Michael Jackson and Modern Beer Culture

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.




13 thoughts on “Michael Jackson and Modern Beer Culture”

  1. Love the film Gary: I love the emphasis on classic styles, with the saturation of breweries, I look for some go back to the basics and emphasize the classics. In other words, market beer to customers who like beer.

    • Thanks Tony, I can only agree. And that’s a good rule I think for today’s seemingly more various craft industry. Market beer to people who love beer.

  2. I think Jackson was doing valuable work when he was describing styles, and I don’t really blame him for the mess that beer description became in his wake. Beer history was in a very immature state when he started, and I think without a greater depth of historical background it was almost inevitable that incorrectly thinking about beer in parallel ways as wine took place.

    I think your comparison of beer to bread is apt, and now that a running history of brewing existed, it is much easier to see how beer styles are more about production methods and ingredients in reaction to customer demand. When someone like Jackson took a more organic viewpoint, it was because it was really hard to know what was going on with Brown Ale and Mild.

    I have a much harder time with people today who try to talk in biological terms about beer, using mistaken concepts like evolution to describe how new beers emerge, or think of beer styles like biological species. But Jackson was developing a lot of his conceptual framework on the fly, and he did a lot of useful groundwork. And fortunately, I think there is growing sophistication in writing about beer as people get a better grounding in history and brewing.

    • Thanks Tom for all this. I think the immature state of beer studies as you put it helped him make the tectonic shift he did, not through simply popularizing a schema we can find, say, in Wahl & Henius (1902, which I think he read), but proposing discrete styles through a romantic exercise of imagination that weren’t in existence before, like Russian Imperial Stout, Trappist Beer, and wild beers, the latter being on the margin of wine and beer as he characteristically once put it.

      It takes an artist to do that, and that explains his greatness, IMO.


  3. I still refer to my copy of Jackson’s book to remind me of flavors I experienced in the 1980’s as I explored the range of beers then available. Some, I had tried before I saw his book thus established his “accuracy”. Others I could go for on that basis. World Guide to Beer still sits proudly on my book shelf.

  4. All I can say Gary, is that the journey to my favourite little Kingdom of Beer – Belgium – began the day I found a copy of Michael Jackson’s Pocket Beer Book for $2 in a remainder Bookshop in Melbourne. It was on his solid recommendation I went out and tried an Orval (would this have been available 18,000km in a local Italian supermarket without him, I now wonder?).

    A Damascus Moment for me – I liked beer generally, but apart from stouts thought they were pretty much the same – this was the decisive push towards my beer maxim/mantra: “The more beers I try, the more I love my Belgian beers”.

    So MJ is my DECISIVE beer influencer – it is unlikely I would have ever reached the wonders of Cantillon or 3F without him (shudder).

    The deceptive and subtle quality of his beer descriptions alone puts him ahead of other English or writers in English IMHO. He just made want to try them and my life has been enhanced by his prose.

    Thanks, Michael! Cheers, mate!

    • Thanks Ben, and you’ve highlighted a good point viz. the passion his writing elicited in readers. This is something that many have focused on in the past who collected their thoughts on his legacy.

      He recruited legions of beer enthusiasts in this way, no question, an important aspect of his achievement. Still, to my mind it all started with what he actually wrote, and the nub was the detailed yet almost literary description of beer styles in lands both foreign and familiar (for readers there). His use of photography in the early coffee table books was an important part of this, the books were very well designed (thinking especially of the 1977 World Guide and earlier book on English pubs, which had superb chapters on British beer).


  5. A further example of the potency of the old “national” idea: the late rock musician Frank Zappa once said “you can’t be a country unless you have a beer and an airline”. At least as regards the beer, it is largely outdated. What was important when he said it, is the nation part. The beer could have been any style (although generally an international blonde lager). It was the nationality that made it distinctive. As a musician on tour, he would have considered, as most consumers then, that a beer is Mexican, Brazilian, Italian, Swiss, etc. before it was anything else.

  6. I do agree with you on the influence of Michael Jackson on popularizing beer styles and craft beer as well as local sparks of invention. I also see a parallel in the Seattle Starbucks phenomenon (in your writing linked by Hieronymus’ comment) to beer development in Portland, OR. Portland was an unlikely place for craft beer to take hold, with very little generally available beyond US lager. However, Fred Eckhardt had written a guide to home brewing in the ’60s. In the early ’80s, he wrote an early column on beer in a local newspaper and helped guide an early microbrewer. Today a local brewer brews a beer called Fred.
    You have also recently written on how unpredictable the future is. Who could have seen coming the explosion in the number of breweries and the decline of many midsized craft brewers and their more traditional beer styles?

    • Thanks Arnold, all very pertinent, which is why too imagining a different past is a challenging task. Fred Eckhardt was a definite influence in craft beer history and Portland beer development, no question, as Roger Protz in England was and is there, and there are many more similar cases. But Jackson seems looking back to have been decisive. All his colleagues to my knowledge had great respect for him, whatever exact weight we give his legacy (and reasonable people will disagree on some aspects, fair enough).


    • I’ve written so much, in different places, for 12-15 years, that to claim perfect consistency would be hazardous. It was written five years ago, as a comment, and must stand as I felt that day but today I have a more nuanced and truer understanding of his achievement, IMO.


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