The Birth of the Beer Hunter: Looking Back on Michael Jackson’s Legacy

Feature by | Jun 2017 | Issue #125
Art by Eleanor Shakespeare

Legends of Great Men often include tales of prodigious behavior, signs of the genius yet to come. Mozart, for example, is said to have composed his first music at the age of 4. Michael Jackson’s life as a beer writer began with a similar feat: at the age of 16, the story goes, before he was even legally permitted to drink, he started writing about pubs for a newspaper in his native Yorkshire. Jackson himself was vague about exactly which publication he wrote for, perhaps anxious even 50 years on that he might get someone in trouble for sponsoring underage drinking. Some third parties name with apparent authority the Batley & Morley Gazette, but if you travel to Huddersfield and pay a visit to the local library hoping to read back issues, you will be disappointed: It doesn’t seem ever to have existed. And if a column entitled “This is Your Pub” appeared in the Huddersfield Weekly Examiner, the Batley Reporter, or any other likely outlet between 1958 and 1960, we were unable to track it down.

Michael James Jackson was born in Leeds in England’s industrial north in 1942. His mother was English through-and-through while his father was the son of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. Jackson spent his childhood in Huddersfield, a grand but fading town between Leeds and Manchester, where he developed an interest in rugby and, as a teenager, drinking beer. He died 10 years ago, in 2007, at the age of 65, leaving peers and disciples bereft. Obituaries, reminiscences and tributes poured forth highlighting his contributions to a global craft brewing scene which arose in tandem with his career, and for which he is given much credit. He was a hero to many, a friend to others, and his 30-year pre-eminence is hard to deny. This makes it difficult to assess him critically or even objectively, but, a decade on from his passing, perhaps it’s time to try.

It is certainly true that he entered a career in journalism straight out of school, starting as a cub reporter on the Huddersfield Daily Examiner, before moving to Edinburgh, and then onward to London’s famous Fleet Street, home to all the biggest English newspapers at the time. He was an old-fashioned journeyman journalist who learned the craft by tramping the streets with notebook in hand, which equipped him perfectly for the less romantic but more lucrative world of trade journalism. He was involved in the establishment of KLM airline’s long-running magazine Holland Herald and also oversaw the creation of Campaign, a British magazine covering the advertising industry, even coming up with the attention-grabbing name. He worked in television, too, producing episodes of the gritty documentary series World in Action, including one in which he escorted the prudish pro-censorship campaigner Mary Whitehouse around free-and-easy Copenhagen. By the early 1970s, and still only in his early 30s, he had made a name for himself as much more than a mere reporter.

His move into publishing, as a co-founder and editorial director at Quarto, seems natural in hindsight. According to Quarto’s official company history, Jackson was already in partnership with graphic designer Bob Morley when the pair went to New York in 1975 with books ready to pitch including The English Pub and The World Guide to Beer. They met American academic Laurence Orbach and the three formed a partnership dedicated to producing lavish, large-format, heavily illustrated coffee table books. Reading between the lines, that partnership eventually went sour, which is perhaps why Jackson seems to have been reluctant to mention it in later interviews, instead telling a version of the story that suggested he was a mere jobbing wordsmith who was asked to finish The English Pub when someone else failed to deliver. Whatever the truth, that book, published in 1976, became Jackson’s first substantial piece of what we now recognize as Beer Writing.

Though it is a decent work with many examples of the artful prose that so elevated his writing (“The sensuous procedures of brewing don’t die easily.”), it is no classic. Had he stopped there and moved on to writing about rugby or another subject, it is unlikely beer enthusiasts would remember his name with any more reverence than those of Mike Dunn, Frank Baillie, or the pub-crawling duo Warren Knock and Conal Gregory. In the mid-1970s, indeed, the pre-eminent British beer writer was Richard Boston, whose anarchic, witty weekly column for the Guardian newspaper was a major driver in the rise of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA). Boston’s own book, Beer and Skittles, is better than The English Pub, although it is far plainer to look at than Jackson’s photo-laden prestige publication.

It was with his next book, The World Guide to Beer, that Jackson trumped Boston and every other pretender to the throne. Even now, though so much of the content is out of date, it has much to offer—not least as a perfect time capsule of the pre-craft brewing world, and because the writing is so often brilliant—at turns witty, precise, romantic, and startlingly evocative. With a true beat reporter’s instinct, Jackson visited as many countries as practical and then bombarded his readers with detail and color. At that time, it was quite possible for him to taste, or at least record the existence of, a good number of beers in production anywhere in the world. There were few meaningful tasting notes, however, beyond the top level: hoppy, malty, sweet, and dry. Instead, a sense of each brew was given by comparison to others—Newcastle Brown Ale is like Vienna Lager, Russian Stout resembles German Doppelbock, and so on. A beginner beer blogger would get sneered at for this kind of thing today, but in 1977, even this put Jackson ahead of the game.

It was from that approach that an embryonic global taxonomy emerged—the first convincing, comprehensive, wide-reaching attempt to explain to consumers how various types of beer relate to each other. Of course there were similar exercises before Jackson—categorizing things is a natural instinct—but they were either industry focused, obscure, or lacked the wider view, as in the case of British writers who tended to add something like “… and lager” to cover everything else. In a section headed “Classical beer styles” spanning a mere two pages, Jackson listed 24 distinct styles of beer from Münchener (“dark-brown, bottom-fermented … malty without being excessively sweet”) to Steam Beer (“a hybrid between top and bottom-fermentation”), each categorized as either top-fermented, wheat beer, or bottom-fermented. He was attempting to record what he observed, not to lay down the law, but when he says of, say, Kölsch, “Alcohol content by volume just under 4.5 per cent,” in the context of a book that throbs with encyclopedic authority, it feels like a rule. He also drew a distinction between “types” (broadly similar beers) and “styles” (fixed classical models). It is prototypical and muddled but, even so, this brief bit of introductory matter was arguably more influential than the prose that fills the rest of The World Guide to Beer.

To novice beer geeks (and there weren’t many veterans in 1977) it was like receiving a map, or perhaps a training regime. For those whose enthusiasm led them into homebrewing, and from there to commercial brewing, it was a playbook. Since it was first published, Jackson’s style guide has formed the basis of judging standards at countless beer festivals and homebrew competitions. It has been ripped off, expanded upon, and debated by multiple generations of beer writers. And, less positively, it has also led to a kind of straitjacketing that confines every beer to a style, against which it will later be judged: “Not true to style. Zero stars.” Jackson’s influence is sometimes overstated, but that’s not his fault. His own claims in this regard were modest and carefully worded: “I think I was the first person ever to use the phrase beer style,” is how he put it in a 1996 interview.

Another angle from which Jackson’s work has come under tentative scrutiny in recent years—tentative because criticizing him, even respectfully, can make his acolytes bristle—is the question of journalistic ethics. In recent years author and BeerAdvocate columnist Andy Crouch has made journalistic integrity something of a personal crusade, putting him at odds with many of his peers who still operate in the cozy Jacksonian mode of collaborative bonhomie and gentle, if any, criticism. In 2010 Crouch spent several days mining the Michael Jackson archive at Oxford Brookes University and was among the first to break ranks when in a blog post he just barely criticized Jackson, in the mildest possible form: “Michael counted many brewers (not just crafts) as among his ‘clients,’ an interesting revelation to say the least.” And this is true. While Jackson was the world’s foremost beer critic, he was also employed by breweries in various capacities, such as giving opinions of products prior to launch, hosting tasting events on their behalf, or even appearing in advertisements for their products. He was also personally friendly with many brewers, partly no doubt because as a journalist it was necessary to keep channels of communication open, but also because it’s hard to maintain a distance from affable people who like to talk about beer, and drink it, as much as do you.

Of course standards and practices were different a decade ago, or two, or three, and it seems that, with some hesitation, he worked for, and was friendly, with brewers he respected, rather than making a show of respecting breweries who paid him—quite a different proposition. He demonstrated objectivity through the quality of his recommendations rather than by simply declaring it. To some extent, we suspect that barbs directed at Jackson on this basis today are really a proxy for criticizing active journalists whose partnerships with breweries can seem opaque and confusing. Nonetheless, it is likely that if Jackson was still around and operating like this in 2017 he too would be called out far more frequently.

Another related but lesser complaint is that Michael Jackson gave the industry as a whole an easy ride. For the first 30 years, the nascent profession of beer writing and the embryonic microbrewing industry had the same priorities: getting people excited about unusual, distinctive, interesting beers, and challenging the dominance of large multi-national companies. If they were to sell articles and books, beer writers needed a constant flow of new breweries and beers; and, if they were to grow, breweries needed to gain the attention of potential customers. In 1987 Jackson put his philosophy into words for CAMRA:

If I can find something good to say about a beer, I do. Any merit or unusual aspect is, I believe, of interest to my readers. That is why I choose to write about it in the first place … Nor since I have the whole world from which to choose, can I be comprehensive. If I despise a beer, why find room for it? This poses a problem only when a beer is too big to ignore.

This is the approach that most beer writers subscribed to until recently, and many still do: focus on the positive, and avoid reveling in the kind of hatchet job that so often characterizes food or art criticism. But readers have grown cynical, like the enthusiast who recently said to us, “The problem with beer bloggers is, they never have a bad beer.” An increasing number of readers expect to hear about both good and bad and roll their eyes in exasperation at what is sometimes called the “cheery beery” tendency in writing. Fundamentally, the idea that a writer might be on the side of the industry rather than the consumer troubles them.

And, yes, the industry still venerates Michael Jackson. Influential British brewers such as Meantime’s Alastair Hook talk about his 1982 Pocket Guide as a kind of holy text which set them on the path to righteousness, while, in the US, he is given even greater credit: Brooklyn Brewery’s Garrett Oliver has called him “the spiritual father of the early [American] microbrewing movement and the greatest champion of the craft brewer.” Hyperbolic as this might sound, it is not unjustified. By giving space to Anchor in his best-selling World Guide, and then by tracking the growth of US microbrewing in subsequent editions, spin-off books, and numerous articles, Jackson all but talked the American craft brewing scene into being. He reported first-hand, visiting various parts of the US regularly, conveying the sense of a red-hot, developing trend. Then, finally, in 1990, he did the same on television in the cult show The Beer Hunter. Charlie Papazian has also always been generous in crediting Jackson for his part in establishing and supporting the Great American Beer Festival (GABF), a turning point in American beer culture.

There are occasional pieces of Jackson’s writing that haven’t aged well, however. For example, a 1987 article in the Campaign for Real Ale’s monthly newspaper What’s Brewing in defense of the GABF prompts a cringe with 30 years distance. In it Jackson reacts sharply and sarcastically to the then current controversy over breweries fielding flirtatious “booth babes” in their pursuit of the popular vote in the GABF’s best beer competition. Elsewhere, especially in his earlier work, he was prone to lamenting the disappearance of the stereotypical buxom barmaid, and to casually sexist asides in otherwise innocuous articles. As he said himself: “Not only does beer inflame lust if taken to excess: heavy-beer drinkers are often male-chauvinists.” But he was, after all, a man of his time, with the love life to match—that is, more complicated than acknowledged in the officially sanctioned versions of his life story. According to those who knew him, he was often found surrounded by women at beer festivals, charming them with eloquent talk of beer. More than one girlfriend attended his funeral.

Does any of that matter? Yes, insofar as it highlights his humanity.

“[Contrary] to those who have commented on Facebook about his apparent haughtiness … I was always impressed by Michael’s humility and approachability,” says Geoff Griggs, a New Zealand-based beer writer who worked with Jackson on numerous occasions. “Despite his ‘rock star’ image … I always found Michael to be somewhat shy and retiring. And despite his unquestionable eloquence with words in their written form, he wasn’t the most gifted public speaker.”

The Beer Hunter was a persona. Michael Jackson, on the other hand, was a complex person, scrambling like the rest of us to meet deadlines and organize a life, with all of his faults, foibles, and doubts in tow. Those who treat him as a bland cipher onto which to project their own desires, prejudices and, yes, criticisms, do him a disservice.