On A Thanksgiving Long Ago, A Beer-Food First
On Nov. 16, 1983, a Wednesday, readers of The Washington Post awoke to an essay, meandering over four pages, on which beers to pair with which parts of the Thanksgiving feast the following week. It was written by the English beer critic Michael Jackson. As difficult as it may be to fathom in our golden age of beer and (ahem) beer writing, the essay marked the first time such extensive beer-food advice had appeared in an American newspaper.
And not just any newspaper: The Post was the third largest daily by circulation in the United States, its reputation, in the famed hands of publisher Katherine Graham and executive editor Ben Bradlee, still ballasted by the Watergate news-breaks not even 10 years before. The denizens of Capitol Hill and the White House devoured it as did an affluent suburban population throughout Northern Virginia and Maryland.
(Just a curious aside to prove the point: Jackson, who was well on his way to immortality as the greatest of beer critics, wrote regularly for the Post on the topic during the same period Robert Parker Jr. wrote regularly for the newspaper about wine—the greatest beer critic and the greatest wine critic, in the same publication at the same time; and under the same supervisor, no less: Phyllis Richman, the Post’s food editor and restaurant critic.)
To be in Washington Post newsprint at long length, on any topic, when the Internet was still the plaything of academics and the Defense Department, was to be influential.
That the topic was beer was, quite frankly, amazing. At the time, there were fewer than 100 breweries in the United States. Most of the nation’s beer (then as now) was made by a handful of breweries. Most of these breweries making most of the beer, too, were making the same type: what had come to be called American pilsner. Budweiser was, and is, probably the best example.
Yet, there it was the week before the biggest American holiday of them all: Jackson’s discursive, humorous advice for Post readers on which beers should pair with which foods—with the clear assumption that Americans would appreciate the variety of beers available to them if they’d just look (an assumption Jackson was probably foolhardy to venture in 1983). Take this passage:
“With the centerpiece of the meal, the turkey, the wine-drinker has a difficult choice. Should it be a medium-dry white? Or a drier medium-bodied red? Among beers, I would opt for a pale but medium-dry brew of the type produced in the city of Munich and elsewhere in Bavaria. . . . With just a hint of sweetness to match some of the turkey’s accompaniments, these Munich Light beers have plenty of body without being too filling. Their alcohol content is pretty ordinary, at well under 4.0 percent by weight or 5.0 by volume. As for serving temperatures, the simplest rule to observe is that any beer from Munich or elsewhere in Bavaria should be served chilled but not to American popsicle level; not less than 48 degrees, in fact.”
It was something anyone with taste buds could get right away: Certain beers went better with certain foods. The idea, however, was revolutionary in the mainstream. Beer simply was not written about in such a way in U.S. publications, major or otherwise. This was an era when “light” referred not to a beer’s color (as Jackson intended) but to the low-caloric American pilsners such as Miller Lite then dominating the domestic beer marketplace. Americans might readily pair wine with their Thanksgiving feasts, or with their food generally. Beer? The approach would have seemed as foreign as “any beer from Munich.”
Jackson was clearly on to something. As we know today, this time of year you have to cover your eyes or plug your ears not to read or hear serious advice about which beers to pair with which plates at the big autumnal chow-down. Rightfully so.
What is not clear is whether Jackson, who died in 2007, even regarded the Nov. 16, 1983 Post essay as a big deal. It was. It was the father of every beer-food-pairing piece to come in the next generation, the first toss over the ramparts into a fortress previously reserved in the United States exclusively for wine. And it came in such a tremendously un-ignore-able package. Happy Thanksgiving.
Tom Acitelli is the author of The Audacity of Hops: The History of America’s Craft Beer Revolution. His new book is a history of American fine wine called American Wine: A Coming-of-Age Story. Reach him on Twitter @tomacitelli.