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Hope for Hops – Guest Column

"I am constantly dismayed at the ability of food and drink professionals to abandon discrimination when they choose beer." Michael Jackson – our guest columnist for May 2006

My name is Michael Jackson. It really is. I have no inappropriate interest in small boys. Or small girls. Nor do I sing or dance – unless I have a great deal more to drink than I have had so far today (it has been what we journalists call a Slow Booze Day).

If I get the timing right – and I have had years of experience – I have warmed the audience with four or five laughs in as many minutes. They didn’t need to be told who, or what, I am. If they didn’t know, they would not have paid for the ticket.

You did not pay to be my audience today, and it is possible that you have thus far gone through life managing perfectly well without me. “You are an industry legend; may I shake your hand?” a young woman said to me
the other day at a conference in Seattle. Much as my ego enjoys such testimonials, there is always an antidote round
the corner. “Meet Michael Jackson. He writes on wine for The Observer.” No, I don’t. I write on beer and whisky,
and at the time I was doing so for The Independent.

I don’t mind being associated with the wrong newspaper, or even occasionally being given the wrong name. “Hugh Jackson” was a recent example. But it is hard not to be annoyed when wine is substituted for my true passion, though. It is almost a denial of mine being a worthy topic.

The idea of a writer specialising in beer remains unfamiliar. Did no one read a line of all those articles and books I wrote in the last 30 years? Did no one watch any of the series of Beer Hunter documentaries? They did. And they read work by other beer writers. There are enough of us to sustain a British Guild of Beer Writers. Some of my colleagues resent the occasional essays by wine writers into the world of beer, but I do not agree. Some might not have adequate understanding of beer, but most do. They may be taking the ciabatta out of our mouths, but their voices are welcome.

Wine writers bring their own authority to the support of beer, and help place it in the broader context of fermented drinks. Beer and wine are products of a similar history, comparable nobility, and equal complexity. Their role in social ritual and in gastronomy is fundamental.

The warm places that grow wine and brandies were early imperial rulers of Europe: Greece, Rome, Spain. Did that position wine as a drink of the ruling class? The cooler countries that grow malting barley (and therefore beer, korn schnapps and whisky) were the first industrial nations: the Czech Republic, Germany, Belgium. Wine is consumed by the wealthy; beer by the workers. That was never wholly true.

Hugh Johnson’s World Atlas of Wine inspired me. He broadened the reach of wine, and I tried to do the same for beer, hoping we would meet in the middle. Occasionally, we do run into one another at a drinks industry event. It may even be a wine show. I like to know what is happening beyond my own beery bailiwick.

If I’m in Britain, I will be at the London International Wine and Spirits Fair. No doubt some wine friend will succumb to the desire for a beer. If I am in the chair, I will hope to find him a beer to excite his professional interest in aromas and flavours.

But what if he is buying? I am constantly dismayed at the ability of food and drink professionals to abandon all discrimination when they choose beer. Wine merchants, sommeliers, restaurateurs who would not be seen dead in the company of a branded plonk will cheerfully brandish its beery equivalent.

Of course, there are always exceptions. A dozen years ago, I helped Paul Henderson, at Gidleigh Park, with a beer list. Recently, Aubergine and The Fat Duck have also begun to offer a serious beer list too.

These are PR triumphs, and very welcome, but the battle will not be won until it becomes a convention that a self-respecting restaurant offers a decent selection of beers, properly served.

Nor will that happy state be achieved until the drinks industry develops a more informed understanding of its best-selling product.

Michael Jackson recently received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the British Guild of Beer Writers

db May 2006

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