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A short history of Jackson’s ‘world classics’

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:

Pilsner Urquell
Jever Pilsner
Zum Uerige Altbier
Paulaner Salvator
Schlenkerla Märzen
Rodenbach Grand Cru
Westmalle Tripel
Chimay Blue
Brakspear Bitter
Courage Imperial Russian Stout
Fuller’s ESB
Marston’s Pedigree
Thomas Hardy’s Ale
Traquair House
Guinness Extra Stout
Anchor Steam
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.



20 Responses to A short history of Jackson’s ‘world classics’

  1. The Beer Nut December 22, 2009 at 11:37 am #

    I do wish people would stop using the term “Guinness Extra Stout” without specifying which of the two beers sold under that name they mean. Which one was Jackson talking about, Stan?

  2. Alan December 22, 2009 at 11:45 am #

    I have far less issues with classic than class as it means “epitome” – in fact as it means something at all. I overly commented on class so I will be more to the point… with any luck.

    I would still point out Jackson’s thinking as you describe it includes these ideas which I do not see as entirely helpful:

    – it prefers complexity over simplicity. This is a philosophical principle that is not defined by beer and reflects personal preference. Finesse can, however, exist in either simplicity or complexity and can exist separate from rarity.

    – “epitome” is itself a philosophical principle based on choice. If we think of Plato’s ideals and that cave we recall that there was a hope that life was constructed around ideal examples of some abstraction ultimately and that specific examples were merely degrees of failing when compared to the ideal. I do not believe this is how craft anything really works nor really life. It does not take into account that we are all struggling not as against an ideal but as against local conditions and resources.

    – the Premier Cru system of analyzing wine is problematic and not a good model to follow as it includes large consideration of the “status” of a maker and suppresses producers’ wines whose status is not as well established. It is not always a ready indication that the fluid is better that the other fluid.

    In the end, this is one person’s “top” list based on a life dedicated to his wise obsession with beer, an obsession which has enriched us all. I would also suggest it is a pattern, an exploration to follow after adaptation rather than a result to follow.

  3. Stan Hieronymus December 22, 2009 at 11:45 am #

    Sorry, he specified it on his 1982, listing two from Guinness:

    Guinness Extra Stout (Britain and Ireland)
    Guinness Foreign Extra Stout

    He lowered the rating on Foreign Extra in 1986.

    I’m going to edit the list above, but was it sold only in Ireland in 2000 or both Ireland and Britain?

  4. The Beer Nut December 22, 2009 at 12:01 pm #

    Again, Guinness Foreign Extra Stout is at least three different beers made to different recipes — another beer name that makes no sense without qualification.

    The 4.2% ABV Guinness Extra Stout sold in Britain and Ireland is now the same — it’s also known as “Guinness Original” in the UK. Until 2000 the Irish version was bottle conditioned but isn’t any more. The beer it gets confused with is a 6% ABV one brewed in Canada exclusively for the North American market and also labelled as “Guinness Extra Stout”.

  5. Alan December 22, 2009 at 12:36 pm #

    Isn’t the Guinness example raising another issue – identity. Do we know beer X is the same beer here or there and is it the same beer in this year as it was five years ago. I am understanding that the Premier Cru level of “appellation controlee” relates to the producer and not the “brand” of wine. The same winemaker can produce a second but the house itself has a role in the appellation. I see only Orval having that characteristic.

  6. Stan Hieronymus December 22, 2009 at 1:48 pm #

    In 1982 he was referring to the Extra Stout that was 4-4.5% abv, while the Foreign Extra Stout was 8% abv.

    In 2000 he referred too the Extra Stout “sold in Ireland” as checking in at 1.039, 4.2% abv).

    Alan, I’m fine with brewery to brewery differences (Guinness, Budweiser, Sam Adams) but I do think breweries should say specifically where a beer was brewed.

    And as to the same as it was 5 years ago, that’s probably the beginning of separate discussion.

  7. patrick December 22, 2009 at 3:39 pm #

    Please check on Geary’s Hampshire Ale. I think I remember a story about it becoming the 7th beer Jackson gave 4 stars.

  8. Stan Hieronymus December 22, 2009 at 5:22 pm #

    Patrick – Hampshire Ale received four stars in both the ’96 and ’97 guides, but the 3/4 in the 7th edition.

  9. The Beer Nut December 22, 2009 at 6:03 pm #

    Where it’s brewed; what it’s made from; how it’s changed: all things that the big branding companies don’t want you to know, and will never publicise.

    I think Alan has a good point here, and one which invalidates the notion of any beer being a classic: especially one made by an old multinational corporation. Beers change. Whatever Guinness Jackson was drinking and judging in 2000 wasn’t what anyone has access to now. You’ve observed yourself that Jackson’s 1989 archaic craft-brewed Pilsner Urquell is nothing like the rushed-out corn-syrup-laden Urquell of today. It’s a licence for any macrobrewery that’s been on the scene long enough to continue trading on a reputation it has no right to.

    Brand loyalty is the enemy of beer quality, and lists of “classics” are nothing but brand loyalty.

  10. Stan Hieronymus December 22, 2009 at 6:48 pm #

    Yes, beers change.

    Any time somebody writes about a beer it should be considered a snapshot in time. On Dec. 22, 2009 Sierra Nevada Celebration is/was a great beer. At this moment I have no problem calling it a classic.

    Can we guarantee it will be a classic ten, or even two years, down the road? I guess not. But we can make a pretty good guess.

    That might have been unfair, because the conversation started with Guinness a Pilsner Urquell, owned by multi-nationals.

    So back to the idea of brand loyalty. I can’t be blanket opposed to the notion – look at Alan and Jolly Pumpkin (and I feel like I helped make the match) – as long as the brewery is transparent.

  11. Tom Bedell December 22, 2009 at 9:06 pm #

    Pilsner Urquell still tastes pretty good to me. (But then, so did the Guinness Foreign Extra Stout I had recently in Barbados, brewed there under license by the Banks Brewery, to 7.5% abv.)

    But whatever one thinks of the devolution of PU, it will long remain a world classic simply on historic grounds, which was clearly one plank in Jackson’s reasoning in calling a beer a world classic–the definitive example of a style. On any given day a half dozen pilsners may taste better than PU, but they don’t–yet, anyway–have as much history behind them.

  12. Alan December 22, 2009 at 10:52 pm #

    Hey, all I know is that Jolly Pumpkin is one of the best brewers in my river valley. But it’s a frigging big river valley.

    I never even had to open their bottle at the table to night, however, or the Mikkeller or the THA for that matter. No one wanted the classics except the chefs at the back who went absolutely Valley Girl 1991 over Schlenkerla Märzen. They all got Westmalle dubbel but also got Maudit and Beau’s Lugtread, too.

    I may not be a classicist but I know class when I see it.

    [a quiet little rimshot, if you please.]

  13. The Beer Nut December 23, 2009 at 8:03 am #

    Sorry, Tom. I’m not buying Budweiser or Heineken as “world classics” simply because they’ve been around about as long as Pilsner Urquell.

  14. Tom Bedell December 23, 2009 at 9:09 am #

    Nor am I, because historical importance is only one plank in the world classic platform. Although a case can certainly be made for Budweiser being an important beer (and AB an influential brewery) in the grand scheme of things, although not necessarily in the best way.

    I usually drink about one Bud a year, just to remind me how blessedly far brewing has come, and how far my own lifelong beer odyssey has roamed.

    I write about golf a lot, and one of the classic tales is of Walter Hagan, who when asked his opinion of a course, said, “It’s the best golf course of its kind I’ve ever played.”

    A similar oblique comment could be made about Bud. But when it comes to Jackson’s rating system, who among us would give it more than one or two stars?

  15. Stan Hieronymus December 23, 2009 at 9:23 am #

    Tom – MJ gave Bud *»** for a while, but eventually settled on just *.

    By comparison, Dixie and Coors received ** in the 2000 edition, while Miller was mentioned but not rated.

  16. The Beer Nut December 23, 2009 at 9:33 am #

    OK. It was the bit where you said that Pilsner Urquell will retain its status *simply* on historic grounds that threw me. You don’t actually mean simply. Fair enough. Though personally I don’t see what the relevance of the history plank is, just because a label has had some of the same words on it for long enough.

    If the beer inside isn’t as good as it once was, if the brewery aren’t up front (or lie) about how it’s made and what from, and if there are better-tasting versions of the same thing, then I can’t see why the likes of Pilsner Urquell or any Guinness should count as classics. Romantic notions of them being old-fashioned beers are nothing more than marketing flim-flam by cynical multinational macrobrewers. It’s nothing to do with the beer in anyone’s glass.

  17. Jess Kidden December 24, 2009 at 9:58 am #

    re: various Guinness Extra Stouts-

    At the time of MJ’s first “Pocket Guide” (and up to around a decade ago, as I remember it) the version of Guinness Extra Stout sold in the US was brewed in Ireland. (Tho’ there had long been a Canadian “brewed under license” version from Labatt, in had always been marketed only domestically. MJ called that version as having “less success in terms of fidelity to the palate” than then-new Labatt Budweiser.)

    At the very end, sometime in the early 1000’s, in the US the 24 ounce bottles were still coming from Ireland and 12 ounces bottles were Canadian (I remember, because I saved the last Irish GES for quite awhile and probably still have the empty kicking around in the cellar).

    In that first edition of the Pocket Guide, US GES was reportedly 5.5% abv (remember, at the time, US labels couldn’t list ABV)- in later editions (4th, 6th) the “exported to the US” version was stated to be 6% abv. In between, he just avoided the issue by noting that “various American and Continental markets get their stouts at anything from 1048 to 1060+” (1986 edition).

    Of course, if one goes even further back, post-Repeal- the US got the FES for many years – I have never quite figured out when it switched from FES to ES- late 1960’s-early 1970’s is my best guess. Interestingly, when Guinness briefly brewed ES in the US, they specifically noted that it for the purpose of letting US drinkers have the Guinness stout “drunk by Irishmen in their own country for almost 200 years” which was “milder and had less acid” than the “exported Guinness” the US had previously received. (As noted in the promotional material reprinted on my webpage noted above)

  18. The Beer Nut December 24, 2009 at 1:00 pm #

    Interesting stuff Jess, thanks.

    That Guinness Extra brewed in Ireland for the US market was still a different beer to the 1042 Extra Stout actually sold in Ireland, and which still is. Diageo continues to brew stuff here in Dublin that never sees the Irish market: Special Export, Guinness Red and the 250 Anniversary stuff spring immediately to mind.

    That explanation from the company is just nonsense by the looks of it. And as for Mr Jackson’s “fidelity to the palate” 😀 He was just as good at meaningless flim-flam as the macrobrewers, it seems.

  19. Jess Kidden December 25, 2009 at 8:44 am #

    To “The Beer Nut”- re: GES in the US- Yes, I should have been more clear on that one- tho’ “brewed in Ireland”, the US “version” was a still a different beer than domestic GES. I guess the main point is that the current Canadian-brewed-under-license GES we’re now stuck with here is even more, um, “different” .

    As for MJ’s “flim-flam” comment about Labatt’s “Guinness”- I’d rather think of it as his classic way of trying to follow mother’s advice of “…if you can’t say anything nice…” while still somehow advising (warning?) readers. I still prefer that sort of subtly to the internet’s “Labatt’s Guinness SUX!”.


  1. Tuesday Trivia Answer: Anchor Steam | - June 12, 2013

    […] The question was what was the only American beer declared a “world classic” by Michael Jackson in all seven editions of his Pocket Guide to Beer. The answer was Anchor Steam from San Francisco institution Anchor Brewing (h/t Stan Hieronymus on the research behind this). […]

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