Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Brush with greatness

We’re coming to this a little late, but nonetheless, it’s worth saying a few words here about Michael Jackson and the visit he made to Flying Fish Brewing a decade ago.

The news that cues this reminiscence is that Jackson, the fabled beer writer and critic from Britain, died last week (Aug. 30th). He was 65, and to craft beer fans and those with a taste for great Scotch whiskies, he was a legend.

For us, in our nascent days of becoming more informed beer drinkers and daring homebrewers (forget stringing words together about beer), he was an important reference source, with his books, columns in several publications and his “Beer Hunter” documentary series that we discovered on NJN (on Saturday evenings, probably after it had already been featured on the Discovery Channel) during the early ’90s.

The show depicted the bespectacled MJ, with his bushy goatee, mutton-chop sideburns and wiry mane, in his world pursuit of beers and beer styles to tell you about, to celebrate. But it wasn’t just about the beer, it was also a glimpse at the people who made it and the beer's relevance to homeland cultures.

His spotlight on Belgium was beyond cool. And after watching it, you could confidently discuss with your beer brethren what was up with Samuel Adam’s Cranberry Lambic, just what Boston Beer was trying to copy.

Memorable, too, was the installment that touched on German stone beer, and within a couple of years of that segment’s airing, thanks to the import craze taking off, you could find that smoky beer – in the green relief bottles with the swing tops – on the shelf at Canal’s (in our case, Canal’s on Route 70 in Marlton). But alas, it’s no longer among their imports. Pity that.

It was a great, fun beer to try. And for that we owe Michael Jackson. Ditto for Batemans Good Honest Ales, and a penchant for English ales, altogether.

Remember, this was the early/mid-90s, and around New Jersey the beer landscape was just starting to change. And if you were part of the new order, Jackson was certainly one of your guides. He turned you, too, into a beer hunter, and you could blame him for your zeal to try new (to you at least) beers (and styles), and the overstock in your fridge that always seemed to grow as you tried to pare it down.

Gone Fishing

Six months after Flying Fish released its two flagship beers – an ESB and extra pale ale – Jackson paid a call to the brewery on Olney Avenue in Cherry Hill. (We were lucky enough to be there, lending some picture-taking ability for the occasion.) We forget why Jackson was in the area and who coaxed him into coming by. Most likely, given that it was March, MJ was probably heading to Philadelphia for tastings at The Book & The Cook event.

Still, whatever the catalyst, there was a palpable sense of excitement on the part of the brewery crew during his visit.

At the time (1997), FF’s portfolio also included a Belgian dubbel, a porter that’s since been pulled out of the regular run of its beers, and an India pale ale that was brand spanking new to the lineup. There were only four fermenters in the brewery to complement the mash tun and kettle, and the bottling line that will be replaced early next year was just getting broken in.

So for a fledgling brewery, an MJ visit was, well, just geer! (Jackson would pay a subsequent visit to Flying Fish, around the beginning of this decade.)

Ten years on, a lot of the discourse of that March Friday morning is lost in the mists of time. But we do recall that MJ sampled the flagship ales and the IPA, commenting – politely, even as if wondering aloud – that the head had diminished too quickly on one of the brews. But he sized up Flying Fish’s ESB as worthy of seconds, and signed the brewery’s guest book, leaving a compliment that he "could sink quite a few of these."

And to American brewers in general, he likewise paid a compliment.

Brewers across Europe, he said, were somewhat set in their ways, as far as styles went. A German brewery, for example, would stick with the beers it’s noted for, staying that course and not undertaking, say, a best bitter or stout. But Americans, joining the widening beer renaissance, were boldly interpreting styles from all around the world – bocks, stouts, pale ales – under their breweries' banners, and with much success.

And those beers, MJ said that day, were among the pleasures he found in coming to America.