Beer Connoisseur Michael Jackson, 65

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 1, 2007

Michael Jackson, 65, who was widely regarded as the English language's leading writer and authority on beer and who earned the nickname "the beer hunter" after his TV documentary of the same name, died Aug. 30 at his home in London after a heart attack. He had Parkinson's disease.

Mr. Jackson, a British journalist, was also dubbed the "Bard of Beer" as he hopped around the world to write, lecture and (to much envy) sample dozens of distinctive brews every day. His books, which many brewers used as reference guides, sold millions of copies and were translated into more than a dozen languages.

Starting in the mid-1970s, Mr. Jackson was credited with reviving worldwide interest in a range of beer styles and traditions, some long-forgotten. He also helped popularize the Campaign for Real Ale and the U.S. microbrew movements, which championed better-quality beer.

He said he wanted his work "to elevate the understanding, the diversity and the nobility of beer." His devotion to improving beer coverage was considered distinctive, he said, in an era when "newspaper men talked beer, drank beer and wrote about wine."

His first major book was "The World Guide to Beer" (1977), and it was greeted with enthusiasm among beer connoisseurs. He followed with such best-selling volumes as "The New World Guide to Beer" in 1988 and "The Great Beers of Belgium" in 1992. He was also an expert on other spirits, and his book "Whiskey" won a James Beard Foundation award last year.

His six-part British television documentary, "The Beer Hunter," (1990) was broadly seen as the first time on screen that beer received the same intricate attention as wine.

After a cheeky introduction -- "My name really is Michael Jackson, but I don't sing and I don't drink Pepsi" -- he spoke to barley and malt growers as well as brewmeisters in Europe and North America. He worked to dispel the image of the slovenly beer guzzler by focusing on the enjoyment of exquisite beers over terrific meals.

Charlie Papazian, president of the Colorado-based Brewers Association, said Mr. Jackson "portrayed the human and cultural side of beer. Never before had beer been embraced in that manner. His all-encompassing approach was that beer was about the human experience -- the exchange of ideas, commerce and economy, improving quality of life."

Mr. Jackson -- bearded and bespectacled, with the expanding telltale belly of his consuming interest -- was a familiar sight in university lecture halls from Oxford to Cornell. He also appeared in small bar settings, frequently at Washington's Brickskeller, and was a guest on late-night talk shows. He was a food-section columnist for the London Independent newspaper and contributed to Playboy, Food & Wine and The Washington Post, among other publications.

Mr. Jackson's whiskey and beer tastings attracted hundreds of people. He spoke of beer made with everything from cherries to green peppers and was a particular devotee of Belgian brews for their "idiosyncratic" array of winy, sour, spicy, chocolaty and other kinds of flavors.

Inevitably, he was approached at bars and festivals to name his favorite brew. He demurred, saying it depended on his mood and the location. He once wrote a column about the "perfect pint" without naming it. "If it find it, I will be unemployed," he said.

Mr. Jackson was born March 27, 1942, in the northern English province of Yorkshire and was raised in working-class Huddersfield.

His father, who was descended from Lithuanian Jews, was a truck driver. He described his mother as a competent baker who was compulsive about proper language, which influenced his wordsmith skills.

He said he quit school at 16 because "the parents were quite keen to have me contribute to the family income." He became a junior reporter and worked his way to London's Fleet Street. At one point, he edited the in-flight magazine of KLM airlines. He also was an investigative reporter for "World in Action," a current events TV program.

He said he developed a sizable thirst as a teenager, telling the Times of London: "I drank partly because I knew that great writers drank and I wanted to be a great writer, partly to see if [bartenders] would serve me."

By the mid-1970s, food and drink was the main subject of his reportage. His first book was about English pubs. He said the nascent Campaign for Real Ale and the success of Hugh Johnson's books about wine led him to follow up with "The World Guide to Beer," which cemented Mr. Jackson's reputation.

In a later book, "Michael Jackson's Beer Companion," he addressed wine and his beer legacy:

" 'Do you ever drink wine?' people ask me, as though beer were a prison rather than a playground. A day may pass when I do not drink wine, but never a week. Whatever is argued about other pleasures, it is not necessary to be monogamous in the choice of drink. Beer is by far the more extensively consumed, but less adequately honored. In a small way, I want to help put right that injustice."

His wife, Maggie Jackson, died about 1980 after 14 years of marriage.

Survivors include his companion of 26 years, Paddy Gunningham of London; a daughter of his companion's he helped raise, Sam Hopkins of Brighton, England; a sister; and two grandchildren.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company