(Twenty-fourth in a series chronicling my travel year 1985)
In 1985, the performer Michael Jackson’s savvy pop music was ubiquitous throughout Europe – also in America, unoccupied islands off the coast of Antarctica, and the remainder of the planet.
It’s no surprise. After all, Jackson’s “Thriller” album already was timelessly epochal a mere two years after its release, and today, six years after his death, it has sold 65 million copies worldwide.
This astounding quantity is considerably more than the total number of books sold by Michael Jackson, the beer writer (1942 – 2007), although three million units is no small achievement in itself.
Honestly, Michael Jackson the entertainer's music never did much for me, apart from his “Willard” theme. To this day I refuse to accept “King of Pop” as his honorific. Maybe it applies to Hoboken’s Frank Sinatra or Hound Dog Elvis, but not to the Moonwalker.
Conversely, a compelling case can be made that Michael Jackson the Yorkshireman fully deserves to be remembered as “King of Beer,” far more so than A-B InBev’s classically insipid American Lager.
Jackson’s book “The World Guide to Beer” (1977) almost singlehandedly elevated beer to the status of a topic important enough to discuss in mixed company, although ironically, it probably didn’t achieve critical mass in America until long after the initial publication, when it could be found remaindered on the discount tables of chain bookstores in malls across the country.
That’s where I found “The World Guide to Beer,” and I wasn’t the only one. A whole first generation of “beer geeks” took its cues from Jackson’s classic survey of world beer history.
It was a big, heavy, coffee-table book, and I didn’t haul it to Europe in my gym bag, but it was every bit as important to me in 1985 as budget travel guidebooks like “Let’s Go: Europe” and “Europe on 25 Dollars A Day.”
It’s all about the power of words.
While the canon of pop music has been enriched by the singer Michael Jackson’s output, its everyday vocabulary is not directly referential to his body of work. However, the language of beer indisputably passes directly through Michael Jackson, the writer.
He was among the first to systematically consider and explain beer styles, and to show how aspects of the brewing process, historical practice, geography, chemistry and myriad other human experiences pertained to them, demonstrating that our enjoyment of the genre is enhanced by greater overall knowledge.
All of these facets taken together form a shared language of “beer speak,” and Jackson shaped it in an enduringly readable way, neither dumbing down his material nor assuming the role of lofty pedant. He was an erudite prose stylist in addition to his journalistic skills as a nuts-and-bolts reporter.
The “Beer Hunter” always told wonderful stories, while never forgetting the newspaperman’s facts-first orientation, and I persist in believing that Jackson is best compared to figures like Samuel Johnson and other great essayists of the English tradition.
As such, I feel quite fortunate to have made Jackson’s acquaintance, chatting with him on more than one occasion. In fact, in 1994 he visited my pub and drank a pint, but first he showed me the way to Carlsberg in Copenhagen, where I experienced my first Old World brewery tour.
Much ground would be covered during my second (and final) day in the city, as facilitated by the wonders of the Eurailpass, which was valid on the efficient “S” trains of the city’s suburban rail network.
Early Monday morning, I left the skating rink bunkhouse and took the bus to the central train station, checking my bag at left luggage, and securing an overnight couchette reservation for Oslo, Norway. The train would be departing around 21.00 … or 9:00 p.m. The 24 hour clock was beginning to make sense, though thermometers remained mysterious.
Twelve whole hours lay ahead.
Unencumbered of increasingly dirty clothes, the “S” whisked me through urban Copenhagen, its outskirts and far-flung suburbs for a 45-minute ride to the city of Hillerød, and a pleasant, sunny morning spent traipsing the grounds of the Frederiksborg Castle.
I dimly recall finding a pølservogn in Hillerod. Assuredly, a budget traveler can live on hot dogs alone.
On the way back, there was a stop at Churchillparken, site of an old star-shaped earthen military redoubt and the Museum of Danish Resistance (to Nazi occupation), which I’m saddened to learn suffered a devastating fire from suspected arson in 2013, and currently is being both rebuilt and reconsidered.
Denmark’s experience in WWII falls outside the aim of my narrative, although its surreal nature is worth noting. The Nazis desired a measure of propagandist “ethnic” solidarity with Danes, and occupied Denmark without formal hostilities being declared. The country’s government and institutions functioned somewhat normally until 1943, when the tide of affairs elsewhere made matters more openly confrontational.
Interestingly, the aftermath of the museum’s burning appears to have opened more than a few old wounds. The exhibits were saved, but there is a difference of opinion as to whether they should be re-installed exactly as before, or accompanied with a more contemporary and nuanced examination of Denmark’s wartime status.
As with so many other aspects of my travel narrative, the resistance museum symbolizes differences in consciousness, then and now. Forty years after the war’s end, many people who lived through it were still alive. Now, most aren’t, and the uses of the past change with time, no matter how hard we try to cling to “eternal” and seemingly objective truths.
Just like beer.
By mid-afternoon, I’d finally gravitated back to the Vesterbro neighborhood stretching beyond the Vista restaurant’s front door, stepping off the “S” near Carlsberg’s 19th-century rail yard complex in Valby, the brewery’s gently undulating locale.
This observation alone provided a valuable lesson for future European beer hunting expeditions, because breweries of a certain pre-automotive age almost always are located near railroad tracks or navigable waterways – the interstates of their age.
(At the time of my visit, formerly independent Tuborg still brewed beer at its own historic plant on the other side of town, despite having merged with Carlsberg. Tuborg, which I toured in 1989 prior to its closure, had its very own shipping docks.)
Carlsberg remains an iconic international beer brand, recognizable the world over for the green label and unique script of its flagship, Carlsberg Hof, a mild Pilsner-style golden lager. Significantly, the beer wasn’t always golden. Nor was it always a lager. Carlsberg’s first batches in 1847 were dark-colored ales.
Founder J. C. Jacobsen was the son of a brewer, and his career began at a propitious time, because numerous factors were converging to make possible the seismic transformation of the beer business, from a typically localized and smaller-scale brewing of ales to the eventual global reach of mass-produced golden lagers as brewed at factories just like the one I visited.
Jacobsen had no specialized academic background, but he was industrious and astute. His European contemporaries Gabriel Sedlmayer and Anton Dreher were pioneers of lager brewing, and because they didn't think in proprietary terms, the Dane freely borrowed from their expertise, making frequent journeys south for continuing education.
It is said that Jacobsen transported fragile lager yeast from Munich to Copenhagen, keeping it cool in his stovepipe hat. More importantly, he funded a laboratory and commenced a rigorously scientific approach to brewing, correctly foreseeing the value of a consistent, replicable product in the context of a global economy.
However, neither Jacobsen nor his son and eventual successor Carl were robber baron capitalists. To them, brewing was more about technology than art, but the profits were a different story. Father, son and Carlsberg became models of 19th-century industrialized philanthropy, with the family’s brewing interests bequeathed to a foundation with numerous scientific, cultural and artistic non-profit imperatives.
Much about Carlsberg has changed since my first glimpse of Copenhagen. There have been mergers and acquisitions, and a structural reformatting of the company after the fall of Communism. Large scale brewing has moved to a different location in Jutland, and the “old” brewery in Copenhagen survives as a company headquarters, tourist destination, and historic site, producing specialty “craft” brews. The former acreage of the industrial plant nearby is being redeveloped as a whole new city quarter.
However, Carlsberg still fulfills its philanthropic mandates as a foundation, and I’ll always feel better drinking a multinational Carlsberg than a beer brewed by the likes of AB-InBev. Unlike the Jacobsens, the Busch family legacy is unsightly, indeed.
Carlsberg’s most enduring architectural feature is the imposing stone Elephant Gate lying just outside the historic brew house. Generation of multi-lingual brewery tour guides have been drilled to immediately disavow the presence of swastikas carved into the elephants’ pedestals.
“These are ancient symbols of auspiciousness, luck and well-being. The word ‘swastika’ itself is Sanskrit, not German, and these have nothing to do with that other fellow during the war.”
As I came to understand with notches subsequently added to my belt, brewery tours at the Carlsberg level of operation seldom rise above the introductory. I’ve heard and repeated the gospel several thousand times since. Grain is malted and mashed, sugar water created, hops added during the boil, and yeast eating sugar to create alcohol and carbonation. The inevitable conclusion comes while looking over the throbbing, cacophonous bottling line.
Thirsty yet? Well, come right this way.
Of course, a brewery like Carlsberg is able to place these tours in a compelling architectural and historic context. If 19th-century industrial buildings like these did not continue to fascinate modern man, we wouldn’t rush to convert them into condos, and if advertising graphics from the same era didn’t cease to exert feelings of loyalty and cultural identification, we'd have no breweriana collectors.
Unfortunately, the litigiousness of our modern world has gone far toward spoiling the ultimate objective of brewery tours, because who would endure the factory stroll without a prospect of tasting the bounty?
At the end of my first Carlsberg tour, the participants were seated at tables in a room festooned with brewery ads and graphic art. Sample beers in lightly chilled bottles already were lined up and ready on each table, with a few salty snacks and gratis souvenirs – stickers and decals, maybe some paper labels. There was joy and delight all around.
It seemed odd to me at the time that families with young children would be taking the brewery tour, but they were. It was free-wheeling Europe, not puritanical America. There were soft drinks for the kids, and only later did I do the requisite math and learn the solo traveler’s best strategy at such times: Stick close to the families and be smilingly gracious, because when they occupy a table set for six with a single spare seat and invite you to join them, only the adults will be drinking.
And this, of course, means more beer for me.
(to be continued)
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 23 … A fleeting first glimpse of Copenhagen.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 22 … It's how the tulips were relegated.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 21 … A long day in Normandy, though not "The Longest Day."
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 20 … War stories, from neutral Ireland to Omaha Beach.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 18 … Irish history with a musical chaser.
The PC: Euro '85, Part 17 ... A first glimpse of Ireland.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 16 … Lizard King in the City of Light.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 15 … The traveler at 55, and a strange interlude.
The PC: We pause Euro '85 to remember the Mathäser Bierstadt in Munich.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 14 … Beers and breakfast in Munich.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 13 … Tears of overdue joy at Salzburg's Augustiner.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 12 … Stefan Zweig and his world of yesterday.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 11: My Franz Ferdinand obsession takes root.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 10: Habsburgs, history and sausages in Vienna.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 9 … Milan, Venice and a farewell to Northern Italy.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 8 … Pecetto idyll, with a Parisian chaser.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 7 … An eventful detour to Pecetto.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 6 … When in Rome, critical mass.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 5 … From Istanbul to Rome, with Greece in between.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 4 … With Hassan in Pithion.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 3 … Growing up in Greece.
The PC: Euro '85, Part 2 ... Hitting the ground crawling in Luxembourg.
The PC: Euro ’85, Part 1 … Where it all began.