The Bard of Beer Visits

October 1996

Being out with Michael Jackson is like being out with Santa Claus — everywhere, people are glad to see you.

It is impossible to overstate Jackson’s influence on the worlds of beer and whiskey. He wrote the book, several of them in fact, and is the single best known beer writer on the planet. He’s been everywhere and tasted everything. And his comments, favor and interest are invaluable to anyone who makes or sells beer.

I first met Michael at the Great American Beer Festival in 1985; our longest conversation took place at adjoining urinals. “How are you doing?” I asked. “I’ve just tasted every dark beer at the Festival,” he replied, which required no further explanation. Out in the hall, the head of the Association of Brewers, Charlie Papazian, approached Michael and said, “There are TV people here and they’d like an interview.” Michael replied, “Charlie, I’ve just tasted every dark beer at the Festival. Print would be fine, radio maybe, but television absolutely not.” Michael and I also talked briefly about music, and after the festival I sent him some blues tapes.

In 1987, when we met again at the Festival, he remembered me and the tapes and we spent more time talking. After I was home, he wrote to ask about a cocktail recipe that Nick Charles recites to a bartender in one of the Thin Man movies, and I tracked that down for him. Then, one morning in 1996, on the last day of September, I got a call from London; a young man said he was Michael’s assistant, that Michael was going to be in Syracuse the next day, and could I drive him around? Oh, yes!

I picked Michael up at the airport, took him to his hotel, and then to the Dinosaur Bar-B-Que for dinner. The next day, a Wednesday, we would start at 2 p.m. At noon, Laurie and I were having lunch at the Blue Tusk, and I said to Tim, “Do you know Michael Jackson?” and he said, “Of course,” with one of those “Do you think I was born yesterday? Haven’t you noticed this is a beer bar?” looks. And I said, “I’m bringing him in at 4 o’clock.” Tim’s eyes widened; his jaw dropped, and he began polishing tap handles like a man possessed.

I dropped Laurie off, went on to pick up Michael, and began one of the longest days of drinking, perhaps the longest such day, in my career. It was a little like the movie My Favorite Year, spending a day with an idol, a culture hero, but wondering just what he was going to do, especially when the beer gave way to single malt Scotch. And everything was free. Even as the entourage grew to include such notables as beer writer Don Cazentre and Empire Brewing’s David Hartmann, money never made an appearance. And my fears were groundless. Throughout the day and evening, Michael was a perfect gentleman, and very responsive to hints that it was time to move on to the next stop. I was pacing my drinking, since I had to drive. But after 10 or 11 hours of beer, bourbon and smoky bars, I had one stuffy head, and was sick with a cold for two weeks afterwards. It was worth it.

Here is my short article that followed, and Michael’s own comments in another article shortly after that:

“Beer Buddha Samples Local Brews”

“The world’s foremost expert on beer and whiskey arrived on short notice in Syracuse this month, taking a two-day respite from his travels by visiting Syracuse’s Middle Ages Brewery and revisiting the two Syracuse brew pubs, the Syracuse Suds Factory and Empire Brewing. Michael Jackson (no, not THAT Michael Jackson), the author of several authoritative books on beer and single-malt whiskeys, flew into Syracuse between speaking engagements in Los Angeles and a class on single-malt Scotch at Cornell University’s hotel school.

“On Oct. 1, he dined at the Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, where he debated the merits of Foster’s Lager with Miss E, Sammy-winning blues performer and the evening’s hostess. She remained unmoved, however, by his declamations on Foster’s use of cane sugar and its self-description of the brew house as “a production facility.” Jackson, also known to his adherents as the Bard of Beer and the Beer Hunter, chose to enjoy two pints of Middle Ages’ Beast Bitter with his barbecued chicken, beans, mashed potatoes and corn bread.

“The following afternoon, he visited the Middle Ages microbrewery on Wilkinson Street, where he declared himself well pleased with all its beers but placing greatest store by the Winter Wizard Ale and the Beast Bitter, giving an edge to the Beast for its balance and complexity. This was followed by a visit to the Syracuse Suds Factory and a longer sojourn at the Blue Tusk in Armory Square, where the owners cracked a magnum of Lindemann’s Lambic Gueuze “Cuvee Rene 1994” in celebration. Jackson took careful notes, posed for photos, chatted and signed books with a Buddha-like serenity.

“He then adjourned for dinner across the street at the Empire Brewing Company, where he sampled each of the current offerings. Dessert, with an entourage that had grown with every stop, consisted of rare single-malt Scotches served at the Bistro, right across the walk from the Blue Tusk. Bistro owner Max Chutinthranond produced Jackson’s book on Scotch from behind the bar, pronounced him “my hero,” and marveled that he should suddenly appear in his restaurant. Indeed, it was miraculous, and Max’s reaction was perfectly in keeping with the magical tone of the evening.

Syracuse New Times, October 1996

“Beer Hunter Likes It Here”

“Famous beer writer Michael Jackson’s column in the November issue of What’s Brewing, the newsletter of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) in England, includes the comment, “Not everyone has reason to visit Syracuse but, should you find yourself there, you need not thirst for good ale.” Jackson’s “Beer Hunter” column profiles Syracuse’s Middle Ages Brewing and describes its ales, “the fruity Grail Ale; the firmer, very hoppy Beast; and the darker, maltier, intense Wizard.” He also mentions Empire Brewing Company, “where I particularly enjoyed the German-style Hefe-Weizen,” and Armory Square’s Blue Tusk, “an outstanding local beer bar.” Jackson, author of The World Guide to Beer, visited Syracuse in early October between engagements in Los Angeles and Cornell University.”

Syracuse New Times, November 1996

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One comment

  1. […] in 1985 at the Great American Beer Festival; we kept in touch, and I had the good fortune to be his minder/chauffeur when he visited Syracuse in 1996. He’s a delightful guy. So I asked Sean to say hello for […]

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