On meeting Michael

Part One - Part Two

April 2000

By Gary Monterosso

As we pass through various phases of our lives, there are certain people outside our immediate families, whom we tend to admire greatly. Perhaps as a youngster, it may have been an athlete or a recording artist. Possibly, as you became older and your interests changed, that hero was a political, religious or social leader. It really doesn't matter which direction your life may have taken; most everyone has one person in mind who contributes an influence either to work, beliefs and such.

First, the preliminary: I began writing about the beer world about a decade ago. As so many others in this field, I always enjoyed a "good" beer but, by the mid-1980's, I began wondering where all the good ones had gone. Frankly, I was dissatisfied with what I had been drinking and knew there were alternatives elsewhere.

I recall my first so-called "boutique" beer being Grolsch, recommended to me while I was in Washington, D.C. I couldn't believe how the taste (special emphasis on the word "taste") put what I had been drinking to shame. Finding Grolsch then put me on what was to be a long search for more high quality brews.

In the late 1980's, I did a project with my students (I still am a teacher) which, with my principal's encouragement, was sold as a column to a national educational magazine. To think that someone thought enough of my work to publish it for many to read simply got my creative juices flowing and led me to explore the possibility of doing more writing at some future time. Can you begin to see how my love of good beer and writing are beginning to merge?

Fast forward a couple of years. Attending a number of craft beer shows and tastings, I approached the editor of my local paper about the possibility of doing a review, complete with pictures, of a rather large, prestigious event on the eastern part of the United States. He agreed and, to this day, I am as proud of that article as any I have written since.

As luck would have it, that editor asked if I would be interested in doing a monthly beer column. I jumped at the idea not really knowing what I had committed myself to. Writing about beer has evolved into a lengthy venture, but has become one which has led me to meet some of the finest people in the world.

Needless to say, any area of writing calls upon the author to do a degree of research. Despite all the magazines, newspapers and books I read back then (and still do now), the one name which always was mentioned was that of Michael Jackson.

I purchased anything the man wrote: his books, newspapers and magazines where he had new columns... anything. When his television series came out, "The Beer Hunter," I taped it and watched it repeatedly. Simply put, I enjoyed his work.

As my writing career continued to expand (I now write for a number of publications in addition to publishing a monthly newsletter), I looked to Michael not just for substance, but also for an attitude. You see, he doesn't portray himself or the craft beer market in such a way as to give it a degree of arrogance or snob appeal. From what I have seen of him throughout the years, he has remained a constant. No one has done more for the credibility of a subject than has Michael Jackson.

In late 1999, I got word that Michael was going to be spending a weekend in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, approximately an hour from where I live. The city is becoming recognized for an annual event called the "Book and the Cook" in which dozens of renowned authors from the food and beverage world unite for ten days and demonstrate their talents to an adoring crowd. The attraction to the general public is the accessibility of these people to those in attendance.

A friend proposed that a number of us make arrangements to attend a Michael Jackson tutored tasting, scheduled for a Saturday afternoon in March. Quickly and painlessly herding a group of people, primarily associated with the culinary trade, our plans were finalized.

I host a radio segment every other Saturday on a food show and told the moderator of the show about our plans. His question to me was, "Can you bring Michael on our show?" Of course, I never would have thought to consider such an idea, given the stature and schedule for Michael's weekend. However, through Tony Forder, editor of Ale Street News, America's largest circulation "brewspaper," Anna Bauer from the University of Pennsylvania Museum and the help of Michael's staff, we were able to come to an agreement to bring him on the radio show for what was to be a five-to-ten minute interview beginning at 10:05am.

Normally, I appear live on the radio show, "Ed Hitzel's Table For One," every few months. My beer segments are taped in advance. My dilemma: the studio is located about an hour east of my house and I was due to meet our limo to transport my group to Philadelphia at my house at 11:30am (the tasting was to start at 1:00pm). This meant, of course, that I would have to drive immediately from the station to my home and hope the car still was there waiting for me. But... first things first.

Jason, our producer, placed the call to Michael's hotel room precisely at 10:05, as he was instructed to do. My greatest fear was that the call either would not be accepted or that maybe Michael was unavailable (he was the subject of a "roast" the previous night). After what seemed like an eternity of waiting, I looked to the monitor in our broadcast room to see those magic words: "Line 3 - Michael Jackson."

After a sigh of relief on my part, Ed Hitzel, upon seeing those magic words, went directly to the call. He asked his first question and I anxiously awaited the answer. I determined immediately he was going to be an excellent guest, based on the depth of his answer. Michael was vibrant and candid. As the last of a series of about three or four questions posed by Mr. Hitzel was being answered, he mouthed these words to me, "It's your turn." For a few seconds, I had hoped Michael's answer to Ed's question might go on a few minutes longer, somewhat apprehensive that I might open my mouth and mush might come out.

But, no, I got that first question out without as much as a stutter and, much to my delight, the interview proceeded seamlessly. As this twenty-five minute conversation progressed, I thought to myself that I had finally accomplished something that perhaps my ten years of writing had been leading to - my speaking with the person who has had the most influence on my beer writing career: Michael Jackson.

Three days later, I received a copy of the tape of that interview in the mail, courtesy of Ed Hitzel.

In Part Two, look for more on the Michael Jackson interview and our face-to-face meeting later that day.

®Gary Monterosso. All Rights Reserved

Gary Monterosso