After an introspective and intentionally unstudied look back on 2016, I thought it might be nice to balance things out with some data. I use Untappd to log my beer-drinking, as another aid against my shoddy memory ― though there’s always the problem of needing to remember to use your memory-aid1 ― and being a paid-up supporter lets me dump out the year’s check-ins,2 and tinker with a spreadsheet and see what patterns emerge.
The days are just packed.1 This is always a weird time of year to be a beer geek who works in the beer business; the combination of so much going on and so much to do warrants one of those legendary compound German words. I am exhaustixhilarated. This is terrificifying. So, naturally, Emma and I nicked off for a fifteen-hour one-day road-trip to see the final days of an exhibition and that freakin’ gorgeous mountain. There wasn’t even any beer involved. It was great. Bring on the week ahead, I say.
I’ve just got the one actual beer hat — which does stand in stark contrast to my predictably-overstuffed t-shirt drawer. My Dogfish Head cap is a beloved and battered souvenir of a ridiculously enjoyable afternoon spent bartending at Beervana 2010,1 relatively early in my full-time-beer-person career. As I was doing my taxes this week, generally feeling fortunate to’ve been able to patch together a modest living doing work I enjoy, I thought I should lay out my metaphorical hats — in the spirit of delight (my plan, such as it is, is vaguely working!) as much as disclosure,2 though I’m a big fan of both.
The weekend was the fifth anniversary of, well, this thing. It was Sunday1 the 26th of September, 2010, when I first hit the ‘Publish’ button on anything here. I’ve since done so three hundred and forty times,2 for an overall rate of one post every five or six days — which just shows you the nonsense you can bury under an average. In truth, my activity here has fluctuated wildly, as has what you might call the mandate or mission. The initial intent was for this to be simply a backed-up and searchable version of the original, which itself was born about five years earlier when I scribbled the first-ever entry and transmogrified a blank notebook into a Beer Diary.3 On finally filling those pages and starting in on my second volume, five years and twenty-three days ago, I wanted to scan and upload its predecessor for safekeeping — and on account of the fact that you can’t grep dead trees.
What started as ‘Afterthoughts’ to that project quickly took over,4 though the Diaries still exist, gathering notes and bearing witness to my primary impressions of a beer or festival or whatnot. The revised and broadened nature of, well, this thing slowly found an audience and even picked up an award. But with a shift in my “day job” (to an actual day job), productivity here waned; the switch in what energy was used up during the day and what was left to burn off saw my swimming and gardening increase and writing time decline.5 I’m still attempting to rebalance all that again, with mixed success.
But anyway, I was put in mind of all of this — i.e., these five years and the utterly marvellous and/or baffling beers and occurrences and best-of-all people that have been bound up therein — by (of all things) a spot of spring cleaning a few days ago. In the kitchen cupboards at home was an unexpected trove of bottles that spanned such a swathe of time that I idly wondered if it covered the entirety of this thing’s existence and so had to look up the dates. And lo, here we are. And yes, they do. The Beer Diary started its life6 as a memory aid. Fitting, then, that a steady accumulation of forgotten things would furnish an excuse to think back, try to remember how these nearly-three-dozen bottles came to comprise my stash — and ponder what to do with them. Because some beers really do age spectacularly gracefully and can sublimely cap off an occasion. Others, of course, do not. Time, then, for a census of my accidental cellar, to see what it says about the last few years.
On our roughly spherical planet, yesterday is still today for a good while into tomorrow. Which is convenient, given my topic. But then, whenever you’re late to talk about an annual conjunction of timing, you’re also just really early.1 Anyway, the 30th of August is my birthday,2 and also the anniversary of the death of Michael Jackson — by which I mean the beer and whisky writer, not the other one. Given that it’s also usually the end of beer festival season here, it’s an excellent time to ponder inspirations and go back to the classics. And M.J. so radically overhauled and reinvigorated what became my avocation ― i.e., rambling about beer ― that he might as well count as its inventor. One of our fundamental organising principles, the notion of “beer styles”, was even his (surprisingly-recent) invention. You really can’t overstate the influence. And we’re lucky to have him looming over us, because he was damn good.
My first introduction to him was the Malt Whisky Companion that kept me sane while I was working at a bar with a dismal beer selection but an unexpectedly excellent shelf of five-dozen whiskies. Only later did I discover his work on beer — once I’d relocated to a better bar — but across both subjects he had the same easily readable, gently educational, and enthusiastically cosmopolitan passion for delicious things enjoyed mindfully and in context. Though it’s maybe too anachronistic a term for someone of his generation, he was a proper geek: just obviously keen to share his love of his favourite things with anyone who’d listen. Despite his (deserved) stature as the authoritative expert of his time, he doesn’t give off a whiff of snobbery. Read him on something that was ‘new’ and emerging and maybe much-maligned — like the craft beer movement of the U.S. in the eighties, or Japanese single malt whisky — and you’ll see him strongly rejecting the common and lazy assumption that different is automatically inferior. Instead, he’d pick up much-more-rewarding threads like the broad arc of history, how almost everything old is eventually new again, humanity’s long-running tradition of mucking with long-running traditions, and how fashion (for Islay whisky, or IPA) is just fashion and will one day be replaced.
I have my quibbles at the margins, naturally. He’s said some frankly-bananas things about glassware and serving temperatures, which I’ve reluctantly torn apart in User’s Guide-style seminars.3 And a lot of his work was in the Big Compendium Of Tasting Notes genre which has unfortunately spawned a generation of imitators4 who (to my mind) don’t do nearly as good a job of tempering that approach with the necessary context and quirky evocativeness which he excelled in.5 But he remains a subculture superhero, and a classic forever worth revisiting.
Speaking of which: this glorious thing. My friend and former bartending comrade6 Peter gave me a bottle of Chimay Grande Réserve7 for my birthday yesterday. It’s long been a favourite — since I plucked it out of a menu on a whim at an excellent little birthday dinner a decade or so ago, if memory serves — and this bottle happened to be from the 2007 vintage, so brewed the year we lost M.J.. No better way to mark the moment, salute your superhero, and end the evening, then, than to open it and pair it with a little of the Highland Park that the Companion made me fall in love with equally-many years ago.8 And it was simply sublime. Delicate and luxurious, rich but not overblown, full of perfectly nightcappy flavours like dark chocolate and deeply fruity port. We’d all be lucky if we were aging half as well.
So here’s to M.J., and to making the most of however-many orbits of the Sun you’re eventually allotted. As you go along, imagine his avuncular voice in your head — like Obi-Wan gently nudging Luke — as he says:9
I want you to think about every beer you put to your lips.
Original Diary entry: Chimay Grande Réserve 2007 — 30/08/15 Almost wrote 79 by sheer form-filling habit. @ home, after an excellent birthday. Watching the still-charming Beer Hunter series — he’s just such a natural, if a total dork — and pairing it also with a Highland Park. Seemed fitting all round, since it’s the anniversary of MJ’s death, which was in 2007. This bottle a present from Pete. So utterly lovely. Suprisingly light palate, so portish + with lots of chocolate flavour later on. Ages so well. The beer. Can’t speak for myself, obviously. But I did alright today. Very lucky chap. Pancakes + bubbles + beer + books + mooching + wandering and just generally having a top notch Sunday. Wouldn’t dare ask for more than that. What would be the need?
— Appendix: The Other M.J.
Meanwhile, an excellent coincidence of timing and timezones bundles the other Michael Jackson into all this: the 29th was his birthday and — as I said, given our roughly spherical planet — a good chunk of that day for an American just is the 30th for me (or the M.J., for that matter). To tie it all back to beer and other things of which I’m more-properly a fan, here he is drinking a Bud (remember: to each their own, and everything in its right place) while sitting next to Bruce Freakin’ Springsteen:
My father was the straightest-talking chap you’d likely ever have the privilege of meeting — except when he claimed not to like cats; that bit was palpable nonsense.1 He was calm and civilised in a way that’d make you doubt the efficacy of genetics if you’d met me, a loud bastard prone to ranting, first. But he certainly passed on his deep aversion to bullshit and his ability to enjoy simple pleasures, unworried by the vagaries of fashion or other peoples’ opinions as to their merits.
Today would’ve been his 75th birthday. Early last year, he was diagnosed with cancer of a sort and stage for which medical interventions were all likely to do much more harm than good. But he quietly beat his prognosis by a factor of two or three, for which we all counted ourselves hugely lucky, and (to borrow the useful cliché) he lived right up until he died ― even managing a half-round of golf and a tidy-up of the garden (his two enduringly-beloved hobbies) just days before the end. As he’d planned (and insisted, with his beautifully serene stubbornness) he died at home with his family, and as I watched I was awed at how he quietly and deftly snatched a fistful of dignity from the capriciousness of disease and death. If you have to go ― and I’m afraid I must inform you that you almost certainly do have to go, some time, somehow ― you’d do well to go out like he did; with pragmatism, authenticity, and grace.
He would’ve bought me my first beer, and I probably bought him his last. The beer that wound up as my first doubtless actually started out in his glass: I was a weird kid2 and took to bitter things, like coffee and beer, unusually early and remember wrangling small samples of each quite often. At some point in my teens ― probably during my parents’ thirtieth anniversary party ― my ration was upgraded to a whole serving. Dad’s tastes tended unashamedly towards the classic simple pale lager, stripped of any parochialism or brand loyalty. He was always open to trying the madder things I’d bring to share, but his favourites were his favourites — and there’s not a damn thing wrong with that — so I did my best to keep his fridge stocked with Dad-friendly stuff, for him and his visitors. Occasionally, in some kind of shock, people would comment on the ‘mainstream’ things I’d drink at his house, but I was having a beer with my father, and it was invariably quietly-but-utterly marvellous.
So today, I’m going to dig a hole so we can inter his ashes and plant a tree. After that, I’m going to have something that might seem out of character for a proud beer geek — but it won’t be. I’ll have a beer for my father, since I can no longer have one with him.