“Watch how you use the word unique,” he cautioned. “Something cannot be pretty unique, or fairly unique.” As my personal inspiration, Michael Jackson freely shared sound bites concerning mortal sins he commonly observed in blogs and publications.
“A better word may be distinctive. Unique means there is only one,” he continued. As I mulled it over in my mind, I agreed that this word, unique, should be reserved for those who were more than distinctive — those who were larger than life. This surely applied to the very mentor who stood before me, overflowing with editorial advice.
As we were beer writers, our chats commonly progressed into discussions about Hemingway, Chatwin and Dylan Thomas — authors driven by a penchant for drink. Sometimes, Michael himself would digress into the history of the rugby league and American jazz, or the etymology of specific words. Every story was dripping with visual detail, as if seen through a videographer’s lens.
Just 45 minutes earlier, Michael had suffered a fatal heart attack. The world of beer and whisky had lost its Renaissance man.
In 2007, Michael’s conversation digressed into plans for an upcoming trip to County Cork, Middleton, in conjunction with a product launch by Irish Distillers. In the early hours of the following day, August 30, Michael’s assistant, Cathy, rang me up. Even at that, I assumed she had news of our flights.
Her words would stun not only me, but the entire drinks community. Just 45 minutes earlier, Michael Jackson had suffered a fatal heart attack. The world of beer and whisky had lost its Renaissance man.
I Don’t Drink Pepsi
Michael Jackson was unique. On camera, he greeted his audience with “My name really is Michael Jackson, but I don’t sing, I don’t dance, and I don’t drink Pepsi.” In our world, he was the Beer Hunter, the Whisky Chaser, Maven of Malt, Doctor of Drams. America claimed him as the father of its craft brewing renaissance. Michael validated beer, took it seriously and empowered beer and whisky communities with a new ideal.
He was born in Wetherby, in the city of Leeds. As the weaker twin, he was not expected to survive. However, it was his brother who failed to thrive, leaving Michael as his mother’s treasure. Before moving to nearby Huddersfield, they lived in a one-room flat from which his mother sold homemade breads and taught Michael proper diction and etiquette. She referred to their neighbors as “dirt poor,” and Michael wondered if they themselves might be “clean poor.” Initially absent, Michael’s father embraced family life around Michael’s fourth birthday, leaving comic books or trinkets by his bed in the wee hours of the morning. Remarkably, neither of Michael’s parents imbibed in alcohol.
Michael’s sister Heather was born in 1949, when Michael was seven. As a child, Michael’s naiveté had envisioned a full-grown brother wearing spurs and a cowboy hat, not a baby… and certainly not a girl.
Michael wrote, “Like sex, good beer is a pleasure that can be better appreciated with experience, in which variety is both endless and mandatory.”
Jackson was an anglicized name of Jewish Lithuanian origin. That distinctive heritage continued to mature through Michael’s nebulous memories of his paternal grandmother.
A schoolmate of the young Michael’s, Roger Mallinson, claimed that Michael’s powers of persuasion had already been well-established by his 14th year:
“We had a games master, Dusty Bins, who changed the curriculum from rugby league to soccer. As you know, Mike was a die-hard rugby league fan. He was determined not to do soccer, so he convinced Master Bins to allow the two of us to substitute it with cross-country. Each Wednesday, we would get suited up for our cross-country run. We’d set off for the pub on Castle Hill, an ancient mound where Victoria Tower still stands. There, we had a pint with the landlady and then walked gently back to school. We ran the last 100 yards so we’d be sweated up and no one would be the wiser.”
Back in 1958, the golden age of publishing ran full tilt. Pressrooms adjacent to corner pubs overflowed with newshounds around the clock, coaxing secrets from loose-lipped politicians or scooping sensational exposés. This was where Michael belonged, nosing for a story amidst the booze and the sweat. Seduced by dreams of Fleet Street, he left school at 16, pitching stories as a junior reporter. His first stint was a series called “This Is Your Pub,” but it would be 18 years before his career would be immersed in drink.
A Man with Style
In 1976, The English Pub was the first book produced by Quarto Publishing, a company Michael had established as a founding partner. It was Michael’s first book, a fully illustrated introduction to English culture, largely focused on the art, gastronomy and social aspects of pub life, with only one chapter dedicated to beer. Michael’s wife, an antiques dealer and politician, was credited for her assistance on the project. Michael wrote, “…to my wife, Maggie O’Connor, for all of her help, but especially her advice on the décor and the arts of the early 20th century.” Less than four years later, he lost her to a tragic accident.
The following year, Quarto published The World Guide to Beer, licensing it to Mitchell Beazley in the U.K. and Prentice Hall in the USA. Michael’s first chapter, “A High and Mighty Liquor,” set a new direction for beer on the international stage.
In the introductory chapter, Michael became the educator, teaching how beer was brewed, unfolding the ingredients, beer’s strength and expression. The second chapter launched into a global beer adventure on nearly every continent, splitting the largest into subheadings under the great brewing cities.
Michael introduced the concept of “beer style” briefly in The English Pub and then en masse in The World Guide to Beer. Up to this point, authors had defined beer by types and families, the usual divisions, classes or species. Beer historian Martyn Cornell theorizes that Michael used the term “styles” because he, as a writer, was familiar with the style guides (think Hart’s Rules for Compositors and Readers) typically found in editorial offices. To Michael, it seemed a natural way to present beer.
Michael validated beer, took it seriously and empowered beer and whisky communities with a new ideal.
Maps and graphics reflected Michael’s wanderlust. The visual format worked for a new generation of beer travelers. Who could resist the temptation to taste Madame Rose’s Mighty Brews or the Burgundies of Belgium firsthand?
Bill Covaleski of Victory Brewing noted, “All of his stories settled on a human element, though beer often provided the subject of the story. I recall him telling firsthand the story of his introduction to the social power of beer, the revelers of the Dutch spring carnival who introduced him to Dutch bock beer. It was such a great story of people sharing simple pleasures.”
Michael believed it to be his obligation to personally experience all that he documented. “What little I know, I have learned by going there: being there, investigating, examining, nosing, tasting, eating,” he explained. Michael noticed every detail and converted the most inconspicuous nuances into rich anecdotes that resurrected nearly passé styles and galvanized beer markets, particularly those in the United States, Belgium, Poland and Italy.
In the May 1978 edition of What’s Brewing, Michael disclosed that the World Guide had cost him “several thousand pounds in phone calls, letters, telegrams, travel and research assistance.” According to Jeff Evans, author of Good Bottled Beer Guide, the publishing rights and copyright belonged to Quarto. Michael concurrently parted company with Quarto during his book launch, receiving no payment or royalties for the book despite its enormous success. Compensation eventually was awarded in 1988, when his agent, Frances Kelly, negotiated a fee on the rewrite as The New World Guide to Beer.
Playboy Gets Into Beer
By 1983, Michael had three books under his belt. He made beer friendly, tying its flavor to that of fruitcake, cherries, pine resin or fino sherry. He was approaching celebrity status but had not yet brought his “high and mighty liquor” into the mainstream.
International invitations required travel to the United States, where Michael found himself rubbing elbows with media giants. While speaking with an editor for Playboy magazine, Michael casually used the phrase “Beer is chic” in passing. With a track record of credibility to lean on, the editor promptly pressed him into service for a features article, parroting Michael with the title “Beer Chic.” Michael celebrated. Compensation for that piece alone was $10,000. This first article was followed by subsequent articles on beer and whisky in later editions.
Michael wrote to Playboy’s audience, seducing them into illicit distraction: “Like sex, good beer is a pleasure that can be better appreciated with experience, in which variety is both endless and mandatory. The pleasure lies, too, in gaining the experience: the encounters with the unexpected, the possibility of triumph or disaster, the pursuit of the elusive, the constant lessons, the bittersweet memories that linger.”
Michael was already a columnist in several British papers, including the Independent and the Observer, and his work made occasional appearances in The Guardian and The Times and eventually in newspapers in America, most notably The Washington Post. He supplemented these with worldwide exposure in highly visible publications, including GQ, Esquire, National Geographic, Traveler, Travel + Leisure, Wine Enthusiast, Wine & Spirits, Food & Wine, Wine Spectator, Slow Food and Slow Wine magazines.
By 1986, Michael’s expanding success in the beer genre had launched him into a new vocation, that of whisky. Suntory of Japan approached Michael to write a volume on whisky. Suntory arranged production through British publisher Longman, but plans capsized. In 1987, Michael’s agent, Frances Kelly, righted the ship with a deal for Michael’s The World Guide to Whisky through publisher Dorling Kindersley.
The prolific Michael Jackson was no stranger to special-interest publications. He contributed to All About Beer, Celebrator Beer News, Ale Street News, What’s Brewing, Pint, Bière, Beer Passion, Class, Brewers’ Guardian, Malt Advocate, Whisky Magazine, Journal du Brasseur, Islay Whisky News and Alephenalia.
Achieving International Acclaim
In the early 1980s, Charles Finkel, founder of Merchant du Vin, engaged Michael’s assistance for a video about Samuel Smith’s Old Brewery in Tadcaster. Michael hosted the program. It worked well, inspiring him to create the Beer Hunter series, produced in 1989 through Channel 4 in the U.K.
The series catapulted him into the international spotlight. By 1991, it was distributed by the Discovery Channel in the USA. No one had ever produced a series focused on the cultural diversity of beer. Michael’s presence added a personal touch that was impossible to resist. His status as a leading authority brought worldwide fame.
A segment on the Burgundies of Belgium, in tandem with the launch of Michael Jackson’s Great Beers of Belgium in 1991, infused new life into Belgium. So important was Michael’s work that he was presented with the Mercurius Award in 1994 by Crown Prince Philippe of Belgium. Michael was knighted an Officer of Honor in le Chevalerie du Fourquet and was the first nonbrewer inducted into the Belgian Confederation of Brewers.
Throughout his 31-year career in the drinks community, Michael Jackson wrote 16 major books in 21 languages. An illustrious list of writers also laid claim to forewords he contributed for their books.
His honors were far-reaching and included the Brewers Association Recognition Award, the André Simon Award, the Glenfiddich Trophy, the Gold Tankard of the British Guild of Beer Writers and the James Beard Award, along with honors from Italy, France, Germany, Finland, and others from Great Britain and the United States.
For over 10 years, Michael waged a private battle with Parkinson’s disease. In his twilight years, many recognized a physical decline but mistakenly attributed his garrulous speech and faltering steps to problems with drink. In 2006, his struggle was revealed. He vowed to author a book titled I Am Not Drunk, a painfully honest yet humorous narration detailing his drama as a beer and whisky expert ensnared in his own body. That last goal was not to be realized.
After Michael’s death, the priceless contents of his office were donated to the Oxford Brookes University Library in the U.K. The “Michael Jackson Collection” consists of 1,500 books on beer and whisky, 300 other titles from his personal library, 28 filing cabinets of research material, and his personal handwritten notebooks. The collection also includes photographs, press releases, book reviews and numerous awards. This unique treasure is housed in the Special Collections Room of the Headington Library, where it will function in tandem with the National Brewing Library at Oxford Brookes University.
Not bad for a kid who ditched soccer class…