A Quick Britain Recap And The Michael Jackson Archive Preview…

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Two posts in a month is pretty impressive stuff, I know. What can I say? I’ve been busy doing other things, mainly legal work and traveling. I’ve just returned after a lengthy trip to Britain, perhaps a bit lengthier than I had expected due to the faux-snow attack we had here in New England.

For the purposes of this site, my impressions of the trip can be boiled down to these thoughts. There is a lot of real ale going on in London and its environs and a lot of people are drinking it, both young and old. It could definitely have been the types of bars I was visiting, but we hit a few dozen places over more than ten days and everywhere we went, people were drinking cask ale. Yes, they also drank the hell out of cheap lager beer but cask made a pretty good showing. With that said, on average, the cask ale ran the gamut from undrinkable due to overwhelming butter and “British yeast” notes, at least to my palate (a small percentage of beers tried), to average and fine (most of the beers), to outstanding (also a very small percentage). Had a very bad Fullers ESB at the Old Bank of England pub where I so enjoyed it five years ago or so but an excellent Adnams Broadside down the road and some good HopBack in Oxford. Also, Sam Smith’s pubs were, in terms of atmosphere and beer quality, the tops (Alpine Lager was a savior at times). The other thing that surprised me a great deal was the near complete dearth of beer styles available at these pubs. Even pub’s with great reputations, such as the Market Porter in London with its 8 or so casks, served an overwhelming amount of bitter. Perhaps you might find a golden colored ale that was a touch hoppier but generally speaking it was all bitter all the time. Not a single mild, stout, or porter to be seen (apart from Guinness and the quite enjoyable Export Stout from Sam Smiths). The one exception to this was that I frequently found pubs were carrying Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. I have no particular idea why and never saw anyone order one, but it was there. This sort of style fidelity makes for a pretty boring beer experience after a few repetitious days. Eventually, we had to break the mold with a night drinking lambic at the cheesy Belgian-themed Belgo Centraal restaurant in London. I think we often take for granted the diversity of great beer styles we have available to us in almost any bar here in America, from a gastropub to an Applebee’s. I’ll be perusing the tap handles tonight with a new-found sense of wonder tonight.

Last thought: the Michael Jackson archive in Oxford is truly an impressive sight, with nearly 30 big file cabinets filled with material. Ranging from his own personal tasting notes on what seemed to be every single global brewery to his very personal research into Parkinson’s treatments, it was an illuminating few hours. I was cheered to see that he counted as part of his extensive library a copy of my book, The Good Beer Guide To New England, though I don’t think he ever cracked it. It was also a touch uncomfortably voyeuristic to read the inscriptions many fellow beer writers made in their tomes offered to the Bard of Beer. In my whirlwind visit to the archive, I came across a lot of excellent material and left with many new questions I hope to answer in the future. A fastidiously organized pack-rat, I’m also surprised at just how in demand Michael Jackson was in every imaginable way and how well he documented it all. Along these lines, it was interesting to see just how hard the craft brewing community courted him and tried to curry his favor, starting from the earliest days. Michael counted many brewers (not just crafts) as among his “clients”, an interesting revelation to say the least.

I was also very surprised to learn that despite having been open for more than two years, I was the first person to actually ask to see the archive.

Cheers to the good folks at Oxford Brookes, including the friendly Don Marshall, for their assistance in gaining access to them. I hope to return soon to peruse the rest of the interesting materials on offer there.

8 Responses

  1. Wow. That is quite the fact about the archives sitting unused for 2 years. Are they difficult to access or just gathering dust?

    • As Stan has noted to me in an email, I believe the archive may have been open for less than two years. I imagine others will be visiting it soon.

  2. Was getting access that difficult? I may be over in England in the future at some point and I’d be curious to spend a day going through the archive if it were possible, sounds like a great resource.

    • It wasn’t difficult for me as a journalist. As a member of the general public, I’m not sure what the rules would be. I believe the special collections archive is open to the public.

  3. As an active member of Oxford branch of CAMRA and of the Oxford Brewing group I was not aware of the existence of the Michael Jackson archive in Oxford until I read this.

  4. Hi
    we had a British Guild of Beerwriters committee meeting at the library last year and it is truly marvellous to see Michael’s archives; I publicised it in our monthly newsletter and I aim to get there again soon and then get into the Turf in town…

  5. Actually, I visited the archive in 2009 as a regular citizen. I also looked to the numerous brewing books on file in the saem room. I was told the archivist was not in at the time and that there was a number of items still being catalogued. There was some hesitation to let me see anything as there was items of a personal nature that weren’t supposed to be seen (for example, his chequebooks were sitting on a shelf).

    Access to the archive was not difficult. I had to show ID and ask nicely is more or less my recollection. The archive is located in the special reading room of Oxford Brookes. Seeing his personal library was fascinating (especially his notes and dog-eared pages). I was blown away at the amount of Whiskey materials. I don’t know how one person could amass so much material.

    The hilight has to be his field notes. There is a pile of spiral bound notebooks from Belgium and beyond. Surely, these were his notebooks when exploring and the basis for the books and articles he is so famous for.

    – AB

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