Michael Jackson’s World Guide to Beer Enters a Robust Middle-Age
By the start of 1977, Michael Jackson was a mildly successful, 34-year-old newspaper and television journalist whose biggest coups to date were editing the in-flight magazine of Dutch airline KLM and filling in for another writer on a 1976 book called The English Pub (the photo-heavy affair covered exactly what its title implied).
Jackson would exit 1977 as the leading authority on beer in the English-speaking world, maybe the whole world. For it was during that year that publishers Prentice-Hall and Littlehampton Books Services released his World Guide to Beer in the U.S. and the U.K., respectively. It was a groundbreaker in terms of explaining and popularizing beer.
Why such a groundbreaker? Being the leading authority on beer was not necessarily that monumental a feat. There simply was not a lot of non-technical writing about beer up to that period, at least not in English, the subject never having landed the sort of critical attention that wine had enjoyed for at least a few years by 1977.
Influential mastheads, including the New York Times and New York magazine, had introduced regular wine critics in the early 1970s, and several publications, including Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, Food & Wine, and Wine Advocate, would launch before the decade’s end.
More than that, too, there were books—books!—about wine, perhaps most notably to that point Hugh Johnson’s The World Atlas to Wine, a loquacious, 247-page explainer that had the good fortune to drop just as drier, finer wines were starting to finally outsell sweeter, more generic hooch in the United States.
It was Johnson’s World Atlas, and his later works as well, that inspired Jackson to try his hand at something similar beer-wise. Jackson was also steeped in the subject.
Born in March 1942 near Leeds in northern England’s West Yorkshire, Jackson had his first beer, a lower-alcohol mild, at 15 at the Castle Hill Hotel in Huddersfield. He dropped out of high school a year later, in 1958, to support his family working at newspapers (and later for magazines and television).
It was also in that year that the 16-year-old Jackson hit upon a regular feature for a local newspaper called “This Is Your Pub.” The idea was simple: Jackson, then underage, would visit pubs and describe their staff, patrons, and offerings—this during an era when both English beer and pubs were much more geographically distinct.
The experience awakened in Jackson the idea of beer itself as varied and local, whatever the hegemony of homogeneous global brands such as Bud and Miller. Years later, in 1969, Jackson discovered Belgian beer during a work-related trip to the Low Countries.
That really got him hooked on the subject. Inspired by his own experiences, Johnson’s oeuvre on wine, and the Campaign for Real Ale that fellow British journalists founded in 1971, Jackson became a sponge when it came to beer and brewing. He set about visiting more breweries than perhaps any person ever, his notes often painstakingly detailed but the finished product of the writing usually breezy and accessible.
The research led to The World Guide to Beer in 1977. Though it barely made a ripple sales-wise during its initial publishing run, the book reached the right people—at just the right time, it turned out.
Like fellow Englishman Hugh Johnson with his World Atlas of Wine, Jackson had the good fortune to drop The World Guide to Beer just as what would come to be called microbrewing or craft beer began to take off in the all-important American marketplace.
Numerous early pioneers in American microbrewing embraced the book as just what Jackson intended it to be: a guide to not only what was out there, but why it was out there. Jackson placed beers in their geographic and historical, and sometimes religious and ethnic, contexts.
And just the fact that he wrote of beer as having styles at all was revolutionary for the time. As improbable as it might seem today, writers, when they wrote about beer at all, and other observers of the brewing trade invariably used every other descriptor under the sun to describe different beers except “styles”—“divisions,” “kinds,” “species,” “types,” “varieties,” “classes,” yada, yada.
Post-World Guide to Beer, it became much more common to discuss beers stylistically based on the ingredients used and how they were used, just as wine had long been discoursed upon in terms of styles based on the grapes used (Merlot, Chardonnay, etc.).
Jackson, of course, would go on from the 1977 book to a long career chronicling this rise in stylistic appreciation that he helped pioneer, including as a regular contributor to All About Beer Magazine from 1984 until his death in 2007.
His World Guide to Beer would go on to a long career as well, with new editions (two, as far as I can tell) and numerous print runs. It’s still an invaluable resource for beer history and, yes, style. Even the original does not feel dated in much of its information.
And it’s that original that still inspires a bit of writerly awe due to its scope and accomplishment. This was the era way before Google, when landline telephone and shoe leather did much of even the introductory reporting. And, besides, again, no one was quite putting down the information about the subject the way Jackson was 40 years ago.
“For the love of good beer,” he wrote in the introduction to a 1988 edition, “I hope it was all worthwhile.”
Tom Acitelli is the author of The Audacity of Hops: The History of America’s Craft Beer Revolution and the forthcoming Whiskey Business: How Small-Batch Distillers Are Transforming American Spirits. He is at work on a biography of Michael Jackson.