Michael Jackson – the Beer Hunter, not that other guy – passed away after a ten year long battle with Parkinson’s disease on August 30th. Many of the tributes that poured in the following days relayed stories of the times people met him and personal experiences. Unfortunately, this rater never had the opportunity to meet him or share a pint. So my tribute will be a bit different – but I hope it does some justice to say thank you to an inspiration.
One of the reasons I started rating beer was a book by Michael Gelb called How to Think like Leonardo da Vinci, which describes da Vinci’s life and genius, and describes how one can use the things he did to become more creative. One of those things was wine tasting, including taking notes to develop observation and critical skills. Being more inclined to grab a beer, I went with that as my beverage of choice.
Gelb’s follow up to that book was Discover you Genius, How to Think Like History’s Ten Most Revolutionary Minds. Among those ten figures were Charles Darwin and William Shakespeare.
This little digression leads me back to the title of this article, a quote from Jackson – who spent much of his working life getting people to do just that. After the news of his passing, I couldn’t help but notice the tributes pouring in often pointed to two common themes. First, he’s given credit for not only exploring and describing the beer styles we love to debate these days, but for inventing the whole concept of styles in beer. Second, many referred to him as the “Bard” of the profession.
As fitting as those words of praise might be, they become even more powerful when put into context – Michael Jackson was both the Charles Darwin and the William Shakespeare of the beer world.
Now several of the other geniuses mentioned in Gelb’s book could easily have their characteristics ascribed to MJ as well – Columbus for his vision and exploration, Copernicus for reorganizing one’s vision of the world, and Brunelleschi’s accomplishments in expanding perspective. MJ certainly accomplished all of those things for the beer lovers, beer writers, and brewers who came after him. But here I choose to focus on Shakespeare and Darwin.
MJ’s similarity to Darwin points to his understanding of his subject matter. Darwin’s genius was in his power of observation – his explorations and voyages would have been nothing if not for his ability to observe the similarities and differences among the species he found in his travels. MJ was able to do the same in his extensive travels in finding and describing the differences in the beer styles he found around the globe. His resulting “map” of the beer world is the foundation for almost all the style guidelines used around the world – including the Ratebeer styles we so love to dissect and argue about in the forums.
Gelb describes Shakespeare’s genius as his understanding of both himself and others, and his use of language to describe that understanding as well as connect with his audience. MJ connected with beer drinkers easily because he could easily understand what they might like in what he had to say, because he was a beer lover himself. On top of that, and perhaps more importantly, he captivated those that were not already interested in his subject matter through eloquence, passion, and respect for others’ opinion. Most of all, MJ did it through an ability to rise above the perception that beer was beneath all the fuss without coming across as snobbish or elitist.
MJ’s quote above is a perfect example of the traits of both Darwin and Shakespeare. It captures the essence of what Jackson did when he sampled a beer in a simple yet poetic instruction. Without MJ’s effort and success in getting others to do the same, it is no exaggeration to suggest that Ratebeer, Beer Advocate, and the like would not exist today. So, as my lasting tribute to the Beer Hunter, I’ll keep thinking about every beer I put to my lips – and do my best to get more to do the same.