In the spring of 1995, I spent an afternoon with Michael Jackson.
Jackson had long been planning a book on the burgeoning microbrewery scene of the US. He was planning on conducting the research that year. Of course, such research would have entailed numerous brewery visits and much beer sampling. One wag had hailed it as "Michael Jackson - The Iron Liver Tour".
Jackson eventually aborted the idea. The craft brewery movement was so vibrant —so many breweries opening and closing— that the book would have been out-of-date before it had even been published.
But the plan was still fresh when Jackson jetted into Baltimore-Washington International Airport one early March afternoon 1995 to begin his note taking. His local chauffeur was Jim Dorsch, soon to become the editor of Mid-Atlantic Brewing News.
Oxford Brewing Company, now closed, was only a couple of miles from the airport; I was the Brewery Manager. It was Jackson's first stop.
All of us were thrilled that the great man was visiting our brewery. And trepidatious! Would he like our beer?
We followed and watched as Jackson accepted small sips of our various beers, from the tap, and from the fermenters. We looked for clues as to what he thought. But Jackson, ever inscrutable, would only sip, give the beer a look over his glasses perched down his nose, and scribble into his notepad.
He asked me a few questions, and the visit concluded. He invited me to accompany them into Baltimore. Not hesitating, I accepted.
We visited the Teutonically-tilting Baltimore Brewing Company (DeGroen's). We observed the stone beer process at Brimstone Brewing, located in a small corner of the former National Brewing Company brewery in Highlandtown. We stopped at the Wharf Rat Pub with its English-styled bitters and ales.
At each brewery, it would be the same.
Jackson would sip proffered samples, quietly ask questions as to brewing parameters —alcohol by volume, original gravity, bittering units, degrees of color, ingredients, processes, style designation, etc.— and then scribble notes, all without revealing any opinions. His voice, soft-spoken, could be hard-to-grasp with his Yorkshire accent. Very even keel, very fair .... quite the contrast with the agitated states of all us brewers.
We finished in the early evening at Sisson's Brewpub. There, we were greeted by General Manager Jack Callanan who led us to a table and offered us dinner.
First, though, Jackson was given samples of all the current house-brews. Peering over the rims of his glasses, he sipped and took notes. Then dinner was served; Sisson's was known for its Creole-inspired cuisine. Each of us drank a pint of Stockade Ale, the house pale ale.
Jackson could be a marvelous storyteller —in person, as he was in his books. And he was so that evening. But as to his opinions on the beers, he remained mum. Callanan looked beseechingly at me. I could only shrug.
We finished dinner and the plates and glasses were cleared away, Jackson's beer only partially consumed. The waitress, young and attractive, returned. Would Mr. Jackson care to hear about the house desserts, she inquired.
Michael Jackson —quiet, sober, and inscrutable all day— now looked up rapidly, and with a broad smile and a loud voice declared: Why, yes, yes! Definitely, yes! What are you offering?
She told us, and he chose chocolate.
A few minutes later, no cake remained on Jackson's plate.
Beer may have been Michael Jackson's livelihood, but on that day it was a chocolate cake and an attractive waitress that had stoked his enthusiasm. The great beer advocate had taught this beer geek a lesson in measure. There is indeed life beyond beer.
Remembering Michael Jackson today, a year after his passing.
Where have they this mettle?- Shakespeare: Henry V
Is not their climate foggy, raw, and dull,
On whom, as in despite, the sun looks pale,
Killing their fruit with frowns? Can sodden water,
A drench for sur-reined jades, their barley broth,
Decoct their cold blood to such valiant heat?
27 March 1942- 30 August 2007