French Travels With Michael Jackson

In my post yesterday, I referred briefly to having visited the Jenlain brewery in the town of that name in northern France with the late beer guru, Michael Jackson.

We spent five days on the road together, visiting small breweries in the region that had been the heartland of top-fermentation before the 1930s. Many still exist, e.g., Jenlain, St. Sylvestre, La Choulette, Ch’ti (Castelain), Lepers, Au Baron, Theillier (Bavay).

My job was to drive us to the appointed destinations, following an itinerary organized by a local beer promotion group. I helped a bit with French for Michael, but it turned out he was fairly proficient himself – one of his many multiform talents.

Newer breweries have come along since, encouraged by the world-wide interest in beer, so that there are some 40 in the region now. It’s down from over 2000 in 1900, but not so bad, considering.

In 1992 when the tourney occurred, there were just under 20 breweries including two or three large regional plants, some of which are now closed, e.g. Terken in Roubaix which had a unique, cooperative form of ownership. It lasted until 2005.

Pelforth in Lille continues, but even then was owned by Heineken.

Michael Jackson wrote up the trip, it was published in the Independent in London. You can read it here, reprinted on his website which is still maintained some 10 years after his death. Note he refers to the special, top-fermentation version of Jenlain, which I mentioned yesterday as well. I only found his 1992 article this morning, so my memory was good.

While he terms the account “Part 2” of a French safari, there was no Part 1 in the north. He met us at the Lille train station mentioned in the article, having taken the Chunnel train from London. Part 1 to my best recollection was a description of an earlier visit he made to Paris.

Jackson was, as many have testified, a very interesting person: highly intelligent, curious, hard-working, widely-read, ambitious. He was a good listener as all good journalists are. We talked about politics quite a bit and he combined an enormous respect for British history and capitalist endeavour with a decided social-democratic bent.

He was skeptical of Margaret Thatcher, whereas I was a booster, so it made for some interesting conversations over the beers.

We talked too about his (paternal) Jewish roots. Had he lived longer I think he would have explored this more; in his later writings he often adverted briefly to it, usually in the form of a joke or sentimental reflection.

I also have a clear recollection that he was well-aware of the new generation of beer writers coming up. He told me you always have to watch your guard, you have to get better and better at what you do to make sure no one catches up (not verbatim, but that was the gist).

As things turned out, he had nothing to worry about, for that matter even being absent from the scene for 10 years. In the areas he covered, he was and remains matchless. Good work has been done by not a few certainly, but in areas he never went far into. The historical field is the prime example; aspects of brewing materials and techniques, another.

Michael’s field par excellence was the sensory description of beer, as well as relating beer types to various forms of history (social, political, military) and other aspects of culture. In a word he created numerous beer styles – that is, as we think of them today (Trappist beer, Imperial stout, Vienna beer, etc.). They are all rooted in the warp and weft of modern beer culture.

Let’s give Michael the last word, about the part of our visit to Theillier in Bavay, which I remember just as he describes it:

I … head[ed] eastward for the most unusual brewery and bière de garde. In the Roman town of Bavay, in a 1670 house, the Thellier family have been brewing for as long as anyone can remember.

Amand Thellier is the brewer now, helped by his wife. They brew three times a month and there are no staff. The Thellier’s home and brewery are in the same building, and the cellars appear to have been left by the Romans.

Monsieur Thellier claims that he uses no dark malts, but the beer has a tawny colour to go with its fresh, malty aroma and its rich sweetness. He declines to elaborate upon his method.

If he really does not use dark malts, then perhaps he colours and thickens the beer by having such a vigorous boil that he caramelises and condenses the wort. If he does, a great deal goes up in steam. His product is hard to find, of course, but if you see La Bavaisienne (1068-70 [OG]), buy a bottle immediately.*

Note re image: the image above was sourced from this French retailer’s site. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner. Image used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.


*R.E. Evans, in his 1905 article I discussed in the previous post, mentioned the very long boils of some northern French brewers.