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Thursday, August 30, 2007

Michael Jackson

I just learned that Michael Jackson has died.

Jackson was immensely influential on all of us: drinkers, brewers, distillers, and of course, writers. (He could be almost too influential; I remember one writer telling me that he didn't read Jackson's work at all any more, because he didn't want to sound too much like Jackson.) His books were bibles for beer and Scotch whisky drinkers -- moreso here than in the UK, perhaps -- and his tutored tastings were ground-breaking. Jackson was the first rock star of beer, drawing crowds of admiring fans whenever he appeared.

I was one of them. I met Michael in the men's room at the University of Pennsylvania's Museum of Archeology and Anthropology, during one of his mass tastings that was part of The Book & The Cook. It was before I even knew what TB&TC was; Michael Jackson was in town doing a beer tasting, what else did I need to know? After the tasting (yes, I took notes, and still have them), Jackson was signing books and I overheard someone asking him a question about "stock ale," in the context of the Samuel Adams Boston Ale, then sub-labeled as a stock ale. MJ gave a somewhat circuitous answer that left me still curious (At a TB&TC press breakfast years later, I told him I admired how he took questions, any question, from a beer audience and answered in detail. "It's simple," he told me. "If I don't know the answer, I take a sentence or two to speculate, another sentence to note what other subject that brings up, and then I just answer the question I want to answer.").

I was a long time in the line for the bathroom afterwards, and just as I stepped up to the urinal, I heard some commotion behind me: "Pass him up! Oh, please, Mr. Jackson, go ahead! After you!" The next thing I knew, there was MJ at the porcelian appliance next to me. I took the opportunity to introduce myself, declined an offer to shake hands, and asked him "So the stock ale: is that really a style, like a New England biere de garde, or just an extra-aged ale?" He eyed me, still working, and said, "Well, more age, more hops. It was made, but I don't know if I'd call it a style." I thanked him, we washed up, and then shook hands. I'd met Michael Jackson.

Working with John Hansell at Malt Advocate gave me a lot more chances to talk to Michael; he and John were good friends. Eventually I would wind up editing his column for the magazine. It was not something I looked forward to; Michael was a bit of a sloppy writer at times, largely because of the rush he was always in. MJ always had numerous pots boiling at the same time, a project here, a project there, trips, visits, lectures, editing, writing. He was immensely productive: multiple columns in print and on-line, books on beer and whisky, feature articles, video series, CDs. If it was about beer or whisky, he did it.

But it was Michael's sense of place that really made his writing so important to me. When MJ wrote about a beer, he wrote about where it was brewed and where people drank it, the look of the walls and the lay of the land, why the town was there and who the brewer's father was.

I remember driving Michael around on a tour of area breweries, a day that turned into a travel disaster. He was two and a half hours late leaving New York, thanks to some skinny git who was trying and never did open a brewpub in NYC, but still managed to hold MJ's attention all morning; I suspect he simply refused to take him to Tony Forder's house until he'd said all he had to say. We had to cancel the appointment at Yards and drive on to Brandywine Brewing near Wilmington in heavy rain.

Yet when Michael got there, he calmly pulled out his notebook, tasted beer, and started asking questions...about the rug in front of the fireplace. "Now why is that rug there? It doesn't look like the right place, it doesn't really fit with the rest of the room. Is there a spot on the floor? Why that rug?" I was baffled and a bit annoyed; I brought him all this way to find out about a cheap little imitation oriental rug? Dave Dietz shrugged and said "It's just a rug."

But as we slowly, slowly made our way up through heavy rain and ridiculous traffic to the Stoudt's Fest, arriving an hour before it ended (MJ made a quick tour of the floor, and then locked himself in Carol's office with a bottle of Triple), I realized that he was right. The rug didn't fit on the wide expanse of blonde wood floor. Except it was a touch of softness in an open space, something interesting. Whether he ever wrote about it or not (and I never saw anything about it), it was a memory key, a small something that would bring back the whole feel of the place. I learned that trick, and use it myself.

Maybe the most valuable thing I learned from Michael Jackson was that importance of place. I learned it second-hand, because it was actually something he told John Hansell, and John's hammered it home to me: you can't write about a place if you haven't been there. Seems simple, obvious, yet I see writers crossing it every week. I did. I'm working to overcome that, and to go to the places I write about.

What Michael meant is that it's crucial to go to the place where beer or whisky is made to understand it. I finally went to Scotland for the first time just last month, and Scotch whisky makes much more sense to me, even though I've been drinking it for years. I went to Köln and Düsseldorf in January to get my own personal understanding of kölsch and altbier. I've been to Kentucky a number of times, including 12-hour helldrives to save money. I went to Bamberg, I went to Aying, I went to Andechs. I'm planning a trip to Ireland, and a trip to Belgium. And it's all because of Michael Jackson.

What I do, every day I write, is all because of Michael Jackson. If MJ hadn't been there to fire my interest, to show me a path that could be taken, I'd still be a librarian. I might be happy with that, but I wouldn't have had the fun, the late nights with great people, the satisfaction of a well-written piece or the satisfaction of opening someone's eyes to a great beer, if not for Michael Jackson.

It's hard to believe he's gone. We all knew he was sick, he had been staring down Parkinson's for years. When I came across him walking to his Monk's dinner with Carolyn Smagalski this past spring, he seemed cheery, lucid, and not so weak as he had been. We greeted each other gladly, and walked on to Monk's -- that's the picture above. He did a great presentation, good stories, much less meandering than usual. It was the last time I'll see him.

Michael Jackson has died. I'll miss the man, the writer, the friend.

All About Beer has published MJ's last column for them on the web. Go read it; Michael had come to grips with his disease -- and death -- in his own singular way. I'm still holding off tears -- for a very Jacksonian reason; I have a story to complete -- but reading this almost broke me.


Nate B. said...

Sad day indeed.

Bill said...

Wow. Very sad, very painful. But what a legacy with the knowledge he imparted to us and the folks he influenced.

All the stuff I said in the Joe Chiodo comment applies here as well. I'm meeting a Brother and fellow Michael Jackson fan on Saturday, and a dram shall be raised to his memory in thanks for all he gave us.

Kathy said...

I will raise a glass for him this weekend. May his family find comfort.

Anonymous said...

What a huge loss.

I doubt few would disagree that MJ is the person most responsible for today's "better beer" scene. The publication of his "World Guide to Beer" opened a window onto a world few could imagine.

I was homebrewing and interested in beer, but until my father gave me a copy of the book I had no idea of the possibilities. Michael introduced me and the whole world to the magic, the romance, the charm.

The seed he planted has sprouted more vigorously and in more directions than even he could have imagined. His legacy will endure and is reinforced every time someone pours a glass of real beer.

Rest in peace, Michael.

Steven said...

Thanks Lew. That was a terrific tribute and great read.

Bryan Kolesar said...

Though, you obviously aren't looking for praise today...that was a very well written article. Michael, I'm sure, would agree. Thanks, Lew, for sharing.

GenX at 40 said...

Yes, thanks Lews.


Booker T said...

Well written Lew - a fitting tribute. Thank you.

RIP, Mr. Jackson.

jay sheveck said...

Michael Jackson. " ***** "

Phatz said...

To Michael Jackson I simply want to say; Thank you. You were a true Beer Advocate.

I lift my glass and bow my head with thought of Jackson and prayers for his family friends.

Anonymous said...

I must watch the Beer Hunter this weekend as a tribute to the man who opened my eyes to beer. Thank you for a nice tribute.

Unknown said...

Well said Lew. He will be missed.


Anonymous said...

I moved into a new apartment 3 days ago and the first thing I did after getting settled was plop down "The Great Beer Guide" on my coffee table.

A great man indeed.

Rick Sellers said...

Lew, thank you. Your remembrances make me wish I'd met the man even more, very well stated. Indeed, around the world, glasses will be raised today and this week.

Clarke said...

Well said, Lew. This is a very sad day. Cheers to Michael Jackson.

Anonymous said...

It is a very sad day indeed. I never had the pleasure of meeting him but he has had a profound influence on my life. I still have my old battered and bent copy of his Pocket Guide to Beer. I always enjoyed reading his articles and books, not to mention watching the Beer Hunter video countless times. I will raise a glass or two in his memory.

Thank you Mr. Jackson, you will be missed. And thank you Lew for the, as always, well written article.

okbrewer said...

To be sure, many pints and nosing glasses will be raised high this day. I had the pleasure to meet MJ a few times, but I remember the first fondly. It was at the 1997 GABF, at a pre-party. I was minding my own business, drinking a beer when I turned and there was MJ! As if he were seeking ME out! And then he spoke and asked ME an all important question! I remember it like it was yesterday. He said,"Do you know what time the bus will return to the hotel!?" He asked ME a question! And my response was, "Uh, I'm not sure, I walked, I didn't know there was a bus!"


Bob R in OKC

Anonymous said...

He was truely a great inspiration. He will be missed.
For you, Michael, a full pint of barleywine tonight.

Beth Z

Anonymous said...

My glass will be raised to you tonight, old friend.

Jeff Alworth said...

A very sad day--the shock is still settling in. Thanks for your thoughts.

Adam said...

Well put.

Truly a loss to this world.

Unknown said...

Here's hoping there are no hangovers in heaven. Godspeed to MJ. And excellent piece, Lew. Really great.

Anonymous said...

Every craft beer lover, thanks you Mr. Jackson, wherever you are...the last time I saw him was right where this picture was taken, Monk's cafe. It was his beer dinner night at Monk's in early spring. Ok well I wasn't at the actual dinner, but I went in the bar right after it had wrapped up, for some DeRanke. I never met him myself and I didn't want to bother him, as he looked somewhat exhausted. Later I was standing outside the bar on the phone, as Fergie walked him out to his car. I overheard Fergie telling him, "thanks again Mr. Jackson." I say this with upmost respect to the man. Thank you for your dedication to better beer Michael!!!

Nick said...

I am relatively new to the brewing scene and I have to say that I loved all of Michael's writings in All About Beer, and I have scoured his books. It is incredibly unfortunate to lose such a wonderfuly gifted and warm soul.

I have to be selfish here, I made it a point that sometime in my life I would meet Michael. Alas, it was not to be.

We will miss you Michael! There will always be a pint for you in our home!

Anonymous said...


That was a very nice tribute. I'm jealous that I never met the Man.

Pete Ruckelshaus said...

Like the lace left over in the glass of last night's final Saison, he's gone but remembered with a smile. What a great man, and, like you, Lou, I probably owe my love of beer to him. I've poured a fine beer or three this evening in his memory.

Rich said...

Hi Lew,

I liked your story very much as it displayed moments of a great life.


Unknown said...

Great article Lew. Michael was a great inspiration to me and even played a part in my "going pro" many years ago. He will be missed.


"The Beer Hermit" said...

I never met Michael...but, like many folks, I felt like I knew him.

I'll be sure and hoist a pint (or three) to the beer hunter this weekend.

Thanks for a great article!

Anonymous said...

Memorable recollections about one outstanding writer by another. One cannot overstate the influence Mr. Jackson has had from his great insight, talent, and timing. Thanks for the personal touch, Lew!

Bruce Brode
Los Angeles, CA

Anonymous said...

Hi Lew,

Great man, sad day, but good writing, which he would have appreciated.

I propose a toast to MJ. "Heaven is now going to have to improve the quality of its beer."

Larry Bennett

John F Haser III said...


Nothing goes better with great beer than great conversation. Mr. Jackson spent a lifetime helping us find the great beer, but his loss will make it less likely we will find the great conversation.

Perhaps I'll go home tonight and open a Miller Lite just so I can be reminded how much people like Michael Jackson have impacted my taste... and my life.

Anonymous said...

Very well said Lew. Thanks for sharing the wonderful words with us all.

Todd Ashman

Anonymous said...

Wow. Yesterday a champion was plucked from our battlefield.
Ron and I felt the tremors almost immediately.
Words are insufficient, especially in light of the fact that this champion of beer and craft was also a master of words and emotions. One on one, his tales turned on a dime and bubbled with a joy of life and its blessing of camaraderie.
If you doubt for a second the impact Michael Jackson had on the beer industry, we submit this testimony.
When Michael was hosting a beer tasting at Washington DC’s famous Brickskeller in 1988, Ron was there as novice homebrewer seeking to learn more about his new-found passion of beer. He carried with him two copies of Michael’s Pocket Guide to Beer. While Michael was signing them, Ron apparently shared with him the dreams of two best friends who aspired to enjoy the best beers and so Michael wrote, “Dear Ron, Brew good beer, get a pub! Cheers, Michael Jackson”
Think about Victory Brewing Company now.
It was not even a single letter on business plan then and its principals were then a financial analyst and an art director.
Do you not believe that his honest suggestion worked?
If you have ever savored a Victory beer and admired the flavor as a wholly new, wholly pleasurable experience, you can credit Mr. Jackson. He still remains our root inspiration, having liberated his inner beer geek and dedicated his life to the exploration of great beer flavor and culture way back in the dark ages of 1976.
Of course his writings on beer inspired the grassroots British consumer awakening that became Campaign for Real Ale in the 80’s.
Similarly, American homebrewers became infused with this same rebellious spirit he ignited against flavorless industrial beers and put their lives into the craft of quality beermaking on through the 90’s.
In 1996 Ron and I joined those ranks and fulfilled Mr. Jackson’s entreaty.
Now, here on August 30, 2007, the day after his passing, we are challenged to replace our deep sadness with more positive endeavors to continue his inspiration.
We settled on something direct and immediate, much like the man himself.
For the next 11 days (the number of years since he challenged us to open a pub and we did) we will be setting aside 11% of our daily restaurant beer revenues to donate to a cause in his name. Maybe it will be Parkinson’s Disease Foundation or maybe our saddened beer community will pool resources to make a lasting tribute like a museum or a scholarship. Who knows at this point?
What we do know is that though no amount of money can buy the impact and inspiration this great man had on many, our collective contributions can most certainly fund hope and inspiration for those stricken with Parkinson’s or even those stricken with the burning desire to share great beer with the world.
Michael, we remained committed to inspire, as you had done so graciously yourself. As the bubbles rise perpetually from our glass, may you too come to find rest on the pillowy froth of sublime content.
Lew, you shared a great story that brought us some of light-hearted comfort that we new the man for. Thanks for that.

- Bill & Ron
Victory Brewing Company

Dave K said...

Nicely done as usual Lew. It's very sad anyone had to write that piece but Im glad it was you who did. It will help me remember the man as a real person and not just as an Icon - The King of Beer.
Peace, Dave K

Fidothedog said...

RIP Mike(Not that Mike, but to drinkers far and wide THE Michael Jackson.)

Anonymous said...

When I read the news about the passing of Michael Jackson, I, like all of us who had the distinct pleasure of encountering Michael in one form or another in our lives, felt the deep sadness and pain of a loss of such a special soul. Through his work, his words, and his actions, MJ touched and inspired the lives of more people than I think even he could every fathom. And I think, in typical Jacksonian fashion, Michael would be humbled by it, and would have us convinced that we were the ones that touched him. I have been reading the tributes and stories of those who MJ has touched, and it seems the one constant, is the fact that Michael Jackson, simply put, was a decent, caring, honest human being. He had a very special gift of bringing out the best of people, and making you feel instantly comfortable and at ease with him. We all know MJ was as human as the rest of us, but it is clear that he has left a mark on this earth, and that his too brief time spent here was to do good.

Like others, most of my experiences with MJ were beer related, but I did have one unique encounter that just a select group of people in every country MJ visited had. To those who did not know who MJ was, this encounter would have been nothing out of the ordinary, routine at best. But to someone who loved, respected, and admired Michael and his work, it was a memory that would last a life time. A few years back I was working for what was called the Immigration and Naturalization Service. As an Immigration Inspector, I had literally inspected hundreds of thousands of people over the years seeking entry into the United States, including dozens of "celebrities" from every field you could imagine. I have inspected some pretty "important" and "famous" people, but being a die hard beer lover, which of course translates into one of the thousands of MJ's fans, I often wondered what it would be like to inspect the Beer Hunter. He had frequently traveled to my port of entry, and the odds were he and I had been in the same inspection hall on more than one occasion, but I never inspected him. The beer gods must did me a favor on day, because one evening, up walks MJ to my booth, presenting himself, along with his UK passport for admission to the United States.

I started my inspection with "I know you, you are Michael Jackson, The Beer Hunter." He smiled, and seemed a bit amused to be greeted to the United States with instant recognition. It was GABF time, and Denver, CO was his final destination, so there was no reason to ask him: "What is the purpose of your trip to the United States"? I told MJ that it was a pleasure to have meet and chatted with him at a beer dinner years earlier, and to have listened to him lecture at on a few occasions at some of his tastings. I of course told him how much I admired his work, and he thanked me very genuinely, for my support of him. I inquired as to any projects in the work. He informed me that whiskey, not beer, was interesting the market at the moment, and that he had a book on whiskey in the works. I thanked him again, for opening my eyes to the wonders of the beer world, and all its treasures. MJ left me with, "It is like when soldiers went off to war. When they came home, the farmer's daughter was just not the same." We shook hands, and he was off to judge at another GABF.

Thank you for everything you gave us all Michael, and when my time comes, I hope you have the pints ready, and we can share one again.

"just a drinker" who owes his love and passion for beer all to you.

Anonymous said...

Lew - great tribute.

I heard the news yesterday (down here in Sydney). I am sad. I haven't spoken much to Michael for several years, but during the time that I was actively writing he was an inspiration and a mentor. Never too busy to take a call or have a chat. And frankly I think he helped me find my footing in the beer community. One of my best stories was about what it was like to watch MJ enthrall an audience during one of his tastings -- that's my lasting impression of him, sharing his passion and enthusiasm for beer with others. He shall be missed.

-Ben Myers

Anonymous said...

Mr Jackson believed it was "crucial to go to the place where beer or whisky is made to understand it."

Having gone to many places where beer is brewed--always with one or more of his books in hand--I most certainly agree.

I always considered it an honor when I found something he had not (yet, anyway) written about. Like the Okocim porter on tap in Krakow in 1994, or the Pschenichne hefeweizen in Ukraine. Of course, only rarely did I get to feel I was in on something he had missed. He really was the "prohpet of good beer" (as Eric Asimov said for the NYT).