The Beer Hunter

Last week, a gastronomical giant passed away. Michael Jackson, The Beer Hunter, died of a Parkinson’s related heart-attack at his home. He was 65.

There aren’t many celebrities who have had a significant impact on my life; I’ve never been much of a fanboy. There are actors and actresses I admire, musicians who move me deeply, writers who inspire me, and politicians who disgust me. But aside from one novelist who changed my life (and whom I still find as deeply disappointing as I do profoundly insightful), there aren’t many celebrities or artists whose work has had a lasting influence on my life.

Michael Jackson is one who did. (remember: the beer guy, not the pop-star super-freak)

I grew up in New Orleans and, as it is with most things when you’re young, I knew nothing and appreciated less. To be sure, I drank a lot of beer (more than I feel comfortable thinking about, actually). But it was the kind of cheap, watery beer that high-school kids buy. A lot of Milwaukee’s Best (doesn’t say much about Milwaukee), a fair amount of Coor’s Extra Gold (the highest alcohol content of any mass-produced beer), and even — during what must have been a particularly irritating pretentious period — a lot Michelob Dry (shudder).

We (I say we because I was never alone in my drinking. I had accomplices, who although they shall remain nameless, should at least share in some silent shame. You know who you are.) bought our beer by the case (and occasionally, by the pallet) and we drank it by the case (and occasionally, by the pallet). We weren’t so much interested in taste as we were interested in, well… not to put too fine a point on it, getting drunk.

Sure, we knew that we were drinking bad beer; we just didn’t really care. Every so often we’d splurge at Cooter’s and get a pitcher of something really good. Something like Heineken, or Foster’s, or Rolling Rock (it’s comical, isn’t it?). But more often than not, we’d head out to the Rendon for $5 all-you-can-drink nights (it boggles my mind when I think on it) and belly up to the bar for some more of the Beast. I did try some Guinness once… but that was a black-out night that I still don’t remember (although I’ve heard some good stories).

It wasn’t until I got to college that I got interested in good beer. And it started with Michael Jackson. He wrote about beer the way other people wrote about wine. It was majestic, subtle, and paired well with food. There were hundreds of varieties with different tastes. Some were rich and full-bodied, some light and crisp and refreshing. Some were sweet, some were sour, some were malty, and some were bitter. And best of all, beer was much, much cheaper than wine.

So my friends and I (again, you know who you are!) would buy good beer — now by the six pack — and have beer tastings. I fell in love with Samuel Smith’s Taddy Porter and Young’s Chocolate Stout. We drank lambics and tried Belgian tripples and German weisbeers. And when I went to the liquor store, I carried my stained and dog-eared copy of Michael Jackson’s Pocket Guide to Beer with me.

I tried home-brewing and made some respectable (and some not-so respectable) brews. I read his column and learned about beer. And in the process, I learned about taste, and about food, and about cuisine. The first cookbook I ever got as a gift was a beer-lover’s cookbook. Michael Jackson did the introduction.

When I moved to Portland and discovered Beer-Vanna in my own backyard, I bought a new pocket guide and used it to compare styles and to see if he mentioned my favorites: Black Butte Porter, Widmer Hefeweizen, Bridgeport Porter, Alameda Stout, or Purple Haze. Some he did, and some he didn’t. I realized that he liked a different style of beer than I did. Where he favored the Belgian brews, I loved the English ales. And that was OK. Jackson always stressed that beer was to be enjoyed, not fussed-over, or worried about. It should be drunk heartily and happily, with few pretensions but much moderation (a lesson I’ve finally learned).

And he encouraged the same approach in food. Whenever I read him, he was never just about beer. He wrote about whiskey and about wine and about food — sometimes in detail, sometimes just in passing. But what he wrote encouraged me and inspired me to eat and drink better. And that’s a lasting influence that has brought me many happy meals, wonderful evenings, and more than a few perfect pints.

I wasn’t his biggest fan, or his most loyal student. But he was a wonderful teacher and an excellent guide.

You can find his site here.