“I liked the taste of beer, its live, white lather, its brass-bright depths, the sudden world through the wet brown walls of the glass, the tilted rush to the lips and the slow swallowing down to the lapping belly, the salt on the tongue, the foam at the corners.” – Old Garbo, Dylan Thomas
They came to celebrate a simple man, Michael Jackson – that Bacchus of Beer and Master of Words – humble and gracious, exuberant, jocular, prolific and full of fire. On Friday, March 14, 2008, fifteen beer luminaries from the US and international stage paid tribute to the Bard of Beer at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia, PA. For eighteen years, Jackson infused his famous digressions into dinners and beer-tastings, orchestrated by Bruce Nichols of Museum Catering, in the lower and upper Egyptian Galleries and beneath the elegant arches of the Chinese Rotunda in this venue of culture.
In his introductory lead-in about the Beer Hunter and Bard of Beer, emcee Tom Dalldorf of Celebrator Beer News referred to Michael Jackson as “Rumpled of the Barley,” an astute parallel to “Rumpole of the Bailey,” the British video series that portrays an aging London Barrister addicted to succinct cross-examinations. Rumpole, with his unhealthy habits of food and drink, pounds the pavements of Fleet Street, while his external image in rumpled attire stands in shameless contrast to his internal set of high standards. For those acquainted with Michael Jackson, the association was priceless.
Throughout the course of nearly 20 years, Tom Dalldorf and Michael Jackson remained friends… colleagues. Tom memorialized such events as their awkward first meeting at his wine bar in 1989, their lively Iron Liver Tour, and the Jackson Roast Commemorating his Tenth Anniversary at the Penn Museum, an event that Dalldorf called “more of a light sauté, rather than a roast.” He recounted his own role in assisting the Bard of Beer at the GABF in 2006, when he witnessed, first-hand, the Beer Hunter’s struggle with Parkinson’s Disease.
Dr. Matt Stern, Director of the Parkinson’s Disease and Movement Disorders Center at the University of Pennsylvania launched the evening roster. He had the appearance of a movie star – the Clint Eastwood type, with ease in his voice as he adeptly described the profile of a Parkinson’s sufferer, one that was contradictory to Jackson’s lifestyle. In a moment of cynical humor, he advocated following in the footsteps of the amiable Bard of Beer.
Don Russell, writer for The Philadelphia Daily News and author of “Joe Sixpack’s Philly Beer Guide,” took the dais in his classic corduroy sports jacket, reporter-style. X-ray vision would undoubtedly have revealed Hemingway’s moleskin notepad in his pocket as he recalled past conversations with Jackson – not about beer, but about the roar of the presses, the frenzy of the newsroom, and the search for another great story. Old Garbo. Dylan Thomas would understand.
As the evening advanced, it became obvious that Michael Jackson’s anecdotes and robust opinions inspired thousands of sleeping giants to become noteworthy brewers, passionate beer writers, and connoisseurs of drink. Tom Peters, co-owner of Monk’s Café in Philadelphia mused that Michael “didn’t talk about beer, but about how the liquid got into the glass. He made it an enchanting experience.”
One such “wee heartwarming story” poured from the lips of Bruce Williams of Williams Brothers Brewing in Alloa, Scotland. Purportedly “born in a bucket of homebrew,” Williams began brewing with indigenous plants to infuse a distinctive quality into beer. With his nose for news, Michael Jackson was drawn to such stories, and found himself at the little brewery where Williams first brewed Fraoch (Heather) Ale, five bottles at a time. That year in late August, Michael insisted on picking heather with Williams. Upon contact, heather dries out the spit and creates shards on the tongue, but as a man who explored beer on every level, Jackson placed the heather blooms in his mouth without warning. Bruce laughed as he watched Jackson in momentary discomfort, trying desperately to relieve himself of the mess in his mouth. In a tearful moment of emotion, Bruce recalled that he was in that very same field when he received news of Jackson’s death.
They came to celebrate a simple man, Michael Jackson – that Bacchus of Beer and Master of Words – humble and gracious, exuberant, jocular, prolific and full of fire
Jackson championed craft brewers on the international level. As Dalldorf introduced “the Father of American Microbrewing,” Fritz Maytag of Anchor Brewing in San Francisco took the stage with polished composure. He talked of his dear friend in the beer world, asserting, “Michael Jackson did more for beer and brewing than anyone since Louis Pasteur.” He spoke of this gentle giant’s talent for subtle criticism, and the encouragement Jackson offered to those novice brewers who were passionate about their art.
Admiration came in all forms. Carol Stoudt, award-winning brewster at Stoudt’s Brewing in Adamstown, PA celebrated the “beer critic” who visited their tiny brewery many years ago, bidding them to expand beyond lager into greater diversity. With regal presence, she announced Stoudt’s creation of “Big Brother Pils,” an Imperial Pilsener brewed specifically for Philly Beer Week in honor of Jackson, and of Five-thread artisanal bread that daughter Elizabeth fashioned as her own tribute to a great man.
Garrett Oliver of Brooklyn Brewery and celebrated author of “The Brewmaster’s Table”, expressed passion for his friend who “launched a thousand beers,” resonating with such force that Jackson’s portrait tumbled from the podium as he spoke. As a colleague of Jackson, Oliver understood the joie de vivre behind the pen. “The sparkle you saw in his eyes translated onto the page,” he said.
Inspiration was often simple, yet powerful. “Brew great beer. Get a pub.” This humble scrawl of six words became the driving force behind the founding and success of Victory Brewing in Downingtown, PA, noted Bill Covaleski. To the young brewer, Jackson insisted it was” unfair to covet great beer and not share it.”
Stephen Beaumont, author of five books, including “The Premium Beer Drinker’s Guide” and “The Great Canadian Beer Guide,” extolled Jackson for a “generosity that transcended all boundaries,” – for seeing, in him, a fellow scribe; giving him encouragement; and allowing him to follow in his wake.
Tony Forder, Publisher of Ale Street News, narrated a serendipitous tale of meeting Jackson in a dream. In conclusion, Forder peppered the air with sounds from his tin whistle, as if pulling Jackson’s spirit into the room.
Michael Jackson was a member of a distinctive list of heavyweights – Pope John Paul II, Vincent Price and Salvador Dali. All, like Jackson, died of complications associated with Parkinson’s, noted Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery. Despite his medical challenges, Jackson “always succeeded in transforming an event from a Michael Jackson event to a beer lover’s event,” said Calagione. “Michael would say, ’You’re the brewer. Tell me what YOU think of this beer.’”
Seizing the lectern next, Dave Alexander, owner of the Brickskeller and RFD in Washington, DC boldly exclaimed, “Michael and I had more in common than just great hair and killer bodies!” Alexander launched like a racehorse, weaving tales of orchestrating thirty Brickskeller events and ten Smithsonian happenings with the able Yorkshireman. He spoke of the Beer Hunter’s gracious attitude, insisting on staying until the last person left; of a concern for the desk clerks and servers; and of his laid-back sensibility. On one occasion in DC, a sniper was in the neighborhood. As Alexander screamed, “He’s gonna blow my brains out,” Jackson replied in his calm, quick demeanor, “Are you sure if that happens, the incident will be accurately reported?”
Michael Jackson was a member of a distinctive list of heavyweights – Pope John Paul II, Vincent Price and Salvador Dali
In a final chapter to the tribute, Tom Dalldorf introduced Jackson’s “Smagalski,” the Beer Fox, to speak about the personal side of Michael Jackson – how the Hunter and the Fox came to be a part of each others’ life, of Michael’s love of the Philadelphia beer scene, his connectedness with the terroir in which he found himself, his sharp wit, and his acceptance of Parkinson’s. It was obvious that Michael Jackson’s contributions to America and to the world were profound. Even more profound was that this extraordinary life only happened by chance. As a premature twin, Michael Jackson was not expected to live, “…but Michael’s mother was naive enough to believe in miracles… and so he elevated the world of beer to the realm of royalty.”
Afterward, Bruce Nichols of Museum Catering and host of the Tribute and Tastings invited guests to the Chinese Rotunda where a central buffet of exquisite fare was served, surrounded by scores of local and import beers. Five Tribute Beers were included in the line-up: Theobroma, Dogfish Head Craft Brewery, Milton, DE; Bloody Knuckles, Home Sweet Homebrew, Philadelphia, PA; Old Companion, Pike Brewing Company, Seattle, WA; Big Brother Imperial Pilsener, Stoudt’s Brewing Company, Adamstown, PA; and dry-hopped firkin of HopDevil, Victory Brewing Company, Downingtown, PA.
Dearest Beer Fox: You are such an excellent writer. So sad to have to apply that talent to a subject with which you are so passionately familiar…