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The Leader of the Band has Died

Today is one of those gut wrenching days. Michael Jackson our friend, our mentor and our nomadic Beer Hunter has gone to the heavens where the angels sleep. For the first time since September of 2001, I am sitting in eerily quiet brewery not really thinking about the production side of beer. Because days like today demand reflection, offer an opportunity to pause for moments and memories and the time spent with a legend.

I realize that there will be numerous forthcoming accounts of Michael’s contributions to the world of beer. 30 years of writing, traveling and consuming can’t go unnoticed. I just finished reading his last column for the upcoming All About Beer Magazine. Eerily, it talks about cheating Mort Subite or Sudden Death. As I was reading, I was struck by his voice in my head narrating that story. It was his very distinguished British voice that sticks with me.

Like many brewers, I had the pleasure of drinking with Michael on numerous occasions. Often, as judges at the GABF and World Beer Cup we would find ourselves at the same table. He was the epitome of a professional when it came to judging. As the world’s foremost authority on beer, he was never overbearing, certainly not egotistical and at the same time, he was inquisitive. I always liked that about him. He also cared about me the person. He offered his condolences when Noah passed away and was elated when Sydney came into my life. I suppose that is what it means to be a friend.

Several years back, Michael implored the judges at the GABF judges reception to consider the strength of American Beer. The world was looking at us for innovation and direction. He decreed we should all work together as judges to reward beers not deconstruct them. It was a very motivating talk. It was also the first time in recent memory where every single medal in every single category was awarded. The man just saw things differently than we did. But above all, he was a great story teller.

With that in mind, here is the one story from my life that I knew I was never going to be able to share with Michael but it’s one that I “think” he would appreciate on some level.

It’s 2005, we are heading from San Diego to Belgium with a brief stop in London. I email Mr. Jackson and let him know that if possible, we would love to stop by for a visit. I would be traveling with Tom Nickel from O’Brien’s Pub, Vince Marsaglia (owner of Pizza Port) along with Ken Allen (owner of Anderson Valley Brewing Company) and his head brewer Dave Gatlin.

Michael agrees and gives me the address in Hammersmith for his office. We arrive later in the afternoon (around 6-7 pm). His office is actually a converted garage attached to his house. Inside this narrow room is row after row of whiskey, beer and editions of nearly every book he has ever written and in each language they have been published.

Michael has been hard at work tasting and writing about whiskey for a forthcoming book. It’s everywhere in this little room. He’s talking to Ken Allen about Anderson Valley when I start playing a game of I spy in my head. I spy an 18 year old port wood finished bottle. I spy a 1973 Glen something or other. But right in front of me, I spied a 1963 Macallan that had been opened. Oh Lordy!!! Would you look at that?

It immediately hit me that this was one serious bottle of booze that I needed to taste. It also struck me that this was about as close to one of these bottles of Scotch that I was ever going to get. I salivated. I contemplated. I damn near stared that bottle down. Michael, to his credit, offers us a glass of some new farmhouse beer. We liked it very much. At this point, it becomes obvious to me that we are making a move towards heading to Andover Arms for dinner. But how can I beg/ ask for a dram of that spirit. Would it be rude to do so? What is the protocol at work here? I am clueless. Thirsty, but incredibly clueless.

That bottle is still staring me down and in no time flat, I might be walking away from what promises to be an amazing booze experience. I steel my nerves. I had been mulling over a plan in my head. Suddenly, Michael spins back around to his laptop to save his work for the night. I instantly grabbed the bottle of Scotch, rip off the cork and pull the largest swig I thought my mouth could handle. Ambrosia never felt so guilty, so good or so stolen. My amigos stared in disbelief as I calmly replaced the cork in the bottle, set it on the table and rubbed my now fiery belly to let them know I was satiated. 1963 Macallan. Yep! I could cross that one off my list. And it was AMAZING!!!

I am relieved as Michael turns around, oblivious to my actions (I hope) and casually mentions that he needs to go get a coat for the evening. He points to a set of New Belgium Globe Style Glasses in a box on the floor and says ” If there is anything in these bottles that interests you gents, please feel free to have a drink.” He no sooner closes the door to the candy store of Whiskey and us kiddies get our drink on.

Now, we head right for the glasses. There’s about 8 of them we line them up. I grab the 1963 Macallan and pour about 4 fingers. Tom grabs a bottle of 1958 something (it wasn’t very good). Ken, Vince and Dave all find bottles they want to try. Next thing you know, we’ve got 8 globes of Scotch 4 fingers high lined up in front of us. Time never went by so fast as it did that night. Michael left us to our devices for about 15 minutes. (The next morning we’re left wondering if we drank all of them. The consensus is that we were proper drunks and left no booze behind.)

He returns. We’re drunk and heading out for supper I don’t know how dinner went for Michael, it was certainly smashing for the 5 of us on the sauce. Sometime around 11:30 we waived goodbye and caught a taxi home.

You ever have one of those mornings where you forget what went on the night before? Yeah, me either. On the Eurostar ride to Belgium, the five us talked and were only then able to reconstruct what had occured the night before. It was spotty at best. We do know that we shared a meal with Michael in London after drinking ourselves silly in his office.

I doubt very much we were the only ones to ever over indulge in that candy store. Hell, I might not even be the only back woods brewer to ever pug 63 Macallan right from the bottle. I suppose, I should have told this story to Michael in the last year. Then, I could have popped the cap from a vintage Cuvee de Tomme and had him steal a swig or two from the bottle. Then we’d be even? Doubtful? He afforded me so much. For that, I am thankful.

Either way, when it comes down to it, life is about the moments we live, the beers we drink and the stories we share. I suppose stolen drams of Scotch probably need their own category as well. That night in Michael’s office ranks as an all timer. Just like him. Today is a sad day indeed. One that requires more than a few liquid refreshments. I only wish he was here to share.

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