THE BEER BEAT: Remembering Michael Jackson and revising the beer tasting syllabus.


On August 23, I conducted a beer tasting (with yummy appetizers) at Mesa: A Collaborative Kitchen in New Albany.

THE BEER BEAT: Thanks to Mesa (A Collaborative Kitchen) for a great inaugural beer night.

It had been a while since I led a sampling that wasn’t filled with NABC beers, these occasions having devolved somewhat into urgent (futile?) salesmanship as much as balanced education, so it seemed prudent to rethink the approaching evening in thematic terms.

Given the bewildering complexity of the beer world these days, what are the essential points, apart from information about the specific beer being sampled?

The brewing process, of course. Just the basics about ingredients and their use in the brewhouse, as would be offered on any brewery tour, without going into mind-numbing detail.

As a corollary, the difference between ales and lagers. Why the yeast and fermentation temperature matter, and how this played out over the history of brewing, especially in Central Europe when “lager” as we know it originated.

Local brewing history, or in our specific case, how those German lager brewers came here and recreated their world, with similarities and differences.

How these factors and so many more come together in terms of beer style, reflecting my fundamental belief that in a majority of cases, human beings must know the rules before they break them — and, moreover, that familiarity with styles makes one a happier consumer.

In short, it’s back to basics, both for me and anyone else who is interested in thinking a bit about where we’ve been, so as better to see where we’re going, and toward this end I took my archival copy of Michael Jackson’s original book The World Guide to Beer to the tasting and passed it around.

Most attendees hadn’t ever seen it, and accordingly the book will be a staple at all future tastings.

The Mesa gig was on August 23. I knew the 10th anniversary of Jackson’s passing was coming soon, but wasn’t sure exactly when; while eating lunch at Brugge Brasserie on Wednesday, I glanced at my e-mail and saw the notification of Tom Acitelli’s letter perfect tribute in All About Beer, linked here.

In fact, Acitelli’s essay is a “must read” for anyone seeking the rounded, “whole beer” experience. Jackson was a memorable prose stylist, but moreover, he systematized a language of style that beer people speak every day without once reflecting about its origins. I think we need to know these origins.

You are commanded to click this link, now. Read first, drink beer later. I’m hoping to do another Mesa tasting in October, and I’ll keep you posted.


 … “If a brewer specifically has the intention of reproducing a classical beer, then he is working within a style.” That was Jackson toward the start of World Guide.

With a generation’s hindsight, it’s an unremarkable statement. But in 1977, it was positively revolutionary. Jackson was the first critic to write for a consumer audience about beer styles in much the same way that wine critics had long written of wine styles. Before Jackson, beers were fitted into “divisions,” “species,” “types,” “varieties” and “classes,” but never styles.

That etymological flourish by itself would have made his contribution to the beery canon memorable. But he spent the next three decades refining and expanding it, putting on quite an intellectual performance for a subject not used to the scrutiny.

The painter Bruegel might come up in a discussion of lambic, or topography in an examination of the origin of lager, or immigration in the rise of beer in the U.S. Throughout, too, Jackson dove into the technical nitty-gritty of Plato, IBU, ABV, etc., as well as the back stories of breweries and brewers, hop farmers and beer merchants.