And thus commenced the Stateside run of The Beer Hunter television series that the English beer critic Michael Jackson hosted. The first of the six episodes, “The Burgundies of Belgium,” aired on the Discovery Channel on Thursday, Aug. 23, 1990, at 10:30 p.m. on the East Coast and earlier in the nation’s more western reaches. The episodes, which took nine months to make, had already run in the U.K. the year before and were running in Belgium the same time as in the U.S.
The series—which would include an Aug. 30 episode dedicated to American beers, especially those of California—was Jackson’s brainchild. The 48-year-old wrote it, and he played the consummately amiable host while producer and director Bob Bee’s cameras rolled.
Jackson to that point had written myriad books, articles and guides to beer since the late 1970s, but the power of television allowed him, and the late 20th century’s beer renaissance, to reach more people than ever. The four-year-old Discovery Channel was available in roughly 38 million U.S. households by 1990, according to the Washington Post. Even a fraction of those eyeballs on Jackson would trump the number who had perused titles of his such as the World Guide to Beer.
He, Bee and others behind the show had certainly done their advance work to help ensure that people did, indeed, tune in. Outlets such as the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times previewed it and generally came away raving—in particular about the approachable erudition of Jackson regarding beer and the very novelty of the show itself.
“Why should wine drinkers be esteemed as nobs while beer drinkers are put down as slobs?,” the New York Times TV critic Walter Goodman asked his readers. Jackson’s show was an unprecedented effort “to correct this injustice and get equal treatment for those who prefer the mix of the malt to the fruit of the vine.”
Alas, The Beer Hunter showed more promise than punch. It was good, that was for sure, illuminating and fun. Even with a quarter-century of hindsight, the information that Jackson and his interview guests provided seems fresh. Yet, that very illumination also highlights one inescapable fact: that Jackson & Co. were well ahead of their time with The Beer Hunter.
It was 1990. IPA was exotic to most American consumers, never mind some of the other styles Jackson expounded upon. That inaugural “Burgundies of Belgium” episode leaned heavily on lambic, especially kriek. A noble, and understandable, focus—but a lost cause commercially. The style was barely available in the States then.
As it was, The Beer Hunter would run its entire course with those six episodes. It is impossible to gauge how many Americans the show turned on to lambic et al, but it did have one measurable consequence: the boosted celebrity of its contagiously charming host.
“It exceeded even my wildest dreams,” Jackson, who died in 2007, told the Los Angeles Times after The Beer Hunter had aired in the U.K. He then delicately explained why: “I had seen this as pretty much an upmarket [show], yet sort of downmarket people just came up to me in pubs and shops, and started talking to me. It’s very gratifying.”
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.