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Michael Jackson, 1942 - 2007

by Roger Protz, 09/07

Michael Jackson's enduring legacy will be that he elevated beer from the belief that it is a simple refresher to its true status as one of the world's great alcoholic drinks, with a long tradition and deep roots in the history and culture of many societies. Jackson, who died on August 30 aged 65, was a tireless writer and lecturer. He showed to the millions who read his books, heard his talks or watched his television programmes and videos that beer comes in many styles and is often made with the addition of fruit, herbs and spices alongside malt and hops. He broke beer free from the narrow concepts of ale and lager and revealed the myriad varieties available, some - such as the lambic beers of Belgium or the sati beers of Finland - so obscure they might have disappeared but for his enthusiastic support.

Jackson was born in Wetherby, Yorkshire, and he remained proud of his Yorkshire stock, though it was a stock that had a major input from the Jewish community of Lithuania. His grandfather, Chaim Jakowitz, had emigrated to Yorkshire from Kaunas. His son Isaac married a gentile, Margaret from Redcar, and they had twin sons - Michael's brother died shortly after birth - and a daughter, Heather. Isaac Jakowitz anglicised his name to Jack Jackson, unaware that a popular band leader and radio disc jockey shared the same name. Isaac/Jack continued the musical connection by naming his son Michael Jackson, which was to cause amusement in later life with the arrival of the American singer. Jackson used it to good effect: he started his TV series The Beer Hunter with a piece to camera in which, wearing one white glove, he said he was called Michael Jackson but he didn't sing, didn't drink Pepsi but wrote about beer.
  

The Jackson family moved to Leeds in the hard post-war years. They lived briefly above a fish and chip shop but moved first to a council house and then, with Jack Jackson working as a truck driver, bought their own home. The young Michael quickly developed a taste for rich home-cooking, inspired by Jewish and Eastern European traditions. He was to put this love of food to good use in later years when his books matched beer with food and recommended beers to use in the preparation of a range of dishes.

He went to King James Grammar School in Almondbury and from there became a trainee reporter on the Huddersfield Examiner. Jackson's writing style was deeply influenced by his early journalism – short sentences shorn of adornment. Newspaper work at that time was a heady mix of hard graft and hard drinking and Jackson's devotion to good beer stemmed from that period. However far he travelled, he always waxed lyrical about the pleasures of a pint of Taylor's Landlord or other good Yorkshire brews.

He was sent to London where he worked on the Daily Herald, the TUC-owned newspaper. He moved to a small and unimpressive journal called World's Press News, which he transformed into Campaign, a weekly paper that covered the developing sectors of advertising and marketing and which stood out from the crowd as a result of its fresh and scintillating design.

In 1976, when another writer failed to deliver a promised manuscript, Jackson stepped in and wrote The English Pub. The bug had bitten. A year later he produced the book that made his reputation, the World Guide to Beer. Those of us who naively thought that Britain brewed ale, the Irish made stout while the rest of the world produced lager were forced to rethink our ideas. We discovered the Germans made wheat beers in Bavaria, Alt (Old) beers in Dusseldorf and Kolsch beers in Cologne that were all members of the ale family, while German and Czech lagers were so magnificent that no self-respecting beer lover would ever touch the likes of XXXX again. Jackson had unearthed a beer tradition in the Flanders region of northern France and, across the border, unlocked the treasures of Belgium. Beers brewed by Trappist monks, sour red beers, spiced wheat beers and lambic and gueuze beers made by spontaneous fermentation put Belgium on the map. It was a theme he was never to abandon. His book The Great Beers of Belgium ran to five editions, the last published in 2006.

The success of the World Guide turned Jackson into a full-time beer writer. He launched what proved to be the first of seven editions of his Pocket Beer Book, which divided the world into beer-producing countries and then gave detailed tasting notes of the best brews within each country. Readers were regaled by descriptions that lifted beer from the mundane and informed them that malt could be biscuity, juicy and roasty and have hints of toffee and butterscotch, while hops added citrus, perfumy, spicy and peppery notes as well as bitterness.

Jackson's reputation led to many invitations to visit the United States, where he discovered a new world of beer. Small craft or micro-breweries were springing up to challenge the hegemony of bland brews such as Budweiser, Coors and Miller. He became a great champion of the new wave of American beers and made many tours of the country to conduct beer tastings. He lectured at the Smithsonian Institute and the National Geographic Society, both in Washington D.C., and was a regular judge at the Great American Beer Festival held annually in Denver, Colorado.

In 1990 he reached a new audience with his TV series The Beer Hunter, six programmes that described the beers of the world's great brewing countries. Shown first on Channel 4 in Britain and the Discovery Channel in the U.S., it has been endlessly repeated throughout the world.

Having conquered beer, Jackson turned his attention to malt whisky, inspired by the fact that whisky is a distillation of ale without hops. He rapidly achieved even greater recognition as a whisky writer. His Malt Whisky Companion is the best-selling book on the subject and has been accompanied by the Guide to Single Malt Scotch and Scotland and its Whiskies. His last book, called simply Whisky, was published in 2005 and has already won five international awards.

Jackson was garlanded by many awards. They include the Glenfiddich Trophy and five Glenfiddich awards, the Andre Simon Award, the Literary Medal of the German Academy of Gastronomy and in 1994 the Belgian Mercurius Award for service to Belgian breweries, presented by Crown Prince Philippe.

Jackson remained a prolific journalist. His articles appeared in a vast range of magazines and newspapers, including Playboy, What's Brewing, the Washington Post, All About Beer, Whisky Magazine, Slow Food and Zymurgy – the last named being the final word in most dictionaries and is the scientific name for fermentation.

As a beer writer, his aim was to encourage people to treat it as worthy of attention as wine. In arguably his greatest book, the Beer Companion (1991), he wrote: “No one goes into a restaurant and requests 'a plate of food, please'. People do not simply ask for 'a glass of wine', without specifying, at the very least, whether they fancy red or white, dry or sweet, perhaps sparkling or still...When their mood switches from the grape to the grain, these same discerning people folk often ask simply for 'a beer', or perhaps name a brand, without thinking of its suitability for the mood or the moment...Beer is by far the more extensively consumed, but less adequately honoured. In a small way, I want to help put right that injustice.” He succeeded, in no small way..

Michael Jackson had been suffering from Parkinson's Disease for 10 years. He died at his home in Hammersmith, west London. His first wife, Maggie O'Connor, died in 1980 after 13 years of marriage. He is survived by Paddy Gunningham, his partner for 26 years, his step-daughter Sam, her children Ben and Emily, and his sister Heather.

Michael Jackson, beer and whisky writer, born March 27 1942, died August 30 2007.

  

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