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Saturday, October 23, 2010

Michael Jackson and Beer Styles

The British writer Martyn Cornell has added an important historical note to the big discussion about beer styles. Styles, he points out, didn't really exist as such before Jackson:
The perhaps remarkable thing is that before Michael Jackson wrote The World Guide to Beer in 1977, nobody used the expression “beer style” at all. I searched through books on beer from the 1830s to the mid-1970s, and they talked about “divisions”, “species”, “kinds”, “varieties”, “types”, “classes” and “families” of beer, but never “styles”.
Cornell's post is, as usual, worth a read, but it misses another of Jackson's pretty amazing contributions. Many of the names we now call styles already existed when Jackson started cataloging them: bock, pilsner, stout. But in Belgium, the names and beers lined up only very jaggedly; more problematically, there were far fewer names than there were beers. He was the original taxonomist. Confronted with a shocking diversity of beers, he began trying to classify them, coming up with "Belgian red," "Flemish brown," and "Belgian golden ale." There are dozens of ways we might group Belgian beers, but we now think of them in Jackson's terms.

Of all the things for which I envy Jackson, it was his work on Belgian beers that stands out most. He has created a mental framework the entire world now adopts. We debate whether a beer is a true red or is really a brown, and Jackson must chuckle from the great beyond. We're not debating beer styles so much as debating Jackson's styles. Quite a legacy, isn't it?


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I don't know. I certainly do not "debate whether a beer is a true red or is really a brown" and avoid that sort of discussion. I think we owe a lot to Jackson - as well as Shales, Line and Berry and a host of others - but I think we have built upon their shoulders and are moving in new directions in our thinking about beer and beer culture. This is not a denigreation of anyone's work but recognition of the collective nature of systematic thought, even with recognizing the contributions of the Newtons, Faradays and Einsteins.

  3. Alan, I certainly agree with that. In grad school, my fave professor was philosophical about this in a way it turns out is extremely rare among academics. His view: "we are just developing the theories that the next generation will disprove." It's an evolution, and all the points along the way are important.

    Right or wrong, the Jacksons and Einsteins tend to get disproportionate credit, though.

  4. Turns out that if random people see the words "Michael Jackson" they re-tweet like mad. I don't think most of them understand who this post is about.

  5. Been on vacation, did ya miss me? ;-}

    Lets talk "History of Beer Styles..." While we cannot argue that Michael Jackson's work on organizing and identifying the beer styles of the world, we cannot ignore the centuries of others who contributed to concept of Beer Style identity and organization.

    Michael Jackson often referred to the works of jean declerck, who wrote two major textbooks on beer and brewing. Declerck made some major strides in organizing beer styles and even direction on how to brew within style.

    Wikipedia gives us just a few examples of the history of identifying beer styles with this paragraph:

    "The Alulu Tablet, a Sumerian receipt for "best" ale written in Cuneiform found in Ur, suggests that even in 2050 BC there was a differentiation between at least two different types or qualities of ale. The work of Bedrich Hrozny on translating Assyrian merchants' tablets found in Hattusa, revealed that approximately 500 years later the Hittites had over 15 different types of beer."

    More important and embarrassingly missing from most NW beer bloggers discussion of Beer Styles is found in this statement:

    "The modern concept of beer style is largely based on the work of writer Michael Jackson in his 1977 book The World Guide To Beer in which he categorised a variety of beers from around the world into local style groups according to local customs and names.[1] In 1989, Fred Eckhardt furthered Jackson's work publishing The Essentials of Beer Style.[2] Although the systematic study of beer styles is a modern phenomenon, the act of distinguishing between different varieties of beer is ancient and widespread, dating to at least 2000 BC."

    Hang your heads in shame. Fred isn't just an old guy who lives in Portland and has a beer named after him!! I had a guy tell me, "Fred's an old Portland Beer drinker who shows up and events." How degrading is that?

    While brewing to style has it's merits, experimental brewing is what will change the brewing world. That doesn't mean adding some dehusked Dark Roasted malt to an IPA and calling in a Black IPA or CDA or whatever. That's just a tweak of an existing style. Like making a Pale Bock vs a Dark Bock... ;-}