Jackson’s Journal: ‘Rescued by Mother Teresa’
Editor’s Note: This column appeared in the October 1986 (Vol. 7, No. 5) issue of All About Beer Magazine.
One of the most frightening moments of my life (thus far, anyway) dawned in the days when I was already a roving reporter but not yet exclusively dedicated to the professional pursuit of beer. I was on a story in Calcutta, India, when political riots broke out. The rioters were attacking, and often killing anyone who ventured on the streets. People’s cars were being set afire. I was stuck in the middle of the city, and was meant to be somewhere else. It seemed a good idea, too, to get out of the place.
I suspect that some of the world’s most incisive literature on beer would never have been written had I not been rescued from Calcutta that day by Mother Teresa.
I had become acquainted with Mother Teresa during the Bangladesh crisis. We had met at a field hospital, chatted, and got along well, despite differences on such matters as the existence of God.
Now, in Calcutta, I called her to see whether she could help me. “Right,” she said, “I’ll come round and pick you up.”
“What about the rioters?” I inquired. “They’ll set your car on fire. “
“Don’t worry,” she replied, with all the calm of someone who knows not only that God exists but also that He, She or It is on their side. “They won’t attack me. Anyway, I will be in a very big truck.”
She was; they didn’t; and I got out of town, to write another day. “I hope you like my truck,” she smiled. “It was a gift from Pope John.”
That was 15 years ago, and now our paths cross again, in Estes Park, Colorado. Mother Teresa is here to address herself to some spiritual gathering; I am here to address the annual conference of the American Homebrewers’ Association.
I consider trying to get in touch with Mother Teresa while we are both in Colorado, to thank her for making it possible for me to write The Simon & Schuster Pocket Guide to Beer, but decide against it. I suppose that in her line of work she gets to meet a lot of people, Popes and suchlike. She won’t remember our brief (and—probably only for me—dramatic) encounter of a decade and a half ago.
One of the principals of the Boulder Brewery (who make pretty good ales and porters, by the way) once publicly described me as the Pope of Beer, but I don’t suppose this will impress Mother Teresa.
Mother Teresa in Colorado … a monsignor in Cork … Trappist monks in Belgium … a Buddhist Temple in Sri Lanka: matters spiritual seem to permeate my diary, despite its being written in pursuit of beer. I may now, however, be on the point of actually meeting a spirit, and not of the distilled kind.
I am staying in an allegedly haunted hotel. Not only is it supposed to be haunted; it has also inspired some haunting literature. No, not this journal—nothing haunted about this, despite its customarily being illustrated with a photograph of a demented-looking creature. No, I refer to The Shining, by Stephen King. The one they made into a film, starring Jack Nicholson (the only man for whom my girlfriend has said she would leave me) and directed by Stanley Kubrick.
I have been told to expect sudden sensations of spine-chilling coldness as I enter my hotel room. So far, all I have noticed is the wind whistling between the mountains outside my window. The only apparition I have seen is a wax-moustachioed man who talks constantly, and dreamily, of wartime adventures in the Pacific. This turns out to be Fred Eckhardt, author of a book on home–brewing called A Treatise on Lager Beer. He, too, is here for the annual conference of the American Homebrewers’ Association.
In the lobby is a car dating from the first decade of this century. It was once the fastest car in America. It is steam-powered. It is nothing less than the Stanley Steamer. Welcome to the Stanley Hotel, Estes Park.
Fred Eckhardt is not so much a Pope of Beer as a prophet. Since he lives in the state of Oregon (albeit in the civilized town of Portland) he is geographically well placed to start a cult. It would, naturally, be a cult of home-brewers.
In the meantime, today’s homebrewers go about their interest in order to produce beers in styles that are not readily available where they live. Home–brewers have done more than anyone to foster interest in specialty brews like ales, porters, stouts, barley wines and wheat beers. Most of them first encountered these styles while they were in the American military overseas (like Fred Eckhardt) or at college in Europe. By making these beers back home in America, they have demonstrated that there is a market for them, and thus encouraged the availability of some of the more unusual imports.
I have just judged the annual competition for the best homebrewer in North America. Fred Eckhardt was with me on the judging panel. So was Pat Baker, a fellow contributor to All About Beer magazine. There was a fourth judge, Philip Rogers, of the Calistoga Inn. As its name suggests, that is in California wine country; Philip is a connoisseur of both the grape and the grain, a condition that is by no means unusual.
There were more than 600 entries, emanating from individuals and home-brewing clubs as far apart as New Orleans, Louisiana, and Regina, Saskatchewan. We did our judging before an audience, who seemed greatly to appreciate hearing our comments on the beers. We judges argued among ourselves as to the merits and defects of each beer, and the audience apparently found this very interesting.
I greatly admired a typically American-style beer (a light-bodied Pilsener), home-brewed in Randolph, Vermont, but the other judges were less impressed. In particular, they thought its color was a little too full for that style. I also liked a wheat beer in the South German style, home-brewed in Houston, Texas. I was especially impressed by its hint of tart apples, because I feel that characteristic is typical of the style. The other judges, perhaps more accustomed to the north German and American styles, found it just too tart. A home-brewer in Tulsa, Oklahoma, produced the best entrant in the British Bitter category, though these tended to lack the hoppy acidity of this English and Welsh style, and to be more like the malty Scottish ales. There were even a dozen entrants seeking to emulate a single product: Chimay Trappist Ale, from Belgium. The best Chimay taste-alikes came from home-brewers in Wisconsin and Indiana.
One by one, we eliminated the beers, so to speak, until we were left with a winner upon which we could all agree. We finished up with an Imperial-style stout, home-brewed in Santa Rosa, California, by a character called Byron Burch. Despite his having written an instructive book called Quality Brewing, and being a supplier of malt and hops to the public at large through his Great Fermentations shops, Byron had—in eight years of entries—never before won this award. Several members of the audience later told me that, as the eliminations had proceeded toward a final choice, they had been gripped by the tension. Words like “exciting” and even “thrilling” were bandied around. Who would have thought a judging of beers could be described like that? It’s the first time we have done it in public, but I am sure we will handle things the same way when the American Homebrewers’ Association assemble the entries and judges for next year’s crop.
What do the giants of the beer business—people like Budweiser, Coors and Stroh think about homebrewing? You might be surprised to learn they encourage it. Each of them have over the years sent speakers, or given other help, to the American Homebrewers’ Association (which, I might mention, has its permanent headquarters in Boulder, Colorado; phone 303-447-0816 if you want to enter beers or learn more about home-brewing).
The Budweiser and Michelob company, Anheuser-Busch, this year allowed the director of its Flavor Centre to address the conference. He is a scientist with an immense knowledge of brewing (and winemaking). It is his job to make sure that all of the Anheuser-Busch products consistently taste as they should. He gave a detailed presentation explaining to home-brewers how they can pick out the positive and negative flavors in their beers. The supervisor of malting research at Coors gave a talk on his topic; a hop-grower from Oregon added his seasoning to the brew.
Afterwards, I presented a tasting of imports. The idea was to expose guests to as wide a range of styles and palates as could be found in Colorado. What was the selection? It went something like this: Lindemans Gueuze, Faro and Kriek; Rodenbach Grand Cru; Wittekop; Ayinger UrWeizen; Kuppers Kolsch; Saison; Young’s Special London Ale and Old Nick Barley Wine; Ruddles’ County; Kwak; Gouden Carolus; and Samuel Smith’s Oatmeal Stout.
If you plan to hold a tasting yourself, make sure to start with the lighter-tasting beers and move step-by-step to the heavier ones. Take the beers out of the fridge about an hour before the tasting: you can’t pick out flavors in a beer that is too cold. Don’t use decorated or colored glasses: you want to be able to appreciate the color of each beer. If the glasses curve inwards, like a brandy snifter, all the better; you want to be able to capture the bouquet of each beer. Because I wanted to show a wide range, I offered a lot of beers; to make a real judgement, restrict yourself to half a dozen, or 10 at the very most. Serve about three ounces of each beer (just enough for a good beer to form a head and leave some “Brussels lace” down the side of the glass). Drink water to clean your palate between beers.
If you are judging typically American beers, you should be hoping for a flowery hop aroma; a clean palate with some malty sweetness; and a hint of hop bitterness in the finish. Similar imported beers, like Heineken, Beck’s and St. Pauli Girl should have much the same features but in a slightly more assertive expression.
A television interviewer asked me the other day why people got so passionate about beer. “It’s because hops are so arousing,” I suggested. “The most expensive hops in the world, the Bohemian variety from Czechoslovakia, are picked by hand by pubescent young women. Their gentle touch excites the hop blossoms to secrete their essential oils … ” I was warming to the topic when she stopped the cameras from rolling. “This is a family program,” she reproached. She was lucky it wasn’t live. Meanwhile, I’ve been censored. Something to do with the Moral Minority, I supposed. I wonder whether Mother Teresa can help me this time.