Thursday, 28 April 2016

Michael Jackson: The Daddy of us all

Last Saturday I visited Mondo Brewing in Stockwell. It’s not your usual startup; it was founded last year with a wealth of previous brewing experience and a brand new 27 hectolitre brewing kit. Mondo and its vast range of beers have quickly been subsumed into national circulation. Its tap room has 15 taps of keg beer to choose from. The brewery’s name reflects where the inspiration for its beer comes from: the world.

As the catalyst behind Britain’s craft beer, America is well represented. In bottles and on tap there are takes on American pale ales and IPAs. There have also been steam Lagers and American brown ales. The European brewing culture is strongly evidenced too by Biere de Mars, Patersbier and smoked Helles. I have also had their blackberry Berliner Weisse, Maibock and Belgian dubbel.

The foudres/foedern ageing Rodenbach beer in Roeselare, West Flanders. This image has captivated me for years.

We’re increasingly taking this extensive range for granted but up until recently, countries stuck to their own. Where does this fascination for world beers come from? Not that long ago, IPAs and porters were positively exotic after their long hibernation in this country. Britain was Britain because of its bitters, keg lagers and stout. From this cosy parochial hole, it’s now a beer exhibition.

It’s impossible and misguided to attribute this revolution to one man, but if you could target a prime mover, it would be the beady-eyed, understated and amicable descendant of Lithuanian Jewish stock who, when speaking, reminds me of a drawling Ringo Starr. It’s Michael Jackson.

The great man himself. He would sometimes don a single white glove for a laugh to emulate his more famous namesake

A few things have made me think about him recently. It’s not just the fact my last post was about beer from Belgium and I alluded to him, but it’s also the “death harvest” of 2016. We’re rapidly losing our stars. I discovered Michael Jackson the same year he passed away - 2007. What I can’t recall is whether it was before or after the day he left us.

The first book I ever bought about beer - The Eyewitness Companion to Beer - was edited by him. It presented beer in a way I’d never seen before; a way obvious to Belgians but too deeply rooted in pleasure for us Brits. Though subliminally aware that Belgium and Germany boasted stunning beer glasses, it’s the first time I looked at them with a sense of covetousness. The colour and glow of the beer far outstrip the beauty of a wine glass posing next to a bunch of grapes. So much more character can be expressed through so many different hues, heads, glass shapes and colours!

It's images like this that have sent folk like me on a quest

I’m reminded of my first taste of Duvel circa 2008. It was because of a photo in that book and it’s fair to say it set me on a quest that I’m still on. At 8.5%, Duvel was the heaviest beer I’d ever had and it felt it. That ABV seems so underwhelming now as beer gradually replaces wine.

He was the Alan Whicker of the beer world. I always end up thumbing through his books to get back to basics. Other volumes and encyclopaedias restate facts but Michael was the original explorer and he had first-hand angles on beer that couldn’t be found in standard literature.

At Mondo, if 19th Century peasants could be beamed into the brewery in their smocks, would they recognise the beer styles attributed to their culture or town? Maybe. Would they recognise the constraints that identify that beer for people of the present day? I’m not so sure.

A lot of the information in these books/guides is now obsolete but it was Michael that helped move things on

Visiting Belgium, Michael was told that there was no such thing as Saison as he hunted them down. Was whoever told him far ahead of their time where a statement like that could maraud as critical analysis? His wanderings in the 1960s originally took in bronze coloured beers. These gave over to blonde. Some that self-identified as Saison were gentle and malty and to be found either side of the French/Belgian border. Some bieres de garde in France, he thought, were too tart and should be Saisons. There was no authority to consult and no need. If that’s what people drank why would they need to align it with beers of that name elsewhere? This gave me pause for thought when I recently compared Saisons and what they are supposed to conform to. Michael’s insight leads me to ask: Do we actually engineer traditional beer styles retrospectively? Up to a point I think we do but at the same time it’s unavoidable.

In Britain, we have enough trouble working out what is and isn’t a mild, telling a porter from a stout (or indeed a strong mild!), separating strong pale ale from India pale ale and modern strong-hopped bitter. However if the beer’s from another place and another time, it’s easier to surround it by definition because in a sense you’re starting from scratch.

Belgian beer is now rightly cherished in Britain and across the world

I love Michael for how he makes me thirsty. Though the photographs in his books compliment the text - they can never rival it. He employs a language that is sumptuous but stays clear of pretension. On Saisons for example, he says this:

“the crisp, cleansing, quenching, top-fermenting Saison”

It’s almost onomatopoeic in it’s delivery and succinct. An even more beautiful sentence gets straight to the heart of Lambics:

“(….) can shock at first sip - and seduce to the point of obsession anyone who truly loves sensory exploration”

Like a haiku - the perfect choice, economy and aim of words. On me, it’s both frustrating and spurring as a budding beer writer. As Clive James once said, “All I can do is turn a phrase until it catches the light”. Michael’s words positively refract. The only thing I never get are his comparisons to Jazz music and its stars - something I can’t be converted to. They soar straight over my head.

His opinion was so valued, that when brewer Ivo Bosteels created a new style of beer with Champagne yeast, he needed it to be served to Michael. Our subject couldn’t make it to Belgium because of work commitments so Ivo drove all the way to Parsons Green in West London for Michael’s appraisal because it just couldn’t wait. It’s that reputation that makes Michael the daddy.

Mr Jackson also helped champion cask ale and wrote about it in a way that causes salivation

Our fortune is in the variety of beer and the technology that makes it. Saison may have been a light beer brewed for farm labourers during the summer months in Heinault - but it’s also a beer brewed across Europe and America at every conceivable strength. Unlike the ephemeral thing that inspired it, it knows it’s Saison because it says it is - it’s written on the clip.

It’s in a large part because of Michael Jackson that when I visit London I see biere de mars, Maibocks, Wits, Alts, Pilsners, Kolsch and Rauchbier and the distortions that arise from each being given the dubbel/tripel treatment. And why not? Let’s just agree that quad is a step too close to the jaws of madness.

In London, these styles will only represent a tiny fraction of the beer consumed but they will dominate in column inches and on social media. This last quote about how a style doesn’t travel far is worth reading; it was about Biere brut - the Champagne beers mentioned above:

“Progress might be slower in the Anglo-Saxon world. Belgian beer does not easily penetrate its Eastern frontier”

The beer in question was Ivo Bosteel’s Deus - a heavenly beer served in a flute glass and the drink I celebrated my 36th birthday with. It stands proudly on the shelves of beer shops across the nation. The frenzied brewing of world beer has taken over our cities. How attitudes have changed and I think it was Michael Jackson that got them to.