As I noted the other day, I picked up a copy of the 2006 edition of Jackson's Great Beers of Belgium the other week and I could not be happier. It is a great addition to the collection and also provides an opportunity to discuss beer writing generally. You see, the other day I called beer journalism rare and, quite surprisingly but in the end very usefully, I was slapped down in an email by one who considered this insulting. None of course was intended but it got me to thinking about this typey-typey stuff and what it really means.
I should warn you, however, that I have a BA in English Literature and that may make for some tedious considerations. I also got that degree at a school where 20-25% of my fellows were studying journalism, one of whom was my brother. So the trade is something I have had forced upon me. What has that all got to do with this book? Nothing, really, as I do not look at a book like this as journalism. Journalism is that subset of periodical writing that has within it its own subset of investigative reporting - the very stuff that I was praising when I posted a link to Andy Crouch's article on price gouging. This book, by contrast, is in large part expository writing, the sort of thing that should be in a guide: go there and you will find this. Much of beer periodical writing is actually of this sort. At its best, it rhetorically convinces you to follow the author's directions, making the place or thing to do compelling. The poorer version should at least tell you what happened - or will happen - and where. The trouble with Michael Jackson's writing, however, is that it is about something that I will never be able to do. Consider his opening passage in Great Beers of Belgium about the family brewers of Girardin:
An aristocrat's estate gave rise to this brewery, in 1845. The Girardin family have owned it, through four generations. After years of asking, I was permitted to see the brewery in 1993. Louis Girardin was 69 at the time, running the brewery with his wife at Jacqueline and sons Paul and Jan, with no employees. His rural conservatism extended to a mistrust of long-haired foreign snoopers.See, I can't do that. They wouldn't have me. Face it - for a number of reasons it is far from likely that I (or you) would be able to go through doors that opened to Jackson and, also, would be able to go through as many doors as him. In addition to we others having different obligations and opportunities, being the best writer in the second wave of modern beer writers (those immediate ancestors being the first UK home brew writers of the 1960s) Jackson went some way to capturing the field. And, in large part, his writings to some degree as much about him as the beer.
There is nothing wrong with this. Good beer writing can be expository, journalistic, even haiku - but it can also be an example of that little discussed style, the personal essay. One of my favorite books is The Art of the Personal Essay an anthology from 1994 edited by Phillip Lopate. In it, there is an essay by William Hazlitt (1778-1830) called "The Fight" in his experience of going to and witnessing a December 1821 prize fight between one Bill Neate and Thomas Hickman, aka the Gas-man. Plenty of good compelling description about the Georgian modes of transportation, the food, the inns and the event. Not being Dr. Who, I can't ever hope to replicate the experience but the essay provides me the next best thing.
Jackson had a conscious awareness about him that comes through in his writing, awareness that his moment was fairly unique and worth making a life's successful occupation. Catching the wave of attention others earlier in the '70s like the also newly late Richard Boston, with the first efforts of CAMRA as well as those Guardian articles "Boston on Beer", Jackson first wrote about The English Pub in 1976, a beloved experiential phenomenon that he and others thought was then disappearing, before he went on to the more encyclopedic works like 1976's The World Guide to Beer, his Great Beer Guide and others.
When I read Michael Jackson, I always think he has not left The English Pub too far behind. Place and moment seem inextricably intertwined in his understanding of the experience of beer - and the places and moments he experienced due to both his drive and success were possibly more varied and rich than anyone else have been and may be again. This, for me, makes his writing both compelling and somewhat distancing. In Great Beers of Belgium there is a lot of space dedicated to the description of the people and the places he visits, not just the beers. We learn that the brewery at Fantome looks like a jumble sale gone wrong with a brewery stuck in the middle of it while we also read about the state of the health of Father Theodore of Chimay over a number of visits. The style is conversational but so also is the subject matter - the book is really a collection of short essays or vignettes about his own visits and what he saw and tasted.
Just as this is not journalism, it may not even truly be a guide even if it is one of the better ones I expect I will ever have on my book shelf about this country. A hint of that may be in the actual full title of the book: Michael Jackson's Great Beers of Belgium. The possessive is right in there...because what the book shares is his.