Critical Drinking

Monumental — Remembering Michael Jackson’s Impact on Belgian Beer 10 Years After His Death

In 2006, Michael Jackson appeared on Late Night with Conan O’Brien. During his seven-minute spot, the legendary beer writer from England—with his frazzled hair and beard, looking slightly disheveled in a garish tie and wrinkled suit—was to present a tasting of several interesting beers to the show’s titular host. Jackson slouched in his chair. He slurred his words. He moved unsteadily. O’Brien pointed out that his guest’s pants zipper was undone, joking about the amount of beers he might have consumed that day before the show. Another guest, actor Jon Lovitz, goofed off behind Jackson’s back and peppered the interview with sarcastic comments for cheap laughs. The audience giggled nervously.

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What O’Brien, Lovitz, and the Late Night audience didn’t know—and what few people outside Jackson’s close family knew at that time—was that for the previous nine years, Jackson had been suffering from Parkinson’s disease, a long-term degenerative disorder of the central nervous system that affected his ability to move and speak.

Just 15 months after his Late Night appearance, Jackson died of a heart attack. The date was August 30, 2007, exactly 10 years ago today. He was 65.  

At the time of his death, his 16 books had been translated into 21 languages and he had received, among others, the Brewers Association Recognition Award, the André Simon Award, the Gold Tankard of the British Guild of Beer Writers, and a James Beard Award. In Belgium, Jackson was presented with the Mercurius Award in 1994 by Crown Prince Philippe for Services to the Kingdom of Belgium in recognition of his beer writings. He was also the first non-brewer inducted into the Belgian Brewers Federation.

Before Michael came to Belgium, all breweries were selling their beer in the 30 kilometers around their breweries. Export boomed after he came. Michael made export possible.
— Rosa Mercx, Brouwerij Liefmans

At a time when there were few beer publications, fewer beer bloggers, and no interactive beer apps, the legacy of his work as a journalist and drinks writer reverberated all around the world. But nowhere was Jackson’s impact so great as in Belgium.

His Great Beers of Belgium book was first published in 1991 and would go on to encompass five updates—the sixth edition was published posthumously in 2008. With translated versions in French and Dutch, it’s estimated by publishers to have sold upwards of 150,000 copies. That he was the first to do what he did, that he fought constantly to secure paid work while negotiating journalistic ethics in a nascent drinks writing industry, that he suffered for so long from such a debilitating disease: all of this makes Jackson’s accomplishments even more impressive. While much has been said of his prolific writing achievements, less is known about how, exactly, he overcame these challenges to change Belgium’s beer scene forever.

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The son of Lithuanian Jewish parents who’d moved to Leeds in the North of England, Jackson left school in 1958 at age 16 to work as an apprentice at a local newspaper, The Huddersfield Examiner. When the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) emerged in the 1970s, he’d already traveled extensively and was questioning why the group was fighting to protect British traditions only, rather than the traditions of other countries, like Belgium.

In Great Beers of Belgium, Jackson presented the culturally complex and multi-lingual layers of Belgian’s brewing scene into a cohesive tome that would help the rest of the world understand the country’s beer—a culture that would go on not only to influence much of what is popular today in other countries (not least the United States), but which would often blend with the traditions of those other countries to create something entirely new. 

“From the beginning it was clear that the book was going to have a major impact,” says Ben Vinken, Jackson’s driver, translator, and publisher in Belgium. “He was a rock star in America. His book had reach. It was read. Great Beers of Belgium was the only book about a specific country. His other books were about beers from all over the world. I guess that says something. They should erect a statue in his honor in the Grand Place in Brussels.”

Rosa Mercx started working at Brouwerij Liefmans in 1946, so she was well positioned to see the impact of Jackson’s writing by the time he got around to it. “Before Michael came to Belgium, all breweries were selling their beer in the 30 kilometers around their breweries,” says the former head brewer at the Oudenaarde brewery. “Export boomed after he came. Michael made export possible.”

In 1990, before his first book was published, less than 20% of Belgian beer was exported (2.75 of 14.14 million hectoliters). According to the 2016 Annual Report of the Belgian Brewers Federation, that percentage had doubled by 1995. Last year, 14.09 out of 20.79 million hectoliters left Belgium, the country exporting a whopping 68% of what it produced in 2016.

Largely due to a relatively conservative, almost-parochial outlook, and traits of understatement and reservedness, Belgian brewers before Jackson’s arrival weren’t aware of how differently they were doing things compared to breweries in other countries. The book wasn’t just an eye-opener for those outside Belgium. It also woke up the Belgians.

“Michael showed us we should be proud of our beers,” says Anne De Ryck, head brewer of Brouwerij De Ryck in Herzele, and the fourth generation of the De Ryck brewing family. “Michael showed us what we had. For us, the way we made beer was normal. We didn’t know that we had something unique. He showed us that we were special. We should have a statue of Michael in Belgium for everything that he did.”

Yves Benoit was 24 years old when The Beer Hunter came to Brouwerij De Brabandere in Bavikhove, a large regional family brewery in South West Flanders. Jackson wanted to try the base beer they used in their Oud Bruin, and when Benoit returned with a sample, Jackson was surprised to see that they were using a Pale Ale aged for two and a half years in oak foeders to eventually produce a brown beer.

“He tasted the beer straight from the foeder and asked whether he could take some for his beer clubs in England and America,” Benoit remembers. “My boss, Ignace De Brabandere, immediately refused. He thought that it was much too sour to put on the market.”

After persistent requests, Ignace reluctantly agreed that Jackson could take the beer, but only if he bought 75 hectolitres. “My boss never thought that he would say yes to that,” Benoit says. “Seventy five hectolitres is a lot of this type of beer.”

But Jackson was into it. He even named the beer, describing it as it is: aged and pale. Word got out among beer consumers in Belgium that a rare and unique beer was being sent exclusively to the States and demand resulted in it coming on to the Belgian market in 2001. Petrus Aged Pale is still being sold 16 years later.

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Jackson has sometimes been criticized for being technically incorrect in his writing, for perpetuating certain myths in beer. But he was also the first. And while that’s not a reward in today’s beer writing world, back then it mattered as there were no guides for him to rely on. Jackson himself lamented the challenges of covering unchartered territory.

“One of the problems of being a writer, of which I'm sure you're aware, is that you can go out and bust your ass to discover something, you print your article and it becomes public property,” he said in an interview with Dave Kelly from the Real Beer Network. “Something that took you weeks or months to establish, or even years, and now every other writer says, ‘Well, of course everybody knows that,’ when it took you a long time to figure and sort that out.”

He is largely credited with inventing the concept of beer styles, something beer historian Martyn Cornell suggests may have emanated from his work as a newspaper reporter, influenced by the journalistic terminology of style guides.

“Whatever the origins of the idea, he seems to be the first person to have used the phrase ‘beer style,’ and his influence in coining the idea of beer styles cannot be overestimated,” Cornell writes in the Journal of the Brewery History Society. “There is hardly a writer about beer today anywhere in the world who does not use the expression Jackson pioneered and popularized.”

He may have invented beer styles, but he wasn’t the first person to try to categorize Belgian beer. In 1979, Wilfried Patroons, Gustaaf Dufour, and Louis Verhaegen published the influential book Bier, which attempted to record the various beers being produced by Belgian breweries. And just five years later in 1984, Pieter Crombecq published the first edition of his Biersmaken (Beer Tastes), a list-based book with anorak-levels of detail about brands from breweries in Belgium and their basic taste profiles. Crombecq and his contemporaries were part of the first beer appreciation club in Belgium, de objectieve bierproevers (the objective beer tasters), the fore-runners to today’s ‘Zythos’, many of whom would have been hosts and guides to Jackson on his visits while writing Great Beers of Belgium.

“We made the first attempt to divide the Belgian beers into styles,” says beer writer and brewer Jef Van Den Steen of the work of Crombecq and the rest of the group. “But we did it too mathematically. Michael did it with literature. He did it with poetry. He did it with stories. He invented a language to describe beer that we were trying to invent. I’m sure our work influenced him. When he was just learning about Belgian beer, we were the people who talked to him and who took him around the different Belgian breweries.”

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Jackson’s authority on Belgian beer was enhanced by his television work. Before Great Beers of Belgium was published in 1991, he presented a six-part television series in 1989 called The Beer Hunter. It was first screened on the British public-service broadcaster, Channel 4, before later being picked up by the Discovery Channel.

The introduction to Episode 5, “The Burgundies of Belgium,” features a young bar owner serving a beer to Jackson who, sporting a white glove and sitting in the corner of a cozy Belgian beer café, delivers a now famous opening line:

“My name really is Michael Jackson but I don’t sing and I don’t drink Pepsi,” he says to camera. “I drink beer. That’s what I do for a living. I travel the world, sampling beers and writing about the ones that I’ve enjoyed. It’s a tough job, but somebody’s gotta do it.”

The bar was café 't Brugs Beertje in Bruges, and the young bar owner delivering Jackson’s beer was Daisy Claes. “He had a very small production crew with him and he did that introduction in one take,” Claes recalls of the shoot. “It was really natural and there were no rehearsals. You can’t imagine them shooting programs like that nowadays. Television has much more impact than books, papers, and magazines. That program made beer—and Michael Jackson—a world star.”

During that same episode, Jackson hosts a number of Belgian brewers and blenders at a beer dinner at the Bruegel restaurant in Damme, just outside Bruges. Claes was invited. As was Mercx from Liefmans. René Lindemans of Brouwerij Lindemans was there, too. And then there was Frank Boon of Brouwerij Boon. 

“He was so professional in front of camera,” Boon says. “I remember we were tasting one beer in particular and he was talking to the camera about it. We tasted it and it was like vinegar, completely oxidized and infected. We all knew it. And Jackson knew it. But he kept talking to camera about the origins of the style and about how wonderful the beer was.”

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In a 1996 interview with UK newspaper, The Independent, Jackson surmised why he spent so much time documenting Belgium’s beer culture:

"I think the motivation was almost like the motivation of some of those musicologists like Alan Lomax who went down to the Mississippi Delta in the '50s and recorded old blues men before they died,” he said. “I wanted to kind of record Belgian beer before those breweries didn't exist anymore. I certainly didn't see it as a career possibility, but I think all, or many, journalists have in them a sort of element of being an advocate."

The analogy Jackson drew of cataloguing a cultural pillar in danger of going extinct was not an exaggeration. Saison was relatively unknown and struggling in the province of Henegouwen. Witbier had just about received the kiss of life from Pierre Celis in Hoegaarden. Flemish red-brown ale, a mixed fermentation beer with a sweet and sour flavor profile, was suffering at the hands of the increased import of German Lagers. Authentic and traditional Lambic, Geuze, and Kriek—the now-legendary beers of spontaneous fermentation produced in the Pajottenland—were feeling the squeeze from larger producers sweetening the style to encourage mass consumption.

“It’s a shame on Belgian brewers that there’s no statue of Jackson,” says Armand Debelder of Brouwerij Drie Fonteinen. “He was the first to start describing lambic with words such as ‘horse sweat,’ words others may not have considered or perhaps been afraid to use. He was a friend of the Lambic producers. We have photos hanging in our brewery of when Jackson visited us. We were always happy to give him the opportunity to taste something special when he visited. He never asked for it. But because of his simple being and calmness, it was more than normal to offer him something exceptional.”

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Jackson continually struggled with funding his independent writing projects and managing an intense international travel schedule. Great American Craft Beer author and longtime BeerAdvocate contributor Andy Crouch has suggested that Jackson may have, at times, hurt the beer industry through his unwillingness to criticize breweries, remarking after careful research that the collaborative approach he took sometimes interestingly leaned more towards brewers as clients as opposed to subjects.

Boak & Bailey—a pair of British beer bloggers who won the Michael Jackson Beer Writers of the Year Award from the British Guild of Beer Writers in 2014—acknowledge that standards and practices were different at the time Jackson was writing about beer. They further argue that though he was paid by breweries to offer opinions of beers prior to launch, host tastings on their behalf, and appear in advertisements of their products, he worked for brewers he respected rather than making a show of respecting breweries who paid him.

“He demonstrated objectivity through the quality of his recommendations rather than by simply declaring it,” they write in a recent BeerAdvocate piece. “To some extent, we suspect that barbs directed at Jackson on this basis today are really a proxy for criticizing active journalists whose partnerships with breweries can seem opaque and confusing. Nonetheless, it is likely that if Jackson was still around and operating like this in 2017 he too would be called out far more frequently.”

“It often looked like Jackson wasn’t saying anything bad about a beer,” says Joris Pattyn, international beer judge and one of the first members of De Objectieve Bierproevers, when discussing The Beer Hunter’s integrity. “But if you read between the lines, you knew what he was saying. He was saying that the beer was characterless. He had a great way with words.”

We made the first attempt to divide the Belgian beers into styles. But we did it too mathematically. Michael did it with literature. He did it with poetry. He did it with stories.
— Jef Van Den Steen, writer and brewer

The need to make a living from writing, and the demand he always seemed to be in, meant Jackson was regularly pushed to the limit. “When he was in Belgium to do research, his time was limited,” says Vinken of their early brewery road trips. “Sometimes in a day, we visited 5 breweries. Michael had no sense of urgency. He wanted to know everything, he asked technical questions about the beers. He forgot about time. We were late for every appointment we had.”

Vinken recalls one particular visit in the late 1980s to Brouwerij Van Honsebrouck in the West Flemish town of Ingelmunster. It was his third brewery visit of the day and family brewer Luc Van Honsebrouck was delivering a tasting of seven different vintages of his high-alcohol Kasteel beers. 

“After three of them, Michael asked me if I would come to his funeral because he joked that he would die trying to finish them,” Vinken says. “We ended up crawling around some of Luc’s favorite local cafes until 3am. It was the most crazy day of my life.”

The time constraints and constant demand took its toll. 

“Obviously, it would seem very churlish to complain about the job, and I'm certainly not complaining about the job,” Jackson said in a Real Beer Network interview with Kelley. “But it's an extremely, very, very, stressful job. I'm always under the gun, from the people I'm meant to be writing articles for, from people I'm writing books for. I'm always trying to figure out how the hell can I schedule time to do this or that.” 

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Just before Jackson died, the fifth edition of Great Beers of Belgium was published. 

“Michael was suffering from Parkinson’s Disease while we were working on the book in 2005,” Vinken remembers. “His agent warned me that if we were to do another update, I would have to take care of him in my home and not put him up in a hotel. He was already very ill. He fell asleep on his keyboard while he was working because of the pills he was taking. His motor functions were lost, and even though it was nothing to do with alcohol, it gave that impression. I was really proud of that last edition because we produced it in such difficult circumstances.”

An intensely private man, it was only aspersions being cast on his professionalism as a beer writer that prompted him to finally clear the air. “Michael thought that if people knew he had Parkinson’s, his work would dry up,” Vinken says. “He believed it would threaten his livelihood.”

Michael had no sense of urgency. He wanted to know everything, he asked technical questions about the beers. He forgot about time. We were late for every appointment we had.
— Ben Vinken

In 2006, Jackson collapsed in Denver International Airport. The beer community’s reaction to the incident prompted him to write an article revealing for the first time publicly that he had been suffering from Parkinson’s. “Did I Cheat Mort Subite” was published in All About Beer magazine and it would be the very last words Jackson would write:

“Perhaps it was simply the fact that I appeared to be drunk,” he wrote of the Denver incident. “I was not. I hadn’t had an alcoholic drink that day or the day before. As to when I last consumed too much alcohol, that is history—of the ancient genre. I do not have, and never have had, a drink problem.”

The British Guild of Beer Writers hosted an evening in London this summer to pay tribute to Jackson—the organization’s co-founder—on the 10th anniversary of his death. Belgian brewers and writers recorded video tributes that were screened in front of 130 guests from different countries and backgrounds. The Guild’s current Beer Writer of the Year, Pete Brown (like Jackson, a Yorkshireman), read aloud that last piece of writing from All About Beer in a poetic, emotive end to the evening. 

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Despite the struggles he faced, Michael Jackson remained a champion of the authentic and culturally important. 

The Scottish owe him. His promotion of small whisky distilleries in Scotland would go on to garner even greater recognition than his beer writing, and his Malt Whisky Companion (1989) and Whisky (2005) books were bestsellers that won multiple international awards.

The Americans owe him. His vision was adopted with incredible enthusiasm by homebrewers and small breweries in the United States, with many of his early articles identifying the leaders of the American craft beer revolution. To say that he educated a whole generation of rejuvenated beer drinkers and inspired a new generation of brewers is an understatement.

But of all those whom he championed, it’s perhaps the Belgians that owe him most.

For decades since the release of his books, export markets opened for all types of breweries in Belgium and created a beer tourism industry in the country which continues to grow. The reach of his writing was so great that he, along with others, was able to significantly raise the awareness of traditional styles of beer in Belgium such as Lambic, Oud Bruin and Saison, contributing to their continued production and survival.

In the introduction to Great Beers of Belgium, Jackson recalls the story of how he ended up in Belgium for the very first time. Finding himself at a carnival in the Netherlands, he was handed a dark beer in a chalice glass by someone wearing a John Lennon mask and told that if he liked that sort of thing, he was in the wrong country. 

The next day, hungover and bedraggled, Jackson crossed the border into Belgium. 

“I stayed for a long weekend,” he wrote. “When I left, my perspectives and passions had been re-aligned.”

Words by Breandán Kearney
Graphics by Remo Remoquillo