Enjoying fine beers at every opportunity, Michael Jackson traveled
from the Lehigh Valley to Philadelphia to Washington on his way
to a very public celebration of a very personal milestone

By Jack Curtin

        Shortly after 11 AM on a Thursday in late March which marked the first day of the final week of his 59th year, Michael Jackson--beer hunter, whiskey chaser, author, scholar, mentor and bon vivant--did as Michael Jackson is famously wont to do.

He digressed.

        Let it be noted that this was a planned digression, geographical rather than verbal, and that it occurred for the very best of reasons. Jackson was embarking a side trip off his trip from New York City to Philadelphia to Washington, DC, places where he would perform his bardly duties to sellout crowds and eventually be the focal point of a beery celebration of his 60th birthday, but it was an absolutely imperative journey. After all, it involved visiting breweries and evaluating beers, activities which he has devoted a lifetime to convincing us are two of man's more noble pursuits.
        Beer enthusiasts and part-time beer journalists Gary Monterosso and Mark Haynie were Jackson's guides for the day. They did him a similar service last year on a tour of breweries in their South Jersey environs, but the focus for 2002 was on the Lehigh Valley region north of Philadelphia. First stop was Easton, located at the confluence of the Delaware and Lehigh rivers and once a booming industrial center when coal moved in massive quantities along the Lehigh Canal, now home to Lafayette College, the Crayola Factory and, the point of this trip, Weyerbacher Brewing Company.

        Weyerbacher was established in 1995 by Dan Weirback and investors and has built its reputation primarily on its strong beers, notably Blithering Idiot Barleywine, Raspberry Imperial Stout, Belgian style Dubbel and Trippel and QUAD, the first quadrupel style beer to be commercially brewed and bottled in the United States. Originally located in an old livery stable, Weyerbacher moved to a new modern plant in an industrial center last December when the landlord reclaimed the space, sacrificing, for the moment, one of the most intimate and lovable brewpubs on the East Coast. After the requisite tour of the plant, Jackson was presented with nine beers for tasting. Between sips, he peppered Weirback and brewers John Parsons and Tom Brodde with questions about hops, malts, alcohol content and other aspects of each one. Afterwards he praised the brews to a local newspaper columnist, singling out not one of the strong beers, but rather Weyerbacher's Hops Infusion Ale. "I think that's the beer I'll remember years from now,'' he said.

        Next stop on our circuitous route was the city of Bethlehem, founded in 1741 on the banks of the Lehigh River, a town whose glory days were when steel was king. Our destination was the Bethlehem Brewworks, a downtown brewery and restaurant established by the Fegley family in 1998. We all enjoyed a wide range of brewer Jeff Fegley's beers in this big beautiful pub, including the flagship ESB, Devil's Hearth strong golden ale, striking and memorable Blastberry Wheat (fermented with raspberries, blueberries and cherries) and an impressive bottle of 1999 Framboise. The tasting was done at the long, striking bar in the Steelgaarden, a downstairs lounge opened last year. It features all six Brewworks beers regularly on tap upstairs in the main pub and 70 bottled Belgian beers. Some of those were opened as well during the afternoon, but I'll never tell…

        We eventually reached Philadelphia two hours late for that evening's The World's Strongest Beer Tasting, a mind-boggling presentation of 10 high octane brews (15% ABV and above) at Nodding Head Brewery & Restaurant. Sipping brewer Brandon Greenwood's Old Willy's Ghost Barleywine--at 9%, the evening's session beer--and relishing Grilled Venison Skewers and Roasted Quail wrapped in Bacon which were saved for us from the now ravaged buffet table (it has perks, this traveling with Michael Jackson thing), we were just in time for the main event, a face-off between Delaware's Dogfish Head and Boston's Samuel Adams. Dogfish's Sam Calagione offered his World-Wide Stout (18%) and Raison d'Extra (20%); Adams' Grant Woods countered with Triple Bock (17.5%), Millennium (20%) and Utopias (24%). Michael sipped and took his meticulous notes. Me too, but all mine read is "things this strong should not go down this easily."

        Following a Friday afternoon visit to the Manayunk Brewery & Restaurant (an excursion I missed, but which must have gone well since brewer Jim Brennan, not generally a contented sort, seemed pleased afterwards), Jackson began his annual 48-hour marathon of The Book & The Cook activities (for more on The Book & The Cook, see "Long Day's Journey into Malt" on page XX). The traditional Jackson-hosted beer dinner at the University of Pennsylvania's Museum of Archeology & Anthropology began with a pre-dinner reception featuring Jever Pilsner, Samuel Smith Oatmeal Stout, Lindemans Framboise, Ommegang Hennepin and Book Kriek. The theme of the evening's meal, a memorable feast prepared by Beatrice and Bruce Nichols of the Museum Catering Company, was a comparison of ales and lagers as complements to food. Heavyweight Cinderbock and Unibroue Raftman matched their engaging smoked malt flavors with smoked tilapia; Victory All-Malt Dark Lager and Saint Rouge Red accompanied Pork roulade with sausage, leeks, pinenuts and arugula; Celebrator Doppelbock and Lindemans Kriek (an intriguing pairing) enhanced Black Forest cake.

        His three one hour-long tutored tasting sessions in the Upper Egyptian Gallery of the Museum on the final Book & Cook Saturday, attended by a total of 1200-plus beer fanciers, are, Jackson always says, his most difficult gig of the year. The topic for 2002 was "Lagers & Ales: What Differences Does the Difference Make?" and he took each session through samples of Manayunk Kellerbier, Independence Kolsch, Nodding Head Monkey Knife Fight, Iron Hill Grand Cru, Penn Pilsner, Stoudt American Pale Ale, DeGroen's Marzen, Brooklyn Brown Ale, Victory St. Victorious Doppelbock and Southhampton Barleywine. After each tasting there is a two-hour mini-festival in the Chinese Rotunda directly behind the Egyptian Gallery, featuring well over 100 beers from an all-star lineup of breweries, restaurants and distributors, some rarely seen in these parts. Highlights this year were appearances by New York's Southhampton Publick House, Louisiana's Abita Brewing, Maine's Allagash Brewing and Canada's Unibroue, whose limited edition tenth anniversary ale was moving as fast as it could be poured. Jackson spent most of these "breaks" signing books and chatting up visitors to his table in the center of things, making for a solid workday of nearly 10 hours, one which was especially debilitating this year because he was bothered by an ongoing and worsening ear infection.

        Jackson's Sunday night Belgian beer dinner at Monk's Café, the final event of Book & Cook, is often history-making (an unprecedented all-lambic dinner two years ago) and always a showcase for beers which have never been served in this country before. This year's theme was "Belgium's New Breweries" and inimitable co-owner Tom Peters more than lived up to expectations with a lineup of rare brews to complement chef Adam Glickman's foie gras with prune compote, escargot in Caracole Saxo/hazelnut butter, scallop and salmon mousselines, braised veal cheeks, cheese plate and chocolate cake. The 12 beers served were Kerkom Bink Blond, Drie Fonteinen Gueuze (an equal blend of Drie Fonteinen lambic and Giardin lambic), Drie Fonteinen Kriek, Uitzet Druiven, Achel 8º Trappist Ale, Duysters Loterbol (on draft), DeRanke XX Bitter, Boelens Bieken, Ellezelloise Saison 2000, Ellezelloise Hercule Stout, Val du Brune, and De Proef Flemish Primative. The latter, from the famed Belgian research brewery, was a singular coup.

        By the time Jackson stood before a sellout crowd at the National Geographic Society in Washington two nights later, he was feeling much better. For one thing, George Hummel and Nancy Rigberg of Home Sweet Homebrew had hooked him up with an ear/nose/throat specialist in Philadelphia on Monday. For another, that which he been eagerly and nervously awaiting had finally arrived. His partner, Patty Cunningham, flew in from London that afternoon for a joint celebration of their birthdays (hers Tuesday, his Wednesday) before they began a week's vacation in the U.S. And a passel of beers from the Czech Republic, some never before served in this country and the focus of his talk, "The Great Beers of Bohemia," were finally in the house. The Brickskeller's Dave Alexander managed to get them cleared through New York Customs Monday night, after hours of pleading with officials. "I figured the guy in the long ponytail with a gun on his hip would be my best option," Alexander told me, "and when I finally worked my way around to him, he was."

        Jackson was joined in a long and informative presentation (complete with his trademarked digressive asides on such matters as Good King Wenceslas, Conan O'Brien and the suspicious nature of Yorkshiremen) by two representatives of Czech brewing, Miro Jersak, Staropramen export director, and Hanza Kocka, a self-appointed and tireless evangelist for his nation's brews (see "Czech Out These Beers!" in Celebrator Beer News, April/May 2002). Beers served were Pilsner Urquell, Czechvar, Staropramen Gold, Dark & Millennium (the latter on draft), Pivovar Klasterni Golden Lager & Dark Lager (both draft), Cerna Hora Kvasar Honey Beer, Bernard Yeast Beer and Pardubice Porter. Available for take home on each table were five bottles each of Hejtman Semidark and Primator Nachod, the latter the strongest beer commercially brewed in the Czech Republic.

        Wednesday evening brought us at last to the much-anticipated and sold-out celebration of the bard's 60th birthday at the Brickskeller. Dave Alexander and wife Diane put on a helluva show, including a superb 7-course meal concocted by Belgian master chef Geert Piferoen, consisting of crab salad, buttermilk potato soup with smoked salmon, mussels with Straffe Hendrick sauce, grilled scallop with Orval sauce, Pennsylvania Dutch sausage, Oud Veux Chimay cheese on baked pear and chocolate cake. The beers, can you believe it, were equally extraordinary.

With perennial Brickskeller toastmaster Bob Tupper in charge, an array of brewing luminaries toasted the guest of honor (who announced early on that, in the lingo of big bland beer advertising, he might become more "refreshed" that was seemly as the night progressed) with gifts and special brews. The evening began with Anchor Steam beer as Alexander presented a special bottling of same featuring a Michael Jackson label (as reported in our last issue). Staropramen Cerny and Millennium followed while Jersak, noting that "tastings" in the Czech Republic involve rather larger quantities of beer than they do in this country, presented Michael with a huge engraved crystal drinking vessel. Kocka the gifted him with an ornate and more traditionally-sized lidded stein. Jackson ("I keep popping up here like a wicked jack-in-the-box") allowed as how he might use it for "training purposes" before graduating to the larger vessel.

        Tupper called up Rob Mullen, now at Trap Rock Restaurant and Brewery in New Jersey, who'd been the brewer for Tuppers' 6X Old Ale, a special brew of traditional Tuppers' Hop Pocket Ale which had spiked its 60 IBUs up to 90. Bill Madden of Capitol City used the serving of his award-winning Wee Heavy to talk about how Jackson's writing had influenced him. Merchant du Vin's Rick Hamilton introduced Pike Brewery's Auld Acquaintance and gave Jackson a tap handle with his picture and the beer's logo on it. And Nick Funnell of Sweetwater Taverns paraphrased W. C. Fields as his High Desert Imperial Stout was poured: "Michael Jackson drove me to drink and I never even got to thank him for it."

        Then came something you don't see every day: Lammin Sahti, fresh from Finland, with Finnish journalist Miko Montonen on hand to tell us all about it. After that, Dogfish Head's Calagione, clearly a popular regular at the Brickskeller given the crowd's reaction, offered up his high-powered Raison d'Extra yet again-just what we needed-and read a poem he'd composed for the occasion. Two years ago in Philadelphia, Calagione presented a short story he wrote starring an alternate universe Michael Jackson. A novel is presumably in the works.
        Ultimately, we all sang Happy Birthday. Michael Jackson was 60. And it was good.

Copyright (c) 2002 Jack Curtin