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Thursday, August 30, 2007

Michael Jackson: The Beer Hunter (1942-2007)


Michael Jackson. Say the name and most people think of the King of Pop. Say the name to anyone serious about beer, or whisky for that matter, and they think of the journalist whose books, articles and television appearances made it acceptable to have a beer with a gourmet meal.

Today is a sad day for the drinks world. Michael Jackson passed away. He had revealed last year that he was suffering from Parkinson's Disease. Reports from England are that Michael died at his home earlier today.

It is really impossible to overestimate the impact of Michael Jackson on the beer world. With his various books, including the landmark World Guide to Beer first published in 1977, Jackson took us on his beer journeys to breweries and distilleries great and small. The books kept coming, as did the Beer Hunter television show on public broadcasting, numerous magazine and newspaper articles, websites and DVDs. He even popped up on television shows as the guest of hosts like David Letterman and Conan O'Brien. Along the way he helped make both the beer and whisky world what it is today. His words literally launched millions of drinks by encouraging people to think about what they had in their glass. Michael was an ambassador for great beer and single malt. He brought them to life with his words and stocked our vocabularies with the tools needed to talk about Trappist ale, Islay malt and everything in between.

I did not know Michael well, but I'm glad to say that I did meet him a couple of times. My first encounter with Michael was at the Great American Beer Festival a number of years ago. I walked and talked to him for a few minutes while we tasted samples from various breweries. He had a tape recorder in one hand and a tasting glass in the other, making constant notes into the device between talking to me and chatting with brewers and beer fans on the GABF floor. I've never hung out with a rock star, but after seeing how people reacted to seeing Michael Jackson approach their booth for a sample I know what it must be like. Folks pointed, some asked for his autograph. Others just shouted out "How you doing Michael?," like he was an old friend. And he was the best kind of friend because he taught us all how to enjoy some of the simple pleasures of life a little bit more than we would have if he had not been around. Michael responded politely to all who interrupted him on his journey around the GABF and kept taking notes along the way. There were always articles and books to fill.

I saw Michael briefly twice during the Great American Beer Festival in Denver last year, but never had the chance to talk to him. He came into a Brewers Association beer and food pairing press event one afternoon, but stayed for just a few minutes. Then while heading out of town and stuck in the security line at the Denver Airport, I noticed Michael in a restaurant across the terminal. My view was from the side and behind, but it appeared to me that he was relaxing with a cup of coffee. He was too far away to shout a hello and leaving the line would have meant missing my flight. I was a bit shocked to read in the tribute to Jackson posted today on the All About Beer website that Michael was rushed from the airport that day with what doctors believe was a minor heart attack. In his final column for All About Beer, titled "Did I Cheat Mort Subite?" and dated August 22, 2007, Michael Jackson tells the story and gives us an idea of how he approached his health issues, with both a sense of reality and a bit of humor.

Today the world lost its greatest beer writer. The only thing I can really do to honor the man is to have a pint of good beer. I think Michael Jackson is relaxing somewhere right now doing the exact same thing.

1 comment:

Steven Hales said...

I'm stunned by his sudden death. Michael wrote the foreword to my book Beer and Philosophy (which will be out in November). I now wonder if it was the last thing he wrote for publication. A great loss to beer lovers.