For 30 years, up until his death on Aug. 30, Michael Jackson was beer's greatest champion, writing eloquently about the world's greatest craft beers, treating them as fine wine but without the hints of snobbery and affectation that color the language of most wine critics. To Jackson, who wrote for various publications worldwide, beer was every bit as capable as wine of achieving the complex and profound. He expected a lot out of beer, and his expectations became a benchmark, stoking the aspirations of brewers around the world.
Michael Jackson was one of my writing idols. I was a white-trash kid, so beer's egalitarian nature suits me as wine never will. Beer is everyone's drink. But Jackson didn't take beer's ubiquity for granted. To him, that's what made great beer all the more special, and with his easy authority, he made beer compelling. He came off as never wanting to judge but always wanting to be surprised, an important distinction in a critic. He changed the beer trade in every way, but my favorite example involves two friends and my favorite beer.
Beer had fallen out of favor in the late 1970s; some of the now-beloved breweries of Germany and Belgium were teetering on failure, and the word microbrew wasn't even part of the American vernacular. But in 1977, Michael Jackson wrote The World Guide to Beer. He gave a vocabulary to beer's profusion of flavors and sparked a small beer renaissance. In Seattle, Charles Finkel plucked a similar idea from the ether, deciding that after a career of selling fine wine, he'd try to do the same thing with beer. In 1978, he created Merchant du Vin to import craft beers from Europe.
His company was a groundbreaker, exposing Americans to breweries, like England's Samuel Smith, that had never reached the States. Finkel remembers the influence of Jackson's book: "Here, for the first time, was a beer book beautifully written, with substance, a stout book full of lovely graphics and valuable information, elevating beer to its deserved status, like great wine." The book played a valuable role in Finkel's hunting down new beers to import. The two men became lifelong friends after Finkel invited Jackson to Seattle in the late '70s to speak to the Merchant du Vin team and its customers.
There are those two men, now the beer: Samuel Smith's Tadcaster "Taddy" Porter. In 1979, porters were nearly extinct. Finkel sold one of the only domestic porters, from the Yuengling Brewery, but wondered why he couldn't find more. "I found out porter was top-fermented beer—ale, not lager—and the few American porters were bottom-fermented and brewed with lager yeast," he recounts. Jackson had written about porter, which at the time was not being made in England. (I can barely absorb that fact.) Having the world's foremost expert on beer as a friend and a sounding board, Finkel commissioned Samuel Smith to revive the style, resulting in the impossibly dark and gorgeous, wallowing-in-toasty-mocha Tadcaster Porter. I had no idea I was older than my favorite beer. Now, of course, hardly a brewery in England doesn't make a porter. Same with stateside microbreweries.
Charles Finkel sums up Jackson's influence best: "There's beer before Michael Jackson and beer after Michael Jackson." At least Jackson was able to see the evolution of the beer trade and experience the ales of his influence. A nationwide toast to honor Michael Jackson is planned for Sept. 30. Contact your local brewpub for details, and if the person you're speaking to doesn't know which Michael Jackson you're talking about, consider drinking your beers elsewhere.