I just learned that Michael Jackson, the Beer Hunter, died this morning. He’s been ill for a long time, and the reports don’t yet say what the cause of death was, but the beer community has been increasingly concerned about his health for some years.
Michael was simply the most famous beer writer, beer advocate, beer fan, beer drinker, in the world. When I was researching my last book, I visited countless breweries around the world, and Michel had been there first. I knew this because people there couldn’t wait to tell me – many of them had framed pictures by the mash tuns, evidence of his visit, a mark of approval, a stamp of credibility to rival any brewing award.
Every single person who ever puts pen to paper about beer (or finger to keyboard I suppose) is influenced by him, whether they know it or not. Because before Michael started writing about beer in the 1970s, nobody did – not in the way we recognise. He was the first champion of Belgian beers, then languishing in obscurity. He was the insipiration for god knows how many microbrewers setting up, a sort of patron saint of the American craft brew industry. He invented the way we write beer tasting notes, often imitated, never equalled.
Because the thing about Michael’s writing was he understood that beer writing should be like beer itself – accessible, democratic, relaxed. His articles welcomed you in and sat you down. He made beer and brewers human, and realised you needed a bit of context around the piece, setting the scene, bringing it to life, if you wanted people to truly engage. He knew that it was only partly about what goes on in the glass – and at the same time made that compelling.
Earlier this year I was at a dinner where he was interviewing two young British microbrewers. The questions he asked them got them to open up and talk about their beer in a way they had probably never done before. He drew them out and made them eloquent. They were in awe of him – to them he was a pop star or movie idol, and they actually insisted on getting his autograph as the interview ended – but he treated them with respect and made them shine.
Coming only weeks after the death of John White, I think the whole community of British writers is just shellshocked now – I certainly am. It’s no exaggeration to say that the whole world of beer has suffered a massive loss.