This interview, now almost ten years old, but it still seems fresh and interesting. I intended to do excerpts, but what the hell--column space doesn't cost anything on a blog (if it overwhelms you, be sure not to miss the final paragraph). There's a lot of history in this piece, and reading through it, you may have the realization, as I did, that we lost a lot of it when Michael Jackson died. I won't ever be able to do a follow-up and hear how things have changed in the past decade. Well, anyway--Jeff Alworth: Your classic book, World Guide to Beer was responsible for bringing the news of "good beer" to America and was one of the main sparks of the micro revolution.
Michael Jackson: Yes, the first big book I wrote on beer, called The World Guide to Beer, which I was researching in the early to mid 70s--well sort of mid-70s, and it was published in '77 on both sides of the Atlantic--was really the first book to put together the different types of beer that existed in the different parts of the world and the different ways in which they were made. It was really quite surprising that nothing had been done like that before. It was a book that was aimed at the consumer, and certainly was the first serious book about beer for the consumer that had ever been written. Even for people in the industry it was the first world-wide study. The industry was remarkably parochial, and in some ways still is. I remember a guy at the University of Brewing in Berlin and saying to him, "I know you guys make wheat beer and the Belgians make wheat beer and I don't quite understand why they're so different." This is 20-odd years ago I was saying this. And he said, "Oh, I didn't know the Belgians made wheat beers." This is a guy who's only two or three hundred miles away from Belgium. And so I wasn't really digging up a whole lot of new stuff, I was just putting together stuff that nobody had put together before.
It was a time when the "big is beautiful" ethic was still quite strong, and I very strongly made the case for small breweries and varieties of beer, and so when the microbrewery movement got going, a lot of the new microbreweries in America would call me up and say, "How do you make this kind of beer?" or "How do you make that kind of beer?" or "We read something you wrote about such-a-such a kind of beer and you said that this kind of beer hardly exists anymore in the world and we'd like to try and make it." So that was how things were, and a lot of people have been kind enough to say that I was one of the people responsible for the microbrewery movement.
JA: How did you get started writing about the beer industry?
MJ: I began my working life as a newspaper journalist. I began straight out of high school--I come from quite a blue collar family and they couldn't afford to put me through college--and I went to work at a newspaper when I was 16 years old on a small town weekly. Journalists in those days drank huge amounts of beer, far more than they seem to today. We'd go cover the local courtroom or something, and when the court finished we'd go into the pub. Because it was a daily paper you couldn't go back and write the story; you had to phone it in straight in from the pub.
People always argued about the beer. The main conversation when the guys would gather was always about the beer. "Oh this beer's terrible, and I had to cover a story in the next town and the beer in the next town's much better." "Oh no, you got that all wrong, that beer's terrible; what your really want is this beer." And I would ask, couldn't we do a taste-off, couldn't we do a story about this? I mean, where do all these flavors in beer come from, why are they all different? And everybody would always say, oh well, it's only beer, who cares? I would say, well, we've been talking about it for the last three hours, arguing about it quite passionately--what makes you think our readers wouldn't care about it? Journalists think they're special, that they're somehow different from their audience. It's an extraordinary arrogance and conceit to think that; if we were interested, our readers were interested.
But, it was never really possible to do anything about it until the Campaign for Real Ales started in the early 70s. I had nothing to do with that--I'm often written about as one of the founders, and I wasn't one of the founders. Though, actually, three of the four founders were journalists. And that really changed the landscape and made it possible to write about beer. When I started in the business, there was no writing about drink at all. When writing about drink started, it would always be about wine. In the 1960s, British people started to travel a lot more, skilled workers and a lot of middle-class people who previously wouldn't have traveled wanted to go to France on vacation. They'd come back, and they'd drunk wine in France and they wanted to drink wine with their meals in Britain--which had previously only been something that rich people did--and so wine got democratized and people started writing in the newspapers about it. But you still couldn't write about beer, and it wasn't until the Campaign for Real Ales that beer became something that we talked about in the same terms as wine. Even then it was difficult, and it remains difficult to do that.
I would say to a newspaper editor, "How about we do a piece on beer?" And he would say, "Well, we did a piece on beer last year." And I'd say, "Yeah, well, you did a piece on wine last week, you're doing another piece on wine this week, you're doing another piece on wine next week, but you did a piece on beer last year and you think that's enough? What your readers drink is beer, don't you think they'd be interested in that?" It's always been a bit of a struggle, but at the same time I've felt that as wine became more popular to a broader--I'm a little hesitant to talk about wine moving down market and beer moving up market, because I think that is too simplistic. I did always nurture this idea of a democratization of drink.
I was very inspired by some writers on wine, particularly Hugh Johnson, who wrote a book called The World Atlas of Wine. Before Hugh Johnson, most writing on wine assumed that you already knew quite a lot about it. I remember as a young man in London, when I was about 20, inviting this woman to dinner in my apartment. I was going to try to seduce her by giving her a nice meal with nice wine and everything. I went to the liquor store and asked the guy about wine: I asked him what wine would go with the food I was going to make. His view was, if you don't know that, what the hell are you doing in here, anyway? It was kind of like going to buy a fur coat--if you have to ask the price, you can't afford it. It was that kind of attitude. People like Hugh Johnson changed that around. People like him wrote, without condescending to the reader, they wrote intelligently, but accessibly, about wine and explained why it was exciting and interesting. That was what made me think that there could be something similar on beer. When I wrote that book, I thought that was it--I would do this book and that would be the end of the exercise; I didn't realize it was going to take over my life. It did take over my life.
JA: Early on in the micro movement, American brewers brewed mostly ales, and certainly in the Northwest we started to brew in more the British tradition than the German tradition. What do you think of these interpretations?
MJ: The comparison I've often made between the ales made between San Francisco Bay and British Columbia--that whole stretch, that Greater Northwest, if you like--their robustness of flavor and their freshness of flavor, the fruitiness of hop character and the dryness and intensity of hop character, as compared to the ales made in Britain, which are really less assertive, less flavorful, less aromatic, arguably more subtle. It's very similar to the comparison you might make between New World wines, between, say, a Cabernet Sauvignon made in Northern California and one made in Bordeaux. It's very analogous, it's youthful, assertive, excitable. The United States is a very young country, a very energetic, confident young country, and the West Coast, particularly the Northern part of the West Coast, is the most youthful and energetic part of that country. It's almost as though the people are reflected in the beer. That might sound a slightly poetic way of looking at it, but I think it's true.
I just love these very hoppy Northwestern ales. When somebody in Britain says they're too hoppy, it's very much like the people that say that some of the Northern California Chardonnays are to oaky. And maybe, in fact, over the years, in response to that criticism, some have become less oaky. But I hope that the Northwestern beers don't become less hoppy. I just love that in-you-face hoppiness, and I really miss it when I'm in Britain. When I go back to Britain--this particular visit that I'm on right now is only for two or three days, it is literally a flying visit. But if I'm in the country for a week or two and then the first thing I do is to go have a pint of my local beer. The first pint I think, "My God, this is terrific." And the second pint I think, "Oh this really is pretty good." And by the third pint I'm thinking, "Well, on the other hand, there could be more hop there." And by the fourth pint I'm thinking, "I think I better go back to the Northwest and get some hops." So I love the vigor and attack of these beers.
JA: The newest issue in craft brewing is the slow down of the market. Looking at it from the English point of view, where good beer is brewed alongside industrial beer, do you have any words of wisdom for American craft brewers?
MJ: Well I think in terms of the slow down, it has been somewhat exaggerated in the sense that it was based on an absurdly high rate of growth. In some ways these things become self-fulfilling prophesies; the more the industry grew, the more people started to throw money at it. In the early years of the movement the East Coast and New York as a whole just ignored microbreweries and thought it was something people did in hot tubs while smoking dope on the West Coast. Suddenly Wall Street discovered microbreweries. They're like overgrown babies, the people in Wall Street--"Throw money at it, invest, invest, invest!" Some people on the West Coast thought, well hey this is a great opportunity to build empires. That was never going to work; any idiot could see that the whole house of cards was going to come falling down. And that's happened. But the well-run breweries making good beer are still there.
One thing that I feel very strongly is that it's very, very important for a brewery to have a strong local market, a strong local identity, and a strong local loyalty before it tries to conquer the world. I very much admire breweries that have built that strong local base. There are some in other parts of the country that are absolute models. There's one in Twin Cities called Summit; there's one in Kansas City, Missouri called Boulevard; near New Orleans is Abita Springs. They've really built a strong local market. It's important to do that, and then if you want to build and expand upon that, fine; if you can't sell to your local people, one has to ask if everything's all right there.
In terms of the general management, to me it always makes sense that a brewery which is wholly or largely owned by a proprietor as opposed to shareholders is going to work better. I mean it's fine to having the kind of closely-held corporation or sort of thing where a few local doctors or dentists or attorneys and people are shareholders, and whenever they're going to a restaurant they can say to all their friends, "You must drink my beer." That's fine. But if you've got shareholders all over the place whose expectation is to get rich, and you feel you have a responsibility to the shareholders, I think it makes it very hard to run a brewery with the kind of single-mindedness and personality and instinctive, intuitive feeling that you really need to have to run this business.
JA: It seems to lead to beers that appeal to the lowest common denominator.
MJ: It's bound to. The minute you get a whole bunch of marketing people coming in with their latest wisdom, then I begin to think, "how long is this brewery going to last?" The fact of the matter is that microbrewing is a niche activity. When you say "niche," maybe that sounds like you mean "small," but a lot of the market is going to be made up of niches in the future. I'm not suggesting that the age of mass production has come to an end, but certainly the time when everybody ate the same food and drank the same drinks and drove the same car and watched the same TV programs, that age is a thing of the past. Perhaps it seems something of a paradox at a time when a lot of things have become more global, a lot of things are also becoming more local, but they sure are.
You only have to see that in looking at the national TV networks. There was a time when people like A-B or Miller could say, "We'll reach every American male who's a potential customer for our product at eight o'clock tonight by advertising in the break in this ball game." You just can't do that anymore. People are not watching the networks as much as they used to; they're watching CNN, they're watching C-SPAN, they're watching cable, they're watching satellite, they're using their VHS machines to watch TV when they want to rather than when you want them to. They're editing out the commercial, they're playing around tremendously on the internet.
The biggest scotch whiskey company in Britain, which is owned by Guinness, has a range of single malt scotches called "The Classic Malts." The one that's most successful on both sides of the Atlantic is Lagavulin, which is the most intensely medicinal, pungent, powerful whiskey that you'd think would just put everybody off. I love it, but I thought I was the only person who loved it. But you find people saying, "I've tried Lagavulin, where can I go next?", and there's nowhere left to go after that. I keep telling them they should make a more assertive one. But as soon as you get a hold of the focus groups and the market research and all of this, it always comes out to the lowest common denominator. Plus, you know, if you did everything by market research, you'd never have another new idea from now until eternity.
JA: A question I get asked a lot is, "What is your favorite beer?"
JA: What do you answer?
MJ: I always say it's a question of where I am in the world and what's local and what's the mood or the moment. You know, why am I drinking the beer? And people say "Why am I drinking the beer?" Did I just mow the lawn, or am I trying to have a quiet time shooting the breeze with my friends in which case I want a much different beer. Is it a beer before a meal, or is it with food, or is it with a book at bedtime. When it's on a radio show or something, when they want a sound bite, I see the interviewer glazing over or getting frustrated because he feels I'm trying to evade the question. And then I say that I couldn't possibly name a single favorite beer. I'll say, "Well, sometimes I do a top twenty or something." I'll always try to make it as stylistically varied as possible and always try to include some local beers and try to pay attention to what might be available to their listeners. So now there are all these top twenties around, and they're all different.
JA: Framing the "favorite beer" question a little differently, which beers do you think are more likely to become international classics or rise above a solely local stature.
MJ: Well, that is an interesting question, and I don't really know what the answer is to it. Somehow, although there are all these very hoppy beers in the Northwest, nobody has made the clear, clarion call that Anchor Liberty Ale makes, for example. I thought at one time that something like Grant's IPA or Grant's Russian Imperial Stout might achieve that kind of status. They haven't quite. I very much like some of the Full Sail beers. Their Amber is a very good beer in a sort of an American answer to Samuel Smith's Pale Ale. Then you have very special things like Redhook's Double Coffee Stout, for example. But you've got this real clamor of very good beers--lots of which I love to drink--but there's nothing which has really come out and said, "I am an international classic." I can't quite put my finger on why that is; it's maybe because there is just such a clamor.
It's very clear that in California that some of the Anchor products and some of the Sierra Nevada products have very clearly established that kind of identity. In the Northwest, nobody really has.
I suppose some of the beers I've talked about having established that kind of position are certainly ones that have been around from the very early days of the specialty beer movement. Things like Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and Bigfoot Barleywine and Anchor Steam and Anchor Liberty and Old Foghorn. Anchor Liberty's just a stunning beer, I think. Even the ones I did mention from the Northwest as having been in my mind possible candidates, especially the Grant's products, were from the very early days. Another beer that I really loved, and I'm not sure whether it's still available or not now was the original Widmer Altbier, which was then remarketed as Ur-Alt. I don't know what you do if you're in a situation something like the Widmer Brothers. I mean, they started out with this very good altbier, it's what they wanted to make, they made a few other products, they were reasonably successful, but it was when they made their Hefeweizen that it really took off. You can hardly expect them to say, well, we're going to downplay that and play up our altbier; that would be commercial madness. I think sometimes it's necessary for breweries to try to keep these products going as their Rolls Royce product. It's like, General Motors and Ford own various luxury car companies in Europe their special fig leaf.
JA: It's like when the major movie studies produce one really nice art film that will win awards. It doesn't make very much money, but it's a feather in the cap.
MJ: Yes, yes. It's funny to be talking like this about these breweries because I remember all of these breweries when they were very, very new and very, very tiny indeed, and facing what seemed an impossible situation in trying to persuade people that there beer other than the type made by Bud and Miller and Coors. To actually be talking about how they've handled their success, and say, "Well, gee, I wish they'd keep this beer in the business or keep that one," I mean, it's astonishing. It's not astonishing in the sense that they certainly deserved where they got. It's something I was tooting my trumpet for and being a cheerleader for from a very early time. But it's great that it got as far as it has got.
I think the beer revolution is by no means over yet. There always comes a time when people have to regroup a bit, and that's really what's happening. In some ways it's just entering the mainstream, especially on the East Coast. The East Coast was so scornful and indifferent. The East Coast attitude towards all of this for years veered from utter indifference to total scorn.
Now to go into Washington DC and the Dulles airport, there are three bars there specializing in selling Old Dominion beers. That's an airport; we're not talking about the Dublin Pub or the Horse Brass or something. We're talking about an airport, for Christ's sake. These are guys in suits on their way to business meetings in Omaha, Nebraska who are actually stopping at a place where 2 or 3 years ago all you could get was Bud and Miller Genuine Draft and Coors Light. And they're saying, "What's the beer of the month, what guest beer do you have?" "Do you still have that Double Bock?" "No, no, I like the hefeweizen." "No, you had a dunkles hefeweizen the last time I was here." "What's this one like?" And the guy's saying, you've got bar staff saying, "Well, this one has got a different hop in it--it's more aromatic." It's unbelievable to hear that kind of stuff in an airport. It's kind of funny as well because the people drinking those beers are the Americans and you've got all these people from Europe wanting a Bud Light because they think that's what you're supposed to drink when you're in America.
I was asked on radio this morning, "How important is Portland in all of this and is Portland the beer capital of the United States?" To which my answer always is that it's a private squabble between Portland and Seattle, really, and nobody else comes close. I mean, there are other good beer cities like Denver, Austin, Texas, Boston, but to be the beer capital of America, it's got to be either Seattle or Portland, and it's probably Portland. Portland has within its zip code between a dozen and twenty breweries which is actually slightly more than Cologne has, which is the most breweried city in Germany. So, you could make an argument for Portland being the beer capital of the world. I'd like to see more evidence of this when the city promotes itself. When I come into the airport I'd like to see a sign that says, "Welcome to the Beer Capital." It certainly would if it were the Cabernet Sauvignon capital of the world.