Preserving a Beer Legacy
Library Houses Life Collections of Beer Writer Michael Jackson
The Michael Jackson Collection exists as a separate entity, integrated with other collections at Oxford Brookes. Books and periodicals in the National Brewing Library surround those from Jackson. The nearby Fuller Collection—with about 7,000 books and pamphlets related to all aspects of hospitality, gastronomy, catering and cooking—is the sort of company Jackson liked to keep.
Scholars from around the world visit Oxford to use its libraries, although generally those in the numerous historic colleges of Oxford University. Oxford Brookes is about two miles from the city center and those
colleges. It became a university in 1992, named for one of the founding principals, John Henry Brookes. It consistently has been voted England’s leading modern university, lauded for everything from architecture to automotive and motorsports engineering, and for becoming the first Fair Trade university in the world.
In 2014, the library will move into a thoroughly modern complex currently under construction. By then, archivist Eleanor Possart will have transferred the contents of 29 filing cabinets full of research material to archival boxes. There will still be much to be sorted, because there are boxes of periodicals, cassette tapes that may eventually be transcribed, videotapes, notebooks and many other items.
A Research Facility
As inviting as shelves full of books Jackson wrote and collected may be—those beer-specific as well as whisky books that nicely complement what’s in the National Brewing Library and books related to beer and cooking that enhance the Fuller Collection—this is not a reading room generally open to the public. It is a place for research, and researchers are welcome. Everything has been fully cataloged or listed, but the indexes only broadly reflect the contents. It is still necessary to pull out boxes and open folders to discover if they contain handwritten notes Jackson may have scribbled during the 1980s or simply press releases a brewery mailed to him in London.
Until the effects of Parkinson’s disease began to slow him, Jackson was scrupulous about filing his notes. When he returned from doing research, he would tear the pages from the spiral-bound notebooks he used and file them under the name of the relevant brewery. He organized them by country and perhaps region, depending on the size of the country. There are 156 German files, for instance, and 192 under California alone. In fact, U.S. breweries occupied five cabinets on their own, and that didn’t include hundreds of notes on American breweries sitting in a separate bin.
(In the mid 1990s, Jackson began working on a book that was to be called Michael Jackson’s Great Beers of America. It was like his popular guides to beer, including maps and numerical ratings [on a scale of 100] for beers, basically an attempt at a comprehensive review of U.S. beer at a time of then-record expansion. Local representatives often helped him organize trips through their area, even traveling with him. Tom Dalldorf of Celebrator Beer News called the California leg he joined Jackson on “The Iron Liver Tour.”
Jackson eventually sidelined the book, explaining that he had never in his career abandoned a project. However, he realized that by the time the book could be in print, 75 percent of the information might be outdated. He eventually returned the advance he received to his publisher, Running Press. Rather than filing them with everything else, he kept 39 envelopes—variously labeled “NW 94” or “Oregon 95”—crammed with notes about breweries and beers in a large tray, along with a paper sack full of American money, mostly loose change.)
Possart preserved the filing system as it was in the office, so personal letters between Finkel and Jackson remain under “clients” in the Merchant du Vin folder. Any particular folder could be rich with detail or rather slim. In fact, in moving them into boxes, Possart sometimes came across empty hanging folders. Randomly pulling out files is not recommended, because an entire afternoon of good reading can pass rather quickly. The Zymurgy file, really nine folders, also in “clients,” is one of the rich ones, including uncensored opinions about Great American Beer Festival judging during its formative years, as well as numerous exchanges between Jackson and Charlie Papazian, the journal’s founder.
In contrast, the folder labeled MJ/4/31/97 contains a sliver of paper, part of a page cut into several pieces. Jackson originally created a Rikenjaks folder in a drawer labeled “USA South East N-Z.” He tasted two beers from the defunct Louisiana brewery in 1994, and his transcribed notes occupy only a few lines:
Rikenjaks LA SE
GABF 94 – ESB. Malty, touch choc, hoppy, assertive tart, 1 hr N Baton Rouge.
- Old Hardhead Scottish Ale. Malty, slightly syrupy, quite sweet.
Not surprisingly, the Chimay folder, still hanging in a filing cabinet in March waiting to be boxed, is bulging. It includes handwritten notes in French, laboratory analysis of the monastery brewery’s beers, other technical details, notes taken in 1986, bottle caps, postcards and other information that may no longer be available anywhere else. The Berkshire Brewing files contain bumper stickers and labels as well as several pages of notes scribbled in 1995 about the brewery, its beer, and the surrounding Massachusetts area. Berkshire had been around a year, brewing 1,000 barrels, and might have seemed not more significant than Rikenjaks. Today Berkshire brews more than 20,000 barrels annually.
Stan Hieronymus, a contributor to All About Beer Magazine for 20 years, is the author of several books on beer and brewing. The most recent, For the Love of Hops (Brewers Publications), deals with all aspects of one of one of beer’s essential ingredients.