If you consider yourself a beer enthusiast, a beer advocate, a beer connoisseur, even a beer snob, there are several people to whom you owe a debt of gratitude. At the top of the tree has to be Michael Jackson. His influence on the world of beer was far-reaching and fundamental.
I'm sure he needs little or no introduction to regular readers. Like me, you might have one or two of his volumes on your bookshelf. You may even have bumped into him at the Great American Beer Festival or when he paid a visit to your town. He seemed to get around so much that you have to wonder if he ever got to see his own home. I never had the pleasure of meeting him (but I know a man who did), but I was an avid reader of his column - sometimes about beer, sometimes about whisk(e)y - in The Independent, a British daily newspaper, before I moved to the US in 1999.
Although recognised mostly for being an avid and passionate ambassador of beer, Michael Jackson has been credited with refining and popularising the way we categorise beer styles today. There have been different beer styles for centuries, of course, from pale ale to Porter to pilsner to stout and so on, but the descriptions and definitions of each style were somewhat broader and often ill-defined. Each type of beer might have had one or two variants, such as stout and export stout. Today we have Irish dry stout, export stout, oatmeal stout, Russian imperial stout, American stout, double stout, stout flavoured with coffee or chocolate, barrel-aged stout etc. To be fair, this is as much to do with the inventiveness of brewers as it is with beer descriptions, and Austin Beerworks recently took it to the black belt third dan level with their Sputnik RICO Stout (Russian Imperial Coffee Oatmeal).
Michael Jackson fostered the idea of tasting beer the way that wine is tasted: looking at it, smelling it, sipping it and then utilising all those flowery adjectives that wine buffs employ along with hints of things you'd never associate with something as everyday as ale; leather, vanilla, lemon, barnyard, pine and so many of the other descriptors we use in our beer reviews today without a second thought. While beer was (and sadly still is) regarded as the poor relation to wine, he treated it with dignity and with a seriousness unknown outside his beloved Belgium, and perhaps in Germany with their beer purity law. Oh, and the Czech Republic, where parents do a little happy dance if their daughter marries a brewer.
I know I would.
Beer has a long way to go before it'll be regarded as wine's equal, being so heavily bound to that blue collar, working class image, but as plenty of beer lovers will happily explain (including me), wine comes in only two or three colours and with relatively limited flavour profiles, while beer comes in colours ranging from pale yellow through amber and copper to jet black, and with a range of characteristics that far surpasses anything wine can offer. In fact, Alastair Hook, the founder and brewmaster of the Meantime Brewery in London, recently challenged wine connoisseur Tim Atkin and a group of foodies to a wine vs. beer food pairing challenge at his Old Brewery bar and restaurant in Greenwich. Long story short: beer won, and by one vote. Hooray beer!!! Ironically, the vote was cast for beer by the wine buff! (it was for IPA over port with the cheese course if you're interested).
Michael Jackson spent a lot of time in the US and was very excited about and supportive of the emerging American craft beer scene, encouraging young and not so young brewers alike.
Later this year, if all goes to plan, a new film about him will be released - Beer Hunter: The Movie. The director, J.R. Richards, says he has some 60+ hours of footage, collected as he followed Michael Jackson around the US, Great Britain, pretty much everywhere Michael Jackson went, which will all be edited down to make the film. One can only hope that some of the content that doesn't make it into the film will be added as DVD extras. And then they use some more to make Beer Hunter: The Movie 2: This Time It's Belgian.
Although it's a few days late, let's raise a glass of beer and say "A votre santé" (which seems to have been his favourite way of saying 'cheers' - he was a fluent speaker of French) and thank you to the Beer Hunter.