In another two months, it will have been five years since the passing of Michael Jackson, the British beer writer.
I’m forever willing to concede that it’s a chronologically relative kind of thing, and yet I never accepted the “King of Pop” tag for Jackson, the singer. Maybe Hoboken’s Frank Sinatra, or Elvis “Hound Dog” Presley fits the bill, but not the Moonwalker.
Conversely, a highly convincing case can be made that Michael Jackson the Yorkshireman fully deserves the title “King of Beer,” and in a far more plausible way than A-B InBev’s classically insipid American Lager ever has or will be able to claim.
From their respective vantage points in music and writing, both Jacksons brilliantly synthesized artistic and stylistic themes that preceded them, but of the two, only the beer writer can be said to have categorized his source materials into a living language of beer, one that aficionados speak every single day of their beer drinking lives whether or not they realize it.
Contemporary pop music certainly is enriched by the canon handed down by Michael Jackson, the performer, and yet its everyday vocabulary is not always referential to his body of work. The language of beer surely does pass directly through Michael Jackson, the writer. The swill merchants speak in his voice with their “triple hopped” this and “bock” that – even when they’re lying through their teeth, as they commonly do.
It is true that Jackson the beer writer did not create a vocational tongue from thin air, in the sense that a musician like his namesake conjured melodies and choreographed dance steps, and yet our beer man clearly was among the first to systematically consider beer styles, to explain them, and to show how aspects of the brewing process, historical practice, geography, chemistry and myriad other human experiences pertained to them, demonstrating in the process that our enjoyment of the genre is enhanced immeasurably by greater knowledge and linguistic aptitude.
What’s more, the alesmith Jackson performed this feat in an entertainingly and enduringly readable way, neither dumbing down nor assuming the role of lofty pedant. He far exceeded the journalist’s basic mandate to clarify and explain, because he was an erudite prose stylist in addition to his skills as a reporter. He told wonderful stories, while never forgetting the newspaperman’s facts-first orientation. I persist in believing that Jackson is best compared to figures like the great English essayist Samuel Johnson.
Certainly some beer writers working today have equaled Jackson, but I suspect that none have surpassed him. Meanwhile, time marches forward, and matters like these fill my mind during those times when I dabble in melancholia, preparing to warn you that a changing of the guard is under way … except it already has occurred.
Many of the same socio-economic, technological and cultural reasons insuring there will never again be music “album” sales in the multi-million range of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” also preclude the emergence of another beer writer of Michael Jackson’s caliber and far-reaching influence.
There remains much wonderful music to enjoy, and there exists prolific writing about beer, with reams of both available on-line. Just as musical choice has blossomed far beyond what a relative handful of corporations formerly permitted us to hear, so beer writing has expanded in all directions, documenting the bewildering choices, and encapsulating the Internet-driven democratic ethos: We’re all certified experts, even if some (nowadays perhaps even most) are slightly less expert than others.
My personal annoyance?
So very little of what is written about beer in the present age comes anywhere close to touching the writer Michael Jackson’s elegant classicism. What is even more abrasive is that this absence seems not to bother others in quite the same way that it disturbs me. These are changing times, indeed, although it doesn’t mean I must always like them.
Plainly, beer appreciation in its modern interpretation has been with us for long enough to pass across one and maybe two generational lines, and differing ways of conceptualizing and processing information on the part of succeeding generations are not confined to popular tastes in art or music. Shift happens in beer, too.
It already has, and even as we celebrate the growth of beer consciousness, there is acute awareness that the social shifts prefacing the decline of the compact disc and the newspaper inevitably must have an impact on what we do, too.
In short, with all the facts at our fingertips, are we missing the crucial back story, the essential history? More folks than ever know their beer styles – do they grasp the intrinsic stylishness of those styles? Had Jackson himself come to maturity during our present age, would there be a medium to serve his talents?
I have neither answers, nor solutions. The simple fact is that I miss Michael “Beer Hunter” Jackson — alive, working and drinking in our world. As should be obvious, he was an enormous and formative influence on my career in beer, which always was as much about storytelling and writing as understanding enzyme chains and identifying precise hop types.
But that’s for another day, so get a good beer, open one of Jackson’s books, and with my express permission, live for a bit in the immediate past. I hope you’ll see what I mean about missing Michael.