As publishing feats go, writer Michael Jackson’s “Ultimate Beer” doesn’t exactly rank with the invention of movable type, or even Mad magazine’s monthly fold-in.
But as for beer-drinking feats, well, Jackson’s new coffee table tome is a classic in debauchery.
Most beer books rely on the kindness and self-promotion of brewers for their illustrations. Those striking photos of oak-paneled brewpubs and their golden pilseners usually are provided by the brewers’ ad agencies.
Jackson’s beautifully photographed tribute to the great brews of the world, however, contains almost all original art. Nearly 400 photographs of beers, precisely poured into their proper glassware, accompany his informative prose.
Naturally, the team of photographers and studio assistants who shot the beers couldn’t let perfectly good beer go to waste.
So they drained every one of them. Twenty-five cases, from Norway’s Aass Bock to Belgium’s Zulte, downed in a binge of gluttonous joy.
And they didn’t even invite Joe Sixpack to the party.
I rang up Owen Barstow, the 32-year-old London man who toils as Jackson’s assistant, to register my complaint. Groveling, he made some feeble excuses that the publication wasn’t all fun and games. “About 18 months ago, we began to think about the scope of the book,” said Barstow, who has been Jackson’s research assistant and secretary for three years. “We knew it would be a big undertaking, but it just snowballed.”
Earlier this month at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver, Jackson told me his aim was to focus on only the best of the best. Sierra Nevada’s seasonal Celebration and Bigfoot ales made the cut, for example, but not its popular Pale Ale. “We wanted a guide to the proper specialty beer for specific occasions,” Jackson said.
Barstow and his assistants contacted 593 brewers from 33 countries and asked them to send along a sixpack and the appropriate glassware. Often, the mere mention of Jackson’s name was enough to score a freebie. One Belgian brewer loaded his family and beer into his Volvo, drove down to Calais, caught the Chunnel’s car train and tooled directly to Jackson’s office.
Others, though, couldn’t be bothered. “The main problem was the Germans, especially in the south,” Barstow said. “We’d tell them it was a chance to be in Michael’s book – free publicity. But they’d tell us they only sell in Munich. One said, `We don’t want to be in your book because we’ll just get calls from foreigners who will ask us stupid questions.’ ”
George Gale’s Prize Old Ale – a heavy, bottle-conditioned after-dinner beer from southern England – was the first to arrive in late summer 1997. Hundreds of righteous sixpacks would follow – and not one of them a Bud. This calls for a little perspective: A decent deli stocks maybe 150 labels; the Foodery (10th and Pine, Center City) boasts 600 on a good day. Jackson’s office in a former Hammersmith brewery collected 1,034 different brands.
More than half came with their own branded glassware – specialty goblets, pints, pilseners, flutes and steins that enhance the aroma and taste of these exceptionally flavored brews. Many brewers sent along handfuls of coasters; Barstow lost count after 10,000. They also received two dozen pump handles and an entire draft system from Guinness, about 40 bottle openers, 38 T-shirts, 11 baseball caps and 25 silk handkerchiefs from Japan’s Otaru.
Though Jackson already was familiar with the vast majority, he tasted every one of the bottles and winnowed the list to 607. Then, during a 15-day photo shoot, Barstow poured a bottle of each, expertly emptying the suds to produce a photogenic collar of foam.
Unlike his boss, Barstow is not a professional beer taster. He is a classically trained sculptor who inherited the job from a German friend. Thus, the preparation of “Ultimate Beer” was a tasty learning experience. His biggest surprise came on the day they shot stouts.
First up: John Courage Imperial Russian Stout, a sherry-like brew that runs about $100 a case. “It was a 1992 vintage, incredibly complex, incredibly sophisticated. It had the aura of a beer that had been around a long time.”
Then they popped open a bottle of Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout, the outstanding brew from East Coast legend Garrett Oliver. You can pick it up for about $25. “We had already tasted 500 beers,” Barstow said, “and it surprised everyone. Garrett’s beer is a very worthy product.”
Barstow attempted to wow Joe Sixpack with other tales, but I never lost count. Let’s see: A sixpack of 1,034 beers is 6,204 bottles. Subtract one each that Jackson tasted, and one more that the photo team poured, and that leaves 4,136 bottles of the world’s greatest beer.
So, where can I get my hands on ’em?
Too late, Barstow replied. They crated them up and sold them off at 12 pounds sterling a case. The proceeds went to the charity fund at the book’s publisher, Dorling Kindersley Ltd. of London.
“Beer deteriorates, so we had to get rid of them quickly,” Barstow groveled.
As excuses go, that one ranks with the worst.
Some of the brews in Jackson’s “Ultimate Beer” are so rare, you’ll never find them. But a fair number of locals made the cut:
- Victory Prima Pils and St. Victorious double bock from Downingtown.
- Stoudt’s Pils from Adamstown.
- Dock Street Grand Cru and Illuminator.
- Sam Adams Triple Bock.
- Independence Franklinfest.
Speaking of books, keep an eye out for beer scribe Lew Bryson’s “Pennsylvania Breweries.” Lew, who knows every godforsaken corner of Pennsylvania, hit 48 breweries (three have since closed) to produce this guide.
For those who tire of hanging out in pubs all day (e.g., spouses, underage children), Lew offers directions to the nearest non-drinking attactions, including the famous Coudersport Ice Mine and the Japanese garden in Wilkes-Barre.
Joe Sixpack (written this week with a bottle of Flying Fish Belgian Abbey Dubbel) appears every other Friday.