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Monday, May 30, 2016

Remembering the Ethnographer Michael Jackson

Memorial Day is supposed to be reserved for the war dead, but since I'm a pacifist and a provocateur, I'd like to discuss a different deceased person. To my knowledge, Michael Jackson never served in the military. There are a few curiosities about his life, but mainly Jackson was a writer. That's what he was known for in life, and that's what he is remembered for. In fact, now nine years after his death he is still the most famous writer on the subject of beer, and still the most authoritative. This causes no small level of indigestion among current writers, but we just have to suck it up. Jackson was the first to break through as a beer writer, and the one who created the conceptual framework we now use to think about beer. Fortunately for us, he was a great thinker, a better writer, and the concepts he set down 40 years ago should be serving us very well for another forty (and possibly 140).
The man rocked a groovy head of hair. (Note the Weinhard's)
I couldn't find the source of this picture, incidentally.

On this Memorial Day, I'd like to praise Jackson for an element of his influence that doesn't get much attention at all, but which is easily the most important. 

Jackson was fundamentally an ethnographer. He wasn't a brewer and he wasn't an historian. He called himself a journalist, but his biggest contribution was understanding beer in the context of the culture in which it was brewed. He might have approached beer from the sensory perspective, as much wine writing does, or he could have gone out to breweries and described the beer they made, like a simple journalist. Instead, he did this:
The tradition has died out on the eastern side of Brussels, though the beers in blended form are still served in the cafes of Jezus-Eik to strollers in the forest of Soignes on a Sunday afternoon. Today's production area is on the western side of the city from Anderlecht to Schepdaal, Beersel, Lembeek, and beyond.

Bruegel lived on this side of Brussels, in its Flemish Old Town, and wandered in the the villages of Payottenland. The church in The Parable of the Blind is clearly Sint-Anna-Pede, between Itterbeek and Schepdaal. Nor, 400 years later, would anyone fail to recognize the Flemings of The Peasant Dance or The Wedding Feast enjoying a beer in one of the many cafes of the valley, probably within sight of Brussels' skyline.  In The Wedding Feast, beer of a strawy-russet colour is shown being decanted from the type of stoneware crock still often used for Lambic today. The same crocks feature in The Peasant Dance. There are similar images in the paintings of the aptly-named artist Brouwer, who came along in the next century, and no style of beer features more pervasively in Flemish popular art, literature, and folklore than the Lambic family. (Nor, arguably, is any theme more central in Flemish culture than the brewing and consuming of beer of any kind.)
Jackson situated beer in a place. He demonstrated how it was an expression of the culture of the people who made it. That passage I quoted from comes from probably his most impressive work, Great Beers of Belgium (my copy is the third edition), and it really highlights how he brought meaning to the glass of beer we drink. The thing that fueled the American brewing revival was how people fell in love with beer, and Jackson's culture-rich writing was one of the main vectors of that romance.

His work does not exist without controversy; mention him among a group of writers or historians, and you'll quickly hear "he got a lot wrong."  He probably did. (Though such is Jackson's stature that I've never seen anyone with the temerity to write a 14-Biggest-Things-Jackson-Got-Wrong article.) When I was in grad school, my favorite professor, a linguist, offered me the most important piece of real-world information I ever received. Paraphrasing him: "As scholars, we create the theories our students will disprove." That's the way of scholarship. You take the incomplete information you have and you build theories. More information inevitably comes, and the theory has to be revised or discarded. Of course Jackson got some things wrong in 1977. This indicates not shoddy work, but old work. What's remarkable is, after forty years, how much still stands up.

I return to Jackson regularly, in part because he is now a fantastic historical source. He carefully documents a lot about ingredients and methods he encountered over the past four decades. Breweries love to talk about "tradition" and "continuity," but things change. I have on more than a few occasions quoted Jackson to breweries and asked them if they still make beer that way, or of those ingredients. He may have gotten some history wrong, but beer he documented--now part of our history--is invaluable. Even more--culture has changed. The context of the beers he described in 1977 or '87 or '97 has changed. In some cases hugely, in others very little. That distance tells us a lot.

In any case, it's Memorial Day. So here's my cheers to Jackson. Hope he's well, wherever he is--


  1. I agree, Michael Jackson is the greatest beer writers. He awakened the American Craft Beer movement, his TV series the Beer Hunter is monumental.

  2. The 14-Biggest-Things-Jackson-Got-Wrong. What a great idea for an article. I should write that.

  3. Coincidentally, I just received an email telling me I had confused a pub that was called the New Jerusalem Tavern with another that was the new Jerusalem Tavern, and I was thinking myself that "the curse of the historian is that she/he will always be followed by other historians able to point out what he/she got wrong." Given that Michael Jackson wasn't a historian, and was entitled therefore to take as accepted what "real" historians told him, anything he got wrong – the origins of the name "porter", for example – is entirely forgivable.

  4. Jackson as ethnographer. So true, Jeff. In a different medium, Anthony Bourdain follows in his considerable footsteps...