The eminently respected Michael Jackson, something of a father figure to beer bloggers, would have been seventy this week. Of course this means that a number of posts have been dedicated to him in the last few days. One of which, written by Simon Johnson, linked me to this article which Jackson originally published back in 1998.
It lays out a lot of the issues surrounding beer styles and beer tasting which are perhaps easy to forget today. New styles are borne and existing styles are blended on a regular basis. However, in the dark days of the 1970s such concepts had not yet been applied extensively to beer, Jackson himself was a major proponent of this change. In the article he essentially argues that the establishment of beer styles, from ‘Oatmeal Stout’ to ‘Flemish Red Ale’, had helped to popularise and preserve these beers for future drinkers.
This is transparently a fact; there are a wealth of beer varieties on today’s shelves from supermarket to specialist beer shop. However, I strongly believe that beer is now saved, all styles brewed today are now so well-documented, at the very least they shall be homebrewed in perpetuity. This is not barefaced complacency and I’ll tell you for why.
My main bone of contention with categorising beer in this way, is that it loses meaning, the less you know about beer. The average consumer is not well-equipped to navigate their way toward taste through beer style alone, for that matter I’m not sure I am. There have been times when I’ve compared the tasting notes of two stouts for example, and it becomes difficult to see them as cut from the same cloth, stylistically speaking. One may exhibit a powerful bitterness, the other a mellow chocolatey character. Perhaps some will say that I have missed the point, and that each style is a broad church with a wide range of flavour profiles. All fair enough, but from an average drinker’s perspective flavour is the main concern so in that respect perhaps individual styles are too broad.
I therefore propose that we need to view Jackson’s contribution as one tool amongst many, rather than a system which we must always work within, bloggers, brewers and consumers alike. Simple tasting notes: bitter, sweet, malty, chocolate, coffee, citrus, vinous etc. communicate with consumers far better. It is information like this which opens the beer world up to outsiders, helping them to gauge a beer before buying and trying.
While I may be taking too iconoclastic an approach, I believe we must remain critical of all institutions and practices. Michael Jackson was a great beer writer and is sorely missed, he helped promote beerodiversity (sorry) through style, but is it now time to move beyond our inheritance?