Remembering the Beer Hunter

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A brief obituary in today’s newspaper noted the passing of Michael Jackson, the British-born beer connoisseur and author, whose devotion to the humble hop, malt, and barley beverage did much to further the pleasures of the American beer drinker.

Mr. Jackson, also known as the “beer hunter,” died of a heart attack Thursday at his London home. He was 65. News of his death takes me back to a long and enlightening lunch I enjoyed with him some 20 years ago when he was passing through town on one of his numerous book tours.

I was editor of City Pages at the time, so the invitation to join Michael Jackson for lunch sent a few ripples through the office before I admitted it was “not that Michael Jackson” (a line the beer critic never tired of employing) I was meeting out in Bloomington at a new steakhouse called Kincaids.

The bearded and portly Jackson proved to be a mesmerizing dining partner, spinning yarns about the great beers he had sampled around the world and explaining the technical details surrounding the brewing process. He was charitable in his opinion of our first local micro-brew, Summit Pale Ale, which we quaffed with our steaks. In fact, he was pretty much the antithesis of the “beer snob” who thumbs his nose at the mass-produced brews most Americans regularly enjoy. The Budwiesers and Millers of the world, he told me, are “lawnmowing beers.” The kind of beverage designed to quench a parched throat on a hot day. Nothing wrong with that, he admitted.

So my dad, who had made his living delivering Grain Belt beer throughout St. Paul, was not doing a disservice to the beer-loving public? Not at all, Jackson replied.

All beers have their place, he said. But great beers are meant to be savored in much the same way you would enjoy a fine wine.

More than anyone else, Jackson spread that message over the past 30 years, changing the way people think about beer and inspiring a revolution in micro-brewing that has made a lot of American beer drinkers — including this one — awfully happy.

Several years later, I came across a profile of Jackson in the Wall Street Journal, which described the occupational hazards of the beer critic — or at least the sort of passionate aficionado Jackson had become. In one of the more telling anecdotes, the writer describes Jackson quaffing a series of ales in some British brewhouse at 9 in the morning, an exercise Jackson confesses can lead to the occasional headache.

But that was apparently a small price to pay for the opportunity to explore the world of ales, lagers, pilsners, and stouts and bring those discoveries to legions of thirsty readers. And for that I’ll raise a glass or two of my dad’s favorite beer today in Jackson’s honor: One before I mow the lawn and one after.