinking even Jackson’s The World Guide to Beer was organized by nation. Yet, within each chapter he focused intently on style – and even more so in later books.
Certainly, style was discussed in pre-Jackson beer writing, but in a more rudimentary way than exists today. A lot of the information conveyed, at least in sources I’m familiar with, was incomplete or out of date, but it didn’t matter because people rated beer by where it came from before anything else.
The German travelling in his or her country relied on beer being national in origin for its quality and ordered – still often does – “ein Bier”, not a Dunkel, Kolsch, or Alt-Bier. Because the beer was made in his country he assumed it had an inherent quality. So did the Briton, asking for Bitter or Mild wherever he was in Britain. Stout was considered quintessentially Irish (even though of Georgian English origin), and so on.
Consumers followed the pattern for imports – you knew the countries with a reputation for beer made the best. For this reason, a rare classic India Pale Ale still made in America in the 1970s, Ballantine India Pale Ale, languished on the shelves.
Consumers knew local or regional types might vary, but this was less important than the national origin of the beers. Beers had reputation, or less reputation, simply by that fact. Today, due largely to Jackson, for many knowledgeable about beer, type is more important than origin. Something of the old attitude still exists in the general population, but it is turning over.
Technology and logistics have been a powerful aid to what Jackson achieved. A Helles can be made as well and maybe better in Brazil, say, than in Munich. Craft beer has famously become an international citizen and beer types, even those famously associated with place of origin, win awards made far from birthplace.
Ingredients can be shipped and stored easily. Water adjustment, yeast management, fermentation styles – all can be adapted to produce a given beer style anywhere. (Jackson was famously a traveller, but would acknowledge if living today that this is not the first requisite to understanding world beer types).
There are some exceptions to this pattern, for Belgian lambic, say, and perhaps Czech pilsner, but examples are ever fewer.
Wine is a different story, ditto cheese, coffee, tea, since place of production still exercises a powerful influence, as well perhaps as their longer history of epicureanism. A better analogy to beer is bread. Need you travel to France today to taste the true baguette? The answer is no, as I had occasion to confirm recently.
That is, in sum, what Jackson did, an enormous or tectonic shift in a consumer picture that had remained relatively static for a couple of centuries at least.