If you were given the unenviable task of picking the single most important person to modern beer, it might seem odd that it is a writer’s name rather than a brewer or brewery founder’s that you keep coming back to. Yet outside of, say, Josef Groll, who invented the modern pale lager in 1842 or maybe Sierra Nevada founder Ken Grossman, the person who is undeniably essential to all things beer today is writer and critic Michael Jackson. The King of Pop…ular barley beverages, if you will.
Jackson was born in 1942 in the English county of Yorkshire and raised in the Leeds area. At the age of 16, Jackson would drop out of school to become a journalist. Having tasted beer for the first time when he was 15, one of Jackson’s first gigs as an underage journalist was a column about the history of and his impression of English pubs called “This is Your Pub,” an idea he himself had pitched to the editor.
For the next 20 years, Jackson would have a successful career as a journalist, including editing magazines and working as a TV investigative reporter and producer. Maybe most importantly, he and two others founded a publishing company focusing on illustrated books called Quarto. When another writer was a no-show for a proposed book on the English pub, Jackson stepped in and wrote it.
The English Pub, published in 1975, like it’s subject matter, is charming and full of history. Jackson knew his subject matter very well, even down to the history of the images on the sign outside the door or how English religious and political changes affected the names on those signs. One other thing that becomes very clear while reading The English Pub, something that would be essential to the rest of his life, was that Michael Jackson was a very good writer.
The next year Jackson would put his skill to work on the book that would change his life and beer forever, The World Guide to Beer. Inspired by Hugh Johnson’s The World Atlas of Wine, Jackson decided to do the same thing for beer. The World Guide to Beer was a landmark in modern beer writing for many reasons. Back in 1977, writers did not talk nor write about beer in the same way they did about wine, something we take for granted now. By writing that one should taste beer in a similar way that one tastes and judges wine, Jackson changed that. Maybe even more importantly, by a creating a system of beer styles by which to judge and understand the many different kinds of unique styles in the world, Jackson single handedly created the beer judge/critic, a role he himself would spend the rest of his life being the most famous example of.
The World Guide to Beer was also incredibly important to the current state of modern beer for the effect it would have on two vastly different beer cultures. It was sometime in the late 1960s that “one weekend in Belgium changed my life,” according to Jackson. But that beer epiphany, something all beer geeks can relate too, was inspired by a beer culture that was in danger of going extinct. The unique and idiosyncratic beers and beer styles of Belgium were slowly disappearing as family owned breweries closed up shop as aging brewers retired or died and the flood of pale lagers rolled in. Michael Jackson, who would write extensively about Belgian beer, not just in the World Guide but also in his other great work, The Great Beers of Belgium, would help wake up a generation of Belgians that it was necessary to protect their unique beer culture. It also helped create a world wide market that was thirsty to drink it.
On the other side of the world, the U.S. market had all but succumbed to the pale lager spectre. Changes in the law, however, would allow a wedge in the homogenization. But what to brew? There is no end to the many future brewers who would turn to the World Guide to Beer as a source of information and inspiration on beer styles.
After the World Guide, Jackson’s publication history is a bit difficult to track. He would leave Quarto without any rights to his book and would see little or no profit. Thankfully, he was now the world’s leading expert of beer, criss-crossing the globe, writing, hosting and judging. At one time, he was the person who had visited more breweries than anyone else alive. He was instrumental in championing the emerging craft beer scene. Unfortunately, Quarto would continue to pump out reprints of the World Guide without any revisions. Jackson would write his Beer Companion, what some would say is his best book, that basically competed against his own classic. Finally, out of frustration, he agreed in the 1990s to update the World Guide, completely rewriting the entire text and calling it the New World Guide to Beer. When he wasn’t writing about beer, Jackson also wrote about whiskey. His three books on Whiskey are widely regarded as classics.
It was also in the ’90s when Jackson used his experience in TV to produce and host his other claim to fame, the TV show The Beer Hunter, further evangelizing and elevating beer (available on YouTube).
For the last 10 years of his life, Jackson would suffer from Parkinsons. This wouldn’t prevent him from continuing to write and work until very close to the end of his life. He died of a heart attack in 2007 at the age of 65.
The world of beer would be vastly diminished if it was not for the tireless and profound work and writings of Michael Jackson. You can find many of his articles online and you should never pass up a chance to pick up one of his books at a used book store. Think of him, if only briefly, the next time you drink a fine ale or lager.