Preserving a Beer Legacy
Library Houses Life Collections of Beer Writer Michael Jackson
Getting Beer History Right
Historians would call a healthy percentage of what’s in the archival boxes primary sources, directly reflecting Jackson’s observations or those of others in their own words. For instance, one of three folders devoted to Anchor Brewing contains a fax from founder Fritz Maytag to Jackson about the origins of Liberty Ale, how it was first brewed, dry hopping, and the use of Cascade hops. The story has been told and retold, but not always the same way. The fax is definitive.
Other times misinformation in articles or clippings he saved jumps off a page. Accepting everything at face value would be a mistake. In fact, historians might well approach the material differently than Jackson, examining more skeptically. Although he took great pride on his research ethic, as he wrote Finkel, he was willing to make revisions based on what he learned later. He was a journalist, often on deadline and dependent on those at breweries to provide important details. Sometimes they preferred a great story to one burdened with facts.
D. Gay Wilson at the University of Cambridge learned just that about the same time Jackson began writing about beer in the 1970s. Seeking to explain the presence of hops in a boat abandoned in Kent, England, in the 10th century, Wilson conducted a thorough study of mentions of the use of hops in Western Europe before they came into wide use. Quite often they turned out to be unsubstantiated or just plain wrong. The botanist eventually observed, “Beer is a popular subject, and the literature abounds in unsupported statements, misleading or inaccurate quotations, and inadequate references.”
As extensive as it is, the Michael Jackson Collection represents a sliver of beer history. It will prove more noteworthy if it changes how writers scrutinize beer history as much as Jackson changed beer writing itself, but honestly that’s an optimistic view.
“The trouble with correcting any sort of historical narrative is that people read the incorrect version and, thinking they now know it all, never bother reading anything that comes along later,” Martyn Cornell—like Jackson, an English journalist and author—wrote in an email. Cornell has written two of the most carefully researched beer history books available, Beer: The Story of the Pint and Amber, Gold & Black: The History of Britain’s Great Beers.
When he began researching the first, which was published in 2003, he decided not to write anything that he could not verify historically. He worked from first-hand documents from the period or valid transcriptions. He wouldn’t settle for “people much later quoting alleged letters allegedly sent from person A to person B.” Therefore he didn’t include an otherwise oft-told story about Queen Elizabeth drinking strong ale. He did describe how Henry VIII banned the use of hops in brewing ales because documents written by his court officials are available in the British Library.
However, writers still routinely report that Henry VIII forbade the use of hops altogether in brewing, although it was permitted in beer, which was distinctly different from ale in the 16th century, and the king’s army regularly drank that beer. Cornell devotes a chapter in The Story of the Pint to “A Short and Entirely Wrong History of Beer” and list 39 myths, explaining in detail why each is incorrect. Nonetheless, those myths continue to show up in beer publications, on neck labels of bottles and elsewhere.
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.