Michael Jackson, the British writer who did more than any other person to revitalize the brewing industry in the United States, died today at 65. His influence can't be understated. In the United States, the number of breweries had declined steadily since the end of WWII and consolidation had left only a few regional breweries still alive. Beyond the pale, industrial tin-can lager, almost all diversity in commercial beer had vanished. Jackson changed that when in 1977 he published World Guide to Beer. Detailing the full array of beer styles brewed internationally, it inspired young entrepreneurs in America to start brewing.
In 1993, he published the Great Beers of Belgium, introducing England and North America to the wonderful world of obscure artisinal beers brewed in Wallonia, Flanders, Brussels, and the Lembeek Valley. Jackson never just reviewed beer--he took you into the cultural and historical context of the beer, revealing how styles came to be. Great Beers of Belgium was part social history, part travel guide, and part anthropology. It transcended the genre and is perhaps the best beer book ever written (and a bible of mine).
On a personal note, I got to meet Jackson when I was writing about beer in the late 90s. He came to one of the first NorWester-sponsored homebrew fests. He and I took a tour of the Saxer Brewery during that visit, and I witnessed a remarkable display of palate sensitivity. For years, Tony Gomes, the brewer at Saxer, had argued that the brewery should using decoction mass for its bocks--an expensive, time-consuming process that he Gomes learned in his native Germany. The process produces very subtle characteristics at best--for decades, many in the industry have argued whatever benefits decoction may produce are too subtle to detect. Yet when we sat down in front of a line of Gomes' beer, Jackson sampled the flagship bock, cocked his head a little, and then asked if it was decocted. Gomes beamed, vindicated.
I later interviewed Jackson on that trip, and he signed my copy of The Beer Companion, which I refer to constantly in my posts here. Without Jackson, there would be no Beervana blog. That would be no loss at all, but consider this: without Michael Jackson, there might not have been a Beervana. A great one has left us, and the world will be poorer for it.
Cheers to a life well-lived. May we contribute half as much.
[Update: Other comments from around the blogosphere: Stan and Lew both have good pieces, and Lew's is personal and quite nice. I'll continue to update as the word gets out. Okay, more: Real Beer, Pete Brown, The Beer Nut, Stephen Beaumont]