Michael Jackson, the Bard of Beer, R.I.P.

I have just learned that Michael Jackson, the author of The World Guide to Beer, died last night at his home in London. I knew Michael; he was a wonderful man to be around. Below, a piece I wrote about him for my website, and an article from the Syracuse New Times published 11 years ago:

It is impossible to overstate Michael Jackson’s influence on the worlds of beer and whiskey. He wrote the book, several of them in fact, and is the single best known beer writer on the planet. He’s been everywhere and tasted everything. And his comments, favor and interest are invaluable to anyone who makes or sells beer.

I first met Michael at the Great American Beer Festival in 1985; our most significant conversation took place at adjoining urinals. “How are you doing?” I asked. “I’ve just tasted every dark beer at the Festival,” he replied, which required no further explanation. Out in the hall, the head of the Association of Brewers, Charlie Papazian, approached Michael and said, “There are TV people here and they’d like an interview.” Michael replied, “Charlie, I’ve just tasted every dark beer at the Festival. Print would be fine, radio maybe, but television absolutely not.” Michael and I also talked briefly about music, and after the festival I sent him some blues tapes.

In 1987, when we met again at the Festival, he remembered me and the tapes and we spent time talking. After I was home, he wrote to ask about a cocktail recipe that Nick Charles recites to a bartender in one of the Thin Man movies, and I tracked that down for him. Then, one morning in 1996, on the last day of September, I got a call from London; a young man said he was Michael’s assistant, that Michael was going to be in Syracuse the next day, and could I drive him around? Oh, yes!

I picked Michael up at the airport, took him to his hotel, and then to the Dinosaur Bar-B-Que for dinner. The next day, a Wednesday, we would start at 2 p.m. At noon, Laurie and I were having lunch at the Blue Tusk, and I said to Tim, “Do you know Michael Jackson?” and he said, “Of course,” with one of those “Do you think I was born yesterday? Haven’t you noticed this is a beer bar?” looks. And I said, “I’m bringing him in at 4 o’clock.” Tim’s eyes widened; his jaw dropped, and he began polishing tap handles like a man possessed.

I dropped Laurie off, went on to pick up Michael, and began one of the longest days of drinking, perhaps the longest such day, in my career. It was a little like the movie My Favorite Year, spending a day with an idol, a culture hero, but wondering just what he was going to do, especially when the beer gave way to single malt Scotch. And everything was free. Even as the entourage grew to include such notables as beer writer Don Cazentre and Empire Brewing’s David Hartmann, money never made an appearance. And my fears were groundless. Throughout the day and evening, Michael was a perfect gentleman, and very responsive to hints that it was time to move on to the next stop. I was pacing my drinking, since I had to drive. But after 10 or 11 hours of beer, bourbon and smoky bars, I had one stuffy head, and was sick with a cold for two weeks afterwards. It was worth it.

Here is my short article that followed:

“Beer Buddha Samples Local Brews”

The world’s foremost expert on beer and whiskey arrived on short notice in Syracuse this month, taking a two-day respite from his travels by visiting Syracuse’s Middle Ages Brewery and revisiting the two Syracuse brew pubs, the Syracuse Suds Factory and Empire Brewing. Michael Jackson (no, not THAT Michael Jackson), the author of several authoritative books on beer and single-malt whiskeys, flew into Syracuse between speaking engagements in Los Angeles and a class on single-malt Scotch at Cornell University’s hotel school.

On Oct. 1, he dined at the Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, where he debated the merits of Foster’s Lager with Miss E, Sammy-winning blues performer and the evening’s hostess. She remained unmoved, however, by his declamations on Foster’s use of cane sugar and its self-description of the brew house as “a production facility.” Jackson, also known to his adherents as the Bard of Beer and the Beer Hunter, chose to enjoy two pints of Middle Ages’ Beast Bitter with his barbecued chicken, beans, mashed potatoes and corn bread.

The following afternoon, he visited the Middle Ages microbrewery on Wilkinson Street, where he declared himself well pleased with all its beers but placing greatest store by the Winter Wizard Ale and the Beast Bitter, giving an edge to the Beast for its balance and complexity. This was followed by a visit to the Syracuse Suds Factory and a longer sojourn at the Blue Tusk in Armory Square, where the owners cracked a magnum of Lindemann’s Lambic Gueuze “Cuvee Rene 1994” in celebration. Jackson took careful notes, posed for photos, chatted and signed books with a Buddha-like serenity.

He then adjourned for dinner across the street at the Empire Brewing Company, where he sampled each of the current offerings. Dessert, with an entourage that had grown with every stop, consisted of rare single-malt Scotches served at the Bistro, right across the walk from the Blue Tusk. Bistro owner Max Chutinthranond produced Jackson’s book on Scotch from behind the bar, pronounced him “my hero,” and marveled that he should suddenly appear in his restaurant. Indeed, it was miraculous, and Max’s reaction was perfectly in keeping with the magical tone of the evening.


Meanwhile, the lightning kept up its play. The thunder made talking arduous, but no one was anyhow in the mood to chatter. Only thunder was heard, and the hammering of the rain. But suddenly close under the windows, there burst the most appalling inhuman shriek of terror.

“Tabby!” cried John, and they all rushed to the window.

But Tabby had already flashed into the house: and behind him was a whole club of wild cats in hot pursuit. John momentarily opened the dining-room door and puss slipped in, dishevelled and panting. Not even then did the brutes desist: what insane fury led these jungle creatures to pursue him into the very house is unimaginable; but there they were, in the passage, caterwauling in concert: and as if at their incantation the thunder awoke anew, and the lightning nullified the meagre table lamp. It was such a din as you could not speak through. Tabby, his fur on end, pranced up and down the room, his eyes blazing, talking and sometimes exclaiming in a tone of voice the children had never heard him use before, and which made their blood run cold. He seemed like one inspired in the presence of Death, he had gone utterly Delphic: and without in the passage Hell’s pandemonium reigned terrifically.

The check could be only a short one. Outside the dining-room door stood the big filter, and above the door the fanlight was long since broken. Something black and yelling flashed through the fanlight, landing clean in the middle of the supper table, scattering the forks and spoons and upsetting the lamp. And another and another — but already Tabby was through the window and streaking again for the bush. The whole dozen of those wild cats leapt one after another from the top of the table, and away from there only too hot on his tracks. In a moment the whole devil-hunt and its hopeless quarry had vanished into the night.

“Oh Tabby, my darling Tabby!” wailed John; while Emily rushed again to the window.

They were gone. The lightning behind the creepers in the jungle lit them up like giant cobwebs; but of Tabby and his pursuers there was nothing to be seen.

— From A High Wind in Jamaica or The Innocent Voyage (1928) by Richard Hughes

The Rustling Dark


Dr. Cairn suddenly leapt, seized the shielding hand in a sure grip and twisted Ferrara’s arm behind him. Then, with a second rapid movement, he snatched away the robe. A faint smell — a smell of corruption, of ancient rottenness — arose on the superheated air. A square of faded linen lay on the table, figured with all but indecipherable Egyptian characters, and upon it, in rows which formed a definite geometrical design, were arranged a great number of little, black insects. Dr. Cairn released the hand which he held, and Ferrara sat quite still, looking straight before him. “Dermestes beetles! From the skull of a mummy! You filthy, obscene beast!”

From Brood of the Witch Queen (1918) by Sax Rohmer


“You will find out that there are all sorts of ways of learning, not only from people and books, but from sheer trying… Let no one be discouraged by the thought of how much there is to learn. For the first steps into a delightful unknown, the first successes are victories all the happier for being scarcely expected, and with the growing knowledge comes the widening outlook, and the comforting sense of an ever-increasing gain of critical appreciation. Each new step becomes a little surer and each new grasp a little firmer, till, little by little, comes the power of intelligent combination, the nearest thing we can know to the mighty force of creation.”

— Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932) on gardening

The Prince


“You must realize this: that a prince, and especially a new prince, cannot observe all those things which give men a reputation for virtue, because in order to maintain his state he is often forced to act in defiance of good faith, of charity, of kindness, of religion. And so he should have a flexible disposition, varying as fortune and circumstances dictate. As I said above, he should not deviate from what is good, if that is possible, but he should know how to do evil, if that is necessary. A prince, then, must be very careful not to say a word which does not seem inspired by the five qualities I mentioned earlier. To those seeing and hearing him, he should appear a man of compassion, a man of good faith, a man of integrity, a kind and religious man. And there is nothing so important as to seem to have this last quality.”

— Text from Chapter 18 of The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527). Photo by Charles Dharapak, Associated Press, Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship, Dallas, Texas, 10/29/03.


Now shall I walk
Or shall I ride?
“Ride,” Pleasure said:
“Walk,” Joy replied.

— from “The Best Friend” by W.H. Davies (1871-1940), Welsh poet who lived rough in both the US and UK.

Verses Overlooked

“Come now and look upon the works of the LORD, what awesome things he has done on earth. It is he who makes war to cease in all the world; he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear, and burns the shields with fire.” — Psalm 46:9-10, from this morning’s Psalm at St. James’

A Matter of Life & Death

“And obituaries, as anyone who reads or writes obituaries will tell you, are really not about death. They’re occasioned by death, and they almost always wrap up with a list of those separated from the beloved by death, but they are full of life. The good ones are as intoxicating as a lung full of snowy air, as clarifying as the glass the ophthalmologist drops before your eyes, that brings the world into sudden sharp focus.”

— Marilyn Johnson in The Dead Beat (2006), a magnificent book about obituaries and the people who read and write them, with glimpses of ordinary and extraordinary lives we might otherwise have missed completely. Wonderful writing here from both the author and those she quotes so perfectly. My thanks to Armand Dupont for this one.