In a new piece for All About Beer magazine, Tom Acitelli, author of a well-regarded history of the US craft beer movement, makes a carefully worded and very specific claim on behalf of the late Michael Jackson:
On Nov. 16, 1983… readers of The Washington Post awoke to an essay, meandering over four pages, on which beers to pair with which parts of the Thanksgiving feast the following week… [This was] the first time such extensive beer-food advice had appeared in an American newspaper… It was the father of every beer-food-pairing piece to come in the next generation…
He’s not saying that Jackson was the first to consider pairing specific beers with particular types of food, or that this had never happened before 1983 — only that this was the first time many Americans would have come across the idea explored at such length.
And he is right to be cautious.
Even without conducting a comprehensive survey, our library quickly turned up an entire chapter on ‘Beer With Food’ in Andrew Campbell’s 1956 Book of Beer. It contains all the now familiar tropes, including the suggestion that beer should either complement or strongly contrast with the food it accompanies. He even provides a table suggesting brand name beers for each course of a hypothetical meal: ‘For delicate foods, chicken, veal, lamb — light beers and lagers. Red Barrel, Courage’s Alton.’
Earlier still, 1934’s A Book About Beer by ‘A. Drinker’ also addresses the issue at length, though the conclusions the author reaches might not please those who believe beer is always the best choice to accompany food: ‘Veal has that chicken like fragility that is broken up by the tang of malt and hops.’ In general, there is a an attempt to distinguish between the worlds of beer and of wine:
About what should and should not be eaten with beer I would hesitate to lay down the law so forcibly and finally as do the writers upon wine… Good bread, good cheese and good beer provide a complete meal which the most elaborate menu can scarcely better. Bread and cheese, indeed, form a perfect background for a beer of good quality. They set of its smoothness, its gulpability, its fragrance, its essential rotundity.
Finally, there is what you might call ‘folk pairing’ — the idea that oysters go with stout, for example, was sufficiently mainstream that readers of the magazine Judy (a second-rate Punch knock-off) would understand this cartoon from 15 October 1873:
But, zooming forward to the 1970s, it is notable how little mention is made of beer with food in seminal works like Richard Boston’s Beer and Skittles (1976), even though several recipes for beer in food are given. So perhaps Jackson does deserve the credit (or blame) for reviving something that came quite naturally to earlier beer connoisseurs who were less self-conscious about being seen as pretentious.