Jackson, Michael, (1942–2007) was arguably the single most influential voice in food and drink of the 20th century. Through his writings, lectures, and television appearances he tirelessly promulgated the idea that beer, far from being the simple fizz most people are familiar with, is in fact a fascinatingly diverse and complex drink worthy of great respect and perhaps even love. In spreading this message, he became the spiritual father of the early microbrewing movement and the greatest champion of the craft brewer. He shone a light upon the old brewing traditions of Europe, from the cask- conditioned ales of his native England to the spontaneously fermented beers of Belgium and the obscure, ancient sahtis of Finland. By writing with passion and poetry about the people, the culture, and the flavors of these beers, he surely saved a number of brewing traditions from extinction. Later, as craft brewing took hold in the United States and around the world, his voice launched thousands of breweries and helped remake the modern world of brewing.
Jackson’s background did not presage such a future. Born in Wetherby, Yorkshire, he was descended from Lithuanian Jews, a rich heritage of which he seemed to become increasing proud during his life. He spoke often of the hearty Eastern European food he grew up with and once described himself as a “pale-faced kid, whose gloomy Slavic features were not wholly softened by my bubbly dark curls.” His grandfather, Chaim Jakowitz, had fled Kaunas, Lithuania, for a new life in Leeds, England. His father, Isaac Jakowitz, married a gentile from Yorkshire and anglicized the family’s name to Jackson. The name Michael Jackson was, of course, to become among the most famous in the world, but not for beer. Jackson had good fun with it, occasionally donning a single white sequined glove for comic effect.
Postwar northern England was a hardscrabble place, and Jackson grew up a proud working-class Yorkshireman, an outlook that later informed both his writing and his outlook on life. At 16 he left school and went to work as a trainee reporter on the Huddersfield Examiner. From there he moved to London and worked for the Daily Herald and later moved to World Press News, which he helped transform into the magazine Campaign, of which he eventually became editor. In those days, newspaper work revolved around the pub, and it was in London’s pubs that Jackson truly fell in love with cask-conditioned beer. In 1976, Jackson wrote The English Pub, a heartfelt paean to a culture and way of life he feared was disappearing. The following year The World Guide to Beer hit bookshelves, and it was this groundbreaking work that was to make his reputation.
In The World Guide to Beer, Jackson postulated the idea that beer could be organized, sometimes clearly, at other times loosely, into styles, and it was through these beer styles that beer’s flavor, culture, and history could be understood. In putting forth this concept, Jackson formed the entire basis for our modern understanding of traditional beer. Although anyone who discusses beer now inevitably refers to beer styles, many are unaware that Jackson essentially invented the concept from whole cloth. The World Guide to Beer gave Jackson genuine influence within the world of drinks writing, and he quickly brought it to bear, writing dozens of newspaper and magazine articles that described traditional beers, both British and foreign in all their nuances. To many, it sounded like wine writing, but to Jackson it was simply good reportage. Beers did have flavors of coffee, chocolate, honeysuckle, bananas, cloves, and smoke, and Jackson wrote about them in a prose style that was direct and deeply studied, yet still sparkled with verve and humor. As the Campaign for Real Ale launched its movement to save Britain’s national drink, they found in Jackson a willing ally, although some found Jackson’s obsession with the rest of the world’s beers a touch too exotic for comfort.
But Jackson did not stay home. A writing assignment in Amsterdam in 1969 had taken him near the Dutch border with Belgium, and there he had discovered an entire new world of fascinating, highly complex Belgian beers. Having opened a door onto the world of Belgian brewing in The World Guide to Beer, he brought people there and beyond with his 1990 six-part series “The Beer Hunter.” First shown on Channel 4 in the UK and the Discovery Channel in the United States, it was the first television series about beer, taking viewers on a tour through the world’s great brewing nations. It has been seen in 15 countries, and the sobriquet “The Beer Hunter” followed him for the rest of his life.
The year 1991 saw the release of two books, The Great Beers of Belgium and the ambitious Michael Jackson’s Beer Companion. Each was a detailed, meticulous, and masterly blend of clear-eyed journalism and romantic polemics. Together, the two books particularly raised the profile of Belgian brewing, and to this day brewers and beer enthusiasts in that country regard him as something of a national hero. Just as the pioneering musicologist Alan Lomax brought the culture of blues and jazz out of the American South and onto the world stage, so Jackson did the same for traditional beer. By the late 1990s it is fair to say that there were few brewers in the world who had not heard of him and many who had been launched into their careers by his writings.
It was perhaps in the United States that Michael Jackson had his greatest impact. His books, lectures, and television appearances fueled both the homebrewing movement and the craft brewing revolution that grew out of it. Hundreds of American brewery owners claim Jackson and his work as their primary inspiration to start a brewery. Followed by streams of fans wherever he roamed across the floor of Denver’s huge Great American Beer Festival every year, Jackson was endlessly patient and content to talk, try homebrewed beers, and sign books for hours at a time without complaint. Hundreds of people at a time would show up to his tastings, rambling affairs where his famous “digressions” would include stories of breweries and brewers from all over the world. At American craft breweries in particular, the news that Michael Jackson was coming was often treated with the sort of gravity usually reserved for a state visit. By the time he left the brewery, he was often regarded as a friend. He never learned to drive, but friends and beer fans jockeyed for the honor of picking him up at airports. When he traveled, he sometimes stayed at beer enthusiasts’ homes, unable to refuse their insistent hospitality.
Through all of this, Jackson maintained and promoted other passions. He was a great lover of jazz and was deeply conversant with the music, although he rarely wrote on the subject. He did write extensively about whisky and in 1989 produced The Malt Whisky Companion, still the best-selling book on the subject. He followed these with Scotland and Its Whiskies (2001) and his final book, simply entitled Whisky (2005), which won him the James Beard Foundation Book Award. Many fans of his beer books barely realized that he was also considered the world’s leading authority on Scotch whisky. Overall, Jackson’s books have sold over 3 million copies in 18 languages.
Jackson’s work won him many accolades, including several Glenfiddich Awards, the André Simon Award, and the Mercurius Award, personally presented to him in 1994 by Crown Prince Phillippe of Belgium.
In his later years, Jackson suffered silently from the effects of Parkinson’s disease, a neural disorder, although it was not until 2006 that he disclosed it to the public. Seemingly indefatigable, he continued traveling and writing. Days before he died, he wrote in the magazine All About Beer about the indignities of the disease; it was his last piece and one of his best, showing his trademark steely Yorkshire determination and puckish humor. Referring to Parkinsons’ effects, he said he planned to write a book entitled I Am Not Drunk.
At the opening of the introduction to The World Guide to Beer Jackson wrote, “Beer may have been man’s staple diet before bread was invented, and these two staffs of life are as comparable as they are closely related. Each can offer an everyday experience or a rare pleasure. In each case, what we seek is a measure of what we deserve.” With those words, Michael Jackson began a body of work that seemed to create a new kingdom of beer, populate it with enthusiasts and new brewers, and then expand it to all the corners of the Earth. If any other figure in food and drink during the 20th century had an influence so broad and lasting, it is to be doubted whether any was quite so well loved.