Library Houses Life Collections of Beer Writer Michael Jackson

All About Beer Magazine - Volume 34, Issue 4
September 1, 2013 By
A view of beer writer Michael Jackson’s office, the contents of which are now at a library in the United Kingdom. Photo courtesy of Oxford Brookes University.

The world’s best-known beer writer did not claim to get everything right at first.

“Obviously, I’m learning all the time, and revising my ideas. Nor did I start with the assumption that I knew better than anyone else,” Michael Jackson wrote to American beer importer Charles Finkel in 1981. “My initial contribution was not knowledge but a willingness to research.”

Jackson and Finkel were near the beginning of a friendship and business relationship that would last until the Englishman Jackson died in 2007. Finkel once said finding Jackson’s World Guide to Beer in 1978 “was to me like a heathen discovering the Bible,” and it was an essential reference in building the portfolio for his company, Merchant du Vin. Finkel had recently visited the author in London, and that the two were at ease with each other was obvious. Jackson suggested Finkel must have had a good time, because there was part of the evening the American apparently did not remember.

Jackson corresponded with total candor. “There is, in fact, no limit to the egomaniac self images I can conjure up, and will do, as raw images for anything you care to put together in Alephenalia [a newsletter Finkel created for Merchant du Vin],” he wrote. “Let me put it in another, mock-modest way: here are some of the aspects of my work in which I take pride.”

In the paragraphs that followed, Jackson did indeed forgo modesty, but more extraordinary in retrospect is how accurately he forecast, in 1981 and well before he became known as The Beer Hunter, a good portion of what he would be remembered for:— being the first writer to attempt an international study of beer styles, championing beer at the table, and using a “literate” vocabulary in his beer writing. Perhaps that vision explains why much of what he wrote before the current generation of beer drinkers was even born remains relevant today.

The Michael Jackson Collection

The typed carbon copy of what Jackson wrote to Finkel is filed along with more letters, promotional material and other documents related to Merchant du Vin inside a folder labeled MJ/4/14/211 in an archival box in the special collections room at the Oxford Brookes University library. In May of 2008, nine months after Jackson died, Don Marshall at Oxford Brookes supervised a crew that moved almost the entire contents of Jackson’s office in London to Oxford.

They packed up 83 linear feet of books (1,500 from his personal library and 300 copies of his own books, often with versions in multiple languages), the contents of 29 filing cabinets and 26 linear feet of archival material. The movers left behind only considerable quantities of beer and whisky, as well as most of the glassware.

Included among the objects moved were several pairs of Jackson’s glasses, Beer Hunter business cards, Christmas cards and a tattered copy of The Penguin Dictionary of Modern Quotations. Cut-up Post-it notes protrude from the top, acting as tabs, labeled with page and item numbers plus key words like beer, drink or porter. The last marks a quotation from J.P Donleavy, who wrote The Ginger Man.

It reads: “When I die, I want to decompose in a barrel of porter and have it served in all the pubs in Dublin. I wonder would they know it was me?”

The Beer Hunter’s place in history, as the world’s most prominent writer about whisky as well as about beer, was secured long before Jackson died. By donating all that he had accumulated, the executors of his estate, Paddy Gunningham and Sam Hopkins, assured the massive amount of information he collected would remain available to future historians.

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.

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.

Unfinished Business

Jackson once said that he would pull folders out of his filing cabinet with the intent of weeding old, obviously out-of-date material. Then he’d return the files intact, fearing he’d need a particular item for historical reference. In fact, he was never going to run out of things to write about. He had several projects in progress when he died, including a book about dealing with Parkinson’s.

In 2005, he began assembling articles and essays for an anthology. Slow Food, the organization formed in Italy in the 1980s to promote traditional cuisine and whose magazines Jackson wrote for often, published an Italian version in 2006 titled Storie nel bicchiere di birra, di whisky, di vita, but Jackson wanted to see it appear in English.

“It was very important to him,” said executor Hopkins, who is also his stepdaughter. “We want to make sure we do right by his wish.” Making it available has taken far longer than she and Gunningham, her mother, expected. However, in June they expected they’d be able to release it relatively soon, first as an Amazon Kindle book.

The anthology includes scores of pieces about beer, whisky and various digressions, some written specifically for it. It draws from more than a dozen publications, and the diversity will surprise readers who know Jackson mostly through his books. They are a reminder he wrote about beer and he wrote about people, but he also wrote about where they intersect.

One of the stories he chose was called “The Pub Door” when it appeared in Slow, Slow Food’s journal. Jackson retitled it “The Whiff of Wickedness” for the anthology. The Beer Hunter as beer expert appears only briefly, well into the story to provide a quick introduction to Brettanomyces, a so-called wild yeast that can add positive or negative qualities to a beer. “Today it is part of my job to taste beer professionally,” Jackson wrote. “A colleague will sometimes ask: ‘Do you get Brett in this one?’ From a scientific viewpoint that conclusion might be sufficient.”

The story began with his mother picking up the pace each time they neared a pub in the town where they lived. “I was four years old,” he wrote. “My legs could scarcely keep up the pace. I felt as though my feet would leave the ground. Had I been in a cartoon, they would have done. I would have been dragged horizontally. I doubt my mother would not have noticed.”

He later asked her what people did in the pubs, and she said only that she did not know. “Whatever was going on in there my mother seemed to deem worthy of Dante,” he wrote. “If it was that bad, it must be good,” I concluded. She pulled me away, but it was too late. Every time a pub door opened, I had noticed a distinct aroma. I had smelled the whiff of wickedness.”

The first time he knowingly smelled Brett, the aroma was exactly the same. He wrote: “I have not yet managed to summarize in a tasting note the images that are triggered when I smell Brett: neither the big picture, the rise and fall of British industrial might, nor the cameo, the alienation experienced by my mother.

“If I could distill her story and mine, they would not be experiences shared and understood by every reader. We each have our own repertoire of memories and emotions triggered by smells and flavors. The most personal I can hint at, but little more. The more general I hope stimulate the senses.”

His usually did.


Stan Hieronymus
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.