Michael Jackson, who died last week at the age of 65, made a career of sharing his enthusiasm for the world's myriad beer styles with people who were accustomed to the bland, indistinguishable lagers that dominate the U.S. market. Eventually enough of them shared his enthusiasm to support a microbrew revolution that has brought real diversity to bars, restaurants, and grocery stores throughout the country.
When I was in college, beer choices consisted of Pabst (if money was tight), Molson (the standard), and Moosehead (for special occasions)—all of which tasted pretty much the same. I never cared much for beer, viewing it mainly as a way to get drunk. Later, under the influence of beer-loving friends and experts such as Jackson, I discovered how variations in malt, hops, yeast, and fermentation could produce an amazing range of flavors, smells, colors, and alcohol content. Today the U.S. market features not only a wide selection of imports but a plethora of American-made beers, many of them very good replications of old-world styles. Twenty years ago, who would have thought that breweries in Cooperstown, New York, and Fort Collins, Colorado, would be producing Belgian ales a monk could be proud of? A classic question for beer weenies—if you had to limit your beer choices to one country, which would it be?—today is pretty easy to answer, since American breweries produce good examples of so many styles.
The beer enlightenment is not limited to the U.S. Canada, the main source of the tasteless stuff I drank in college, nowadays produces several tasty, decidedly un-Moosehead-like varieties. On my last trip to Israel, which traditionally has echoed the American taste for Budweiserish domestic brands and imports, I was pleased to note that several varieties of Leffe are now widely available.
Jackson did not accomplish all this single-handedly, but he played an important role in educating beer drinkers' palates through his books, his articles, and his TV series The Beer Hunter. I have fond memories of watching tapes of The Beer Hunter with friends, sampling different countries' brews (purchased ahead of time at an L.A. liquor store) along with Jackson. Let's raise a glass of tripel to his memory.
Last year in reason, Jay Brooks considered the microbrew revolution as an example of the "long tail" phenomenon.