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Aug 20, 2014

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By Dave Kelley

If you have even a passing interest in beer or single malt Scotch, you've heard of Michael Jackson. In a career spanning more than 20 years, he almost single-handedly invented the art of writing intelligently about beer and whisky, establishing himself unquestionably as the world's premier authority on both. Now 54 years old, Jackson lives in London with Paddy, his girlfriend of 16 years, and has authored a library's worth of books and articles on his favorite subjects, starred in a TV series - "The Beer Hunter" - that aired in both the U.S. and U.K., authored a pair of CD-ROMs that share the series' name, and even has his own Beer Hunter website.

In person, Michael Jackson is the prototypical British journalist. His frazzled hair and beard, his signature spectacles, and his rumpled suit give him the air of a university professor, magnified by his soft-spoken British accent. The professorial image slips, though, when Jackson's dry wit and no-nonsense personality comes to light. He's quite aware of his position in the beer and whisky pantheon, and he doesn't mind telling you so.

I spent the better part of a morning with Jackson, as well as Lynne O'Connor, the owner of Austin's St. Patrick's Brewing Supply, at The Gingerman in Austin, Texas. He was in town to conduct his second annual "Tutored Craft Beer and Single Malt Scotch Tasting," which would take place immediately following the interview. Over several pints, we talked about everything from the recent British elections to selecting the proper bedtime Scotch.

MICHAEL JACKSON: There's no red light on your tape recorder.

DAVE KELLEY: No, I use an off-brand recorder that doesn't have a red "recording" light.

MJ: You're going to interview me without a red light? (laughs) I wanted all the bells and whistles.

DK: Tonight is your second annual Tutored Craft Beer and Single-Malt Scotch tasting in Austin. Do you like coming here?

MJ: Yeah. I feel that I know Austin pretty well. I've been here at least four or five times over the years. In a quiet way, Austin was one of the quite early beer cities in the U.S. because by chance some Belgians came here and there used to be a great beer bar on Congress Ave. called Gambrinus, and that led Pierre Celis to start the Celis Brewery. He only came here because he had Belgian friends here, and there were Belgians here importing beers like Duvel.

Anyway, so I've been here quite a number of times. Probably more like six or seven times, thinking about it. I've done events at various bars on Sixth Street in the past. I've also done events here at The Gingerman. I've done events at the first Gingerman, in Houston, and at the time I said that I thought it was one of the best beer bars anywhere in America, and they use that in their advertising, with my blessing, because I still think that's true. It does sort of have the feeling of being a very natural pub, as well as a place where you can get lots of beers. Not the sort of place where a lot of beers are in your face. You can come here and hang out, and drink lots of beers. It's not like you have to go to some special place to drink lots of beers. And it's very hard to recreate a genuine pub atmosphere. That's something that will normally only grow organically.

Austin is, I think, one of my cities in the U.S., but there are others. This year, I'll be doing my tenth series of tastings in New York City. It's hard to believe I've been doing that for ten years, but I have. I think it's my seventh series in Philadelphia. I do an event each year in Philadelphia that's part of a weekend of good drink events they call "The Book and the Cook", where the city of Philadelphia invites about 50 food and drink writers, and chefs and sommeliers from around the world. For seven straight years, I've had the biggest audience by far at that event. I have 1200-1500 every year for my Philadelphia series. I don't really get the credit for that in the publicity for that event. It's almost as though they're slightly embarrassed that among all these great chefs and sommeliers, the biggest attraction by far is somebody who talks about beer. (chuckles) It's kind of funny that Philadelphia, which was once the brewing capitol of America, seems slightly ashamed of the success of this beer writer. Some of the old snobbism is still lurking around.

DK: Do you organize your American visits into a single, cross-county tour?

MJ: I don't do a nationwide tour. Around about the fall, it begins to assume the proportions of a tour. I'm here (in the U.S.) so much in the fall in sort of late September, early November, that sometimes that does become sort of a five-week tour. But meanwhile, I'll have been here eight or nine times in the course of the year before I do that, before it kind of assumes that national tour density in the fall.

Once or twice, people have made t-shirts, you know, saying, "The Michael Jackson - no, not him - Tour," or, "The Michael Jackson No Pepsi, All Beer Tour," or something like that, and you'll see people wearing these t-shirts. They'll fax me and ask me, "Where are you going to be?" and I'll say, "Well, I'm going to be in Philadelphia, New York, Chicago, Denver, the Twin Cities, Portland, Seattle, San Francisco," and I'll see people who've made up these t-shirts with all the dates on the back.

My girlfriend said to me, "You know, you're like an aging British rock star over there (in the U.S.)." I said, "No, no, don't be ridiculous." And she came over for a weekend one time, and before we went out the hotel in the morning, she said, "You're going to be mobbed by your fans." And I said, "Oh, cut the crap, will you?" And this gorgeous young woman came running down the street after me, and my girlfriend said, "See? It's like that all the time, isn't it?"

DK: With all this traveling, how much time do you get to spend at home? You're pretty much on the road year-round it seems.

MJ: One problem, obviously, is the domestic problem. I do live with my girlfriend, and have been for 16 years. (The travel) is domestically a difficult problem, but the real difficulty is getting my writing done.

I can do a lot of writing on planes. I write a lot of articles on planes, on my laptop. It's all right if the material you're using, if the notes you're using don't require too much space, if you don't have to spread them all around. But you can't really write books on planes.

I find that one day's traveling generates one day's writing, as a rule of thumb. And one day's traveling and one day's writing requires about one day's management time. It requires the time you spend setting up the travel, and making sure you've sent the invoices and paid the IRS and all that stuff. It's like one day is travel, one day is writing, and one day is management. So theoretically I shouldn't be on the road more than a third of the time. But I am on the road more than a third of the time. I've never actually stopped and counted the days of the year, but it's probably less than half the time but more than a third of the time. There's a Yiddish expression, and I can never remember how it goes in Yiddish, but it's sort of essentially, "To be a big man, you have to always have come from somewhere or be going somewhere." (laughs) I don't do it to be a big man, but I feel as if I've always come from somewhere or I'm just going somewhere.

Obviously, it would seem very churlish to complain about the job, and I'm certainly NOT complaining about the job - I love drinking beer and I love drinking whisky, and I do love writing, too, because that's what I am really, is a writer - but it's an extremely, very, very, stressful job. I'm always under the gun, from the people I'm meant to be writing articles for, from people I'm writing books for. I'm always trying to figure out how the hell can I schedule time to do this or that.

For example, I'm currently writing an article on rum. I went to a specialty rum bar and did a rum tasting, interviewed the owner and everything, sort of late afternoon, early evening. I came out, and it was still sunny enough and still time to get home and actually have dinner with my girlfriend. So I called her up and she said, "Can't we go the pub and have dinner at the pub?" because it's a nice evening and we can hang out outside the pub and eat. So we did that, and when we got back the election results were beginning to come through. The first result was about 11 o'clock at night and I stayed up until about two in the morning, 'til I could be sure of the way it was going.

Then I got up at six in the morning in order to get a plane to come to Austin. I arrived in Austin and it was probably, well, I don't know. (laughs) I go into denial about time zones and jet lag. I just go into local time. It was about midnight, London time, when I arrived in Austin, but it was just the beginning of my evening out in Austin, visiting breweries and brewpubs and tasting beers. And on that 10-hour journey on the plane, I wrote quite a complicated article.

DK: What was the article?

MJ: It's a piece I'm doing about monastic brewing, trying to put into context where the Trappists fit in and are they making a different style of beer. Sort of what does a "Trappist beer" mean? It was a sort of rather thoughtful, careful bit of writing.

DK: Your writing seems to be going that direction. There seems to be more of a focus on beers and their context as opposed to strictly "this beer comes from this brewery and tastes like this."

MJ: You're right. When I started out, I was pretty much the only person doing this. Certainly the only person doing it in this country, and I was the only person anywhere in the world writing about beers from a worldwide viewpoint.

When I started out there really was no such thing as a "beer writer." Nobody talked about beers from other countries, nobody researched beers worldwide, nobody published their books worldwide in different languages like I do, nobody talked about the taste of beer or the cultural origins. At first I was the only person doing all of that, but since then the market's become very crowded. One of the problems of being a writer, of which I'm sure you're aware, is that you can go out and bust your ass to discover something, you print your article and it becomes public property. Something that took you weeks or months to establish, or even years, and now every other writer says, "Well, of course everybody knows that," when it took you a a long time to figure and sort that out. Everybody now has got your research as their starting point. Increasingly I find articles written that, in some instances are just my work recycled by other people, and in other cases where they've taken my work as a starting point and gone off and done very good research on their own, taken my stories further if you like.

DK: That's flattering, though, isn't it? When somebody takes your research as their foundation and builds upon it well?

MJ: Yeah, it is. It's flattering, and sometimes it's exasperating because sometimes I think, "Gee, I wish I'd done that." (laughs) Or, "Gee, I wish I'd had the TIME to do that," or, "That's something I always wanted to do but never got around to doing."

Some people do that (build on research) very well, and some of those people will make sure to put in a little nod in my direction. I suppose, increasingly, I do almost subconsciously realize I do need to be using the benefit of my experience and my years of doing this to give more context.

There's also the difficult thing of having readers who say, "Yeah, yeah, we know all that. We've been following you for 20 years, for Christ's sake, you don't need to tell us what a Trappist beer is." And there are other people who got interested yesterday, and you can't assume that they know all of this. So somehow you have to not drive them away, but at the same time not drive away the people who are already connoisseurs. You have to try to not talk down to one and up to the other. It's a very delicate balancing act. It's very difficult when you're writing for a normal consumer newspaper, where the reader's looking through and reading about yesterday's ball game, and President Clinton, and oh yeah, here's something on beer. He didn't sign up to read about beer, but you have to somehow hook him in and explain to him without putting off somebody who's going to say, "Oh, Christ, not all this stuff again."

DK: Have you ever had a beer that is irredeemably bad? Or is there something good to be found in every pint?

MJ: I've had beers that were hugely technically defective. You're not likely to get that from an established brewery, but I've had beers from microbreweries and brewpubs that were so defective that they shouldn't have been sold.

In terms of beers that are bad in the sense of being bad because they're bland or unpleasantly sticky-sweet, chicken-feedy, sort of too much corn, I think that's true of Corona and those types of beers, cheap standard beers in America and other countries. I'm tempted to ask the question, "Why did they bother to make this? Why does this beer exist?" The answer is that they bothered to make it and it exists because lots of people are satisfied with that, and the market gets what it deserves.

I don't have a lot of time for people who whinge about it, who whinge about beers they don't like. If you don't like it, don't buy it. Millions of people like light, easy to drink, refreshing, unchallenging beers, just like they like sliced white bread. It's certainly not the pinnacle of the brewing art, or the baking art, but there's a place for it. Still, I'm hesitant to be accepting of it in those places where it's driving out more interesting products. It did drive out more interesting products in the 1950s and '60s, then at kind of the eleventh hour the more interesting products kicked back in.

I meet a lot of brewers and see a sort of dumbing down of their beer. They say to me, "Well, I'm going to make a really light-tasting beer because that's what Americans like." And I say to them, "Yeah, a lot of Americans do like a light-tasting beer, but they're already being serviced, and they're being serviced by people who do it far better than you're ever going to do it." If you want to take on Bud and Miller, why don't you just go and stand on the freeway and get run over by a truck, because that's exactly what's going to happen to you.

It's very sad when a brewer who makes interesting beers, maybe beers that are very interesting, starts in a town and they don't sell very well so he dumbs down the whole range. The sensible thing to do is to have the so-called "crossover beer" for the drinkers who like the light, bland type of beer, but also have more interesting beers for people who like something more characterful. Don't dumb down the whole range.

I was talking to Young's in London the other day, and I said to the brewer, "I feel you're Young's London Bitter isn't quite as bitter as it used to be." And he said, "Well, it's SLIGHTLY less. We have reduced the bittering slightly, you know, in line with public taste." Well, I mean that was a beer with bittering that was in the 50s and 60s, and the public that want bland beer was never going to drink that in the first place, so there was no reason for dumbing that one down. On the contrary, make it even hoppier, for the real hopheads.

DK: Speaking of dumbing down, do you think contract brewing contributes to the dumbing down of beers in America? I've always felt that contract brewing takes some of the craft out of brewing.

MJ: I think one is always going to feel slightly uncomfortable about contract brewing. It's something that confuses the issue too, like what is a microbrewed beer and what isn't a microbrewed beer. On the other hand, beers like the Pete's range, they're not hugely characterful, but they're a lot more interesting than mainstream beers and they do make a range of styles with a visible degree of authenticity. If you take something like the Sam Adams products, where it's increasingly unclear what's a contract brewer and what's not, now that he (Jim Koch) has bought the Hudepohl brewery, Sam Adams has contributed some very, very characterful beers to the beer scene, no question about it.

DK: Do you think brewers and drinkers can get too focused on style, so focused that they quit creating new and interesting variations of beer?

MJ: That's a complex issue, really. I kind of lean toward a sort of disciplined approach to styles. Not because you have to, or because anybody's making you - there's certainly no law that says you have to brew to style. But when style names mean something, it enables the drinker to learn about beer and develop his own sort of vocabulary of beer.

You don't want to have a situation where nothing means anything, like before the microbrewery movement when people were making perfectly conventional lagers and calling them ales. Well, why are you calling it an ale? They'd say, "To have something different." Or calling a perfectly ordinary lager a stout. If you do that, names become meaningless and it becomes very hard for the consumer to develop any familiarity with the varieties that exist within beer. So on the whole, I think there's a good reason for classic styles. You don't have to adhere to them all the time, but I do tend to lean toward a more disciplined approach rather than a more eclectic approach.

DK: You've said many times that you're a writer, not a beer guy. But do you ever find yourself where the "beer guy" persona overwhelms the "writer" persona? Where you get more attention for being "that beer guy," instead of because you're an excellent writer?

MJ: Being a beer guy has enabled me to do a lot with my writing that I might otherwise have been able to do, so I'm quite happy with the relationship between the two elements of my life.

When I say, "I'm a writer first, then a beer guy," I'm just clarifying the positions, I'm not trying to correct some terrible injustice. (laughs) It is very gratifying. There were always some people who seemed to know who I was, on a train or a plane or something, but obviously many more after the TV series. You've got to wonder how do people know who you are, and obviously the TV series made a big difference. On a train, in Britain, a guy came up to me and said, "I love your TV series, but what I really love is your writing, I think you're a really good writer." And when that sort of thing happens it's very gratifying, of course.

DK: Have you reached the point yet where your celebrity interferes with your work? Where you go into a brewery or a bar to sample a new beer only to have some yahoo at the end of the bar start yelling, "Hey, Mike! Mike! Lemme talk to ya for a minute!"

MJ: I try to not use the word "annoyed" (chuckles), but the celebrity can be a mixed blessing in that situation. I can't help but be gratified that people know my books and my writing, and are interested in what I'm doing, so even if they express that interest when I'm trying to get on with a bit or research, I still say, "Thanks for your interest." I try to sort of parry them (chuckles again), and get on with my work. It's very rare that it's the kind of out and out, tedious drunks. I guess tedious drunks don't read articles about beer, or books about beer, they just get drunk.

DK: Unless they're like me.

MJ: (laughing) Yes, there are those borderline cases. Seriously, it happens all the time, but it's not a problem.

IN PART II: Can Michael Jackson still go into a pub and enjoy a pint, and what about another love of his life: whisky?

STORIES BY
DAVE KELLEY