Before we discuss Michael Jackson’s predictions about American beers and “tomorrow’s classics” how about a recap of how he rated “world classics” for 18 years? Andy’s pondering sent me flipping through seven editions of Jackson’s Pocket Guide to Beer.
After considering the concept of “classics” maybe we need to return to the topic of “world class” and if the phrase is anything more than a marketing term. And maybe that discussion will have already gone where it’s going to go.
In Jackson’s first pocket guide (1982) he awarded 42 beers 5 stars, writing “. . . no one can deny that a Premier Cru Bourdeaux is likely to have more complexity and distinction than a jug wine (Or, in the British phrase, “plonk”). A beer rated ***** is a world classic either because it has outstanding complexity and distinction or because it is the definitve example of the style, and no matter whether everyone is capable of appreciating it; some people probably don’t like first-growth Bordeaux, either.”
In fact, he also gave 5 stars to all the beers from 12 traditional Lambic brewers in the Senne Valley because they were so unique. For purposes of this “study” I added a 43rd top-rated beer to that first list, Cantillon Rose de Gambrinus — because it was the lone lambic to receive the highest rating in the second edition of the guide.
He changed the rating system in 1986 for that second edition, assigning 4 stars at the most, still labeling such a beer “world classic.” In 1982 he awarded half stars — for instance, Worthington White Shield received ****½ — while in following years a beer might have been rated ***»****.
You with me? From this point on we’ll refer to 4-star beers (giving 1982’s 5-star beers **** and everything else less). Although Jackson assigned six additional beers 4 stars in 1986 the list shrank to 32. In 1991 it included 33 beers, in 1994 35 beers, in 1996 35 beers, in 1997 35 beers and in 2000 only 32 beers.
The guide wasn’t “all new” with each edition; Jackson’s goal was to change it about 25 percent each time, but even when what he wrote about a beer remained much the same the rating might change. The content also tended to reflect his travels, so that in 2000 he added considerably to the section on China and made many revisions within the pages about Germany.
At the top end, he lowered the ratings for seven 4-star beers in 2000, meanwhile promoting Cantillon’s Bruocsella Grand Cru, Boon Mariage Parfait, Köstritzer Schwarzbier and Greene King Strong Suffolk.
In the course of seven guides, 19 beers earned a top rating every time:
Zum Uerige Altbier
Rodenbach Grand Cru
Courage Imperial Russian Stout
Thomas Hardy’s Ale
Guinness Extra Stout
Cantillon Rose de Gambrinus
The 2000 list included six American beers: Anchor Steam, Anchor Liberty Ale, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Sierra Nevada Bigfoot, Alaskan Smoked Porter and Celis White (on its last legs in Texas).
As you can see Jackson reserved the term “world classic” for a few special beers, and ones that proved themselves over time. This was a much narrower list than in the The Great Beer Guide, published in 2000 and listing “500 Classic Brews.”
A bit of semantics? Certainly. But worth remembering when, next, you consider the bold prediction he made in Beer: Eyewitness Companions, published after he died in 2007 and written not long before.