On Nov. 16, 1983, a Wednesday, readers of The Washington Post awoke to an essay, meandering over four pages, on which beers to pair with which parts of the upcoming Thanksgiving feast. It was the first time such extensive beer-food writing had appeared in an American newspaper.
And not just any newspaper: The Post was the third largest daily by circulation in the United States, its reputation, in the famed hands of publisher Katherine Graham and executive editor Ben Bradlee, still ballasted by the Watergate news-breaks not even 10 years before. It was read by the denizens of Capitol Hill and the White House as well as by an increasingly affluent suburban population throughout Northern Virginia and Maryland. To be in Washington Post newsprint at long length, on any topic, when the Internet was still the plaything of academics and the Defense Department, was to be influential. That the topic was beer was, quite frankly, amazing.
At the time, there were fewer than 15 craft breweries in the United States. Most of the nation’s beer (then as now) was made by a handful of breweries (but, different than now, the march then, according to the experts, trended inevitably toward only a few American breweries, period, within a generation). There it was, however: discursive, yet humorous advice for Post readers on which beers should pair with which foods for the quintessential American holiday. Take this passage:
With the centerpiece of the meal, the turkey, the wine-drinker has a difficult choice. Should it be a medium-dry white? Or a drier medium-bodied red? Among beers, I would opt for a pale but medium-dry brew of the type produced in the city of Munich and elsewhere in Bavaria. . . . With just a hint of sweetness to match some of the turkey’s accomplishments, these Munich Light beers have plenty of body without being too filling. Their alcohol content is pretty ordinary, at well under 4.0 percent by weight or 5.0 by volume. As for serving temperatures, the simplest rule to observer is that any beer from Munich or elsewhere in Bavaria should be served chilled but not to American popsicle level; not less than 48 degrees, in fact.
It was something anyone with taste buds (and taste) could get right away: Certain beers went better with certain foods. The idea, however, was revolutionary in the mainstream. Beer simply was not written about in such a way in American publications, major or otherwise. This was an era when “light” referred not to the color of the beer (as The Post author intended) but to the low-caloric, ruthlessly inoffensive alcoholic colas then dominating the domestic beer marketplace. This was the era of Rodney Dangerfield trying to roll a strike in the Miller Lite Bowling Tournament (he couldn’t down a pin).
Yet, there it was: The Washington Post the week before the biggest American holiday of them all, an article on beer-food pairing. The author was one Michael Jackson, appropriately enough an Englishman (for few Americans got what was going on beer-wise in their own nation). Jackson, of course, was well on his way toward immortality as the greatest of beer writers; and it’s not entirely clear if he even regarded the Nov. 16, 1983, Post essay as that big a deal.
It was, though. It was the father of every beer-food-pairing piece to come in the next generation, the first toss over the ramparts into a fortress previously reserved (in the States at least) exclusively for wine. And it came in such a tremendously un-ignore-able package. Happy Thanksgiving.