Last Friday evening, with my chest puffed out bravely, I took one for the CityBeat team and attended an organized beer tasting at Jungle Jim's International Market in Fairfield. In a typical display of selfless journalism, with no thought for my personal well-being, I nominated myself for this assignment. I'm a trooper.
At a few minutes before 7 p.m., my friends and I are directed into the bowels of the recently-expanded store, toward a waiting service elevator. Just feet above us, the beers await. There on the unfinished second floor, past industrial-sized jars of sauerkraut and pizza sauce, among pallets loaded with unpacked groceries, overlooking a nearby Saab dealership, we take our seats and prepare to taste British and British-style ales selected from Jungle Jim's peerless beer catalog.
For those beer lovers among us who don't know their Saccharomyces cerevisiae yeast strain from their Saccharomyces uvarum strain, the regular tastings organized by Jungle Jim's provide an excellent opportunity to sample brews and learn about different beer varieties.
Gathered around tables, furtively eyeing plates of cheese, pepperoni and sliced bread, is a mixture of men, women looking for men and women who, frankly, look a bit like men. At a few minutes past seven, the first bottles are placed on our tables, next to our small tasting glasses.
The second selection is Monty Python's Holy Grail Ale, brewed by the Black Sheep Brewery in Ripon, England. "Tempered," the label states, "over burning witches," it's a fruitier and fuller bodied ale, with a malty start and a pleasantly piney, bitter aftertaste.
We listen to Zomonski. I chew a couple of cheese chunks and finish off my neighbor's beer. Then I chew a few more and finish off her neighbor's beer. In quick succession, we sample the third, fourth and fifth ales on our list.
By the time Jungle Jim's staffer Ed Vinson distributes the sixth beer -- an India Pale Ale, brewed in Chicago by Goose Island Beer Co. -- we're growing a little more confident of our beer-tasting abilities. Or perhaps we're all just a little drunk now. Judiciously, we swirl the contents of our glasses around and hold them to the light, studying the way the beer clings to the glass (it clings like beer). We carefully angle our beer glasses just so, while Zomonski tells us to note its clean, light amber color. We nod thoughtfully (it's beer-colored). A taster at the next table buries his nose in his glass, trying to tease apart the components of its complex bouquet. Meanwhile, someone at my table says it has a sturdy, fruity aroma (it smells like beer).
Finally we taste it, analyzing its hop content and its finish, and assessing the presence of diacetyl, which Zomonski says contributes a butterscotch flavor to some beers (but, really, it tastes like beer).
I put a couple more cubes of cheddar cheese in my mouth and chew. I look over at the Saab dealership. It doesn't look very busy tonight. I try a cube of English Red Dragon cheese, its surface studded with mustard seeds. I wonder to myself how long it would take to eat one of those huge jars of sauerkraut that are stacked on top of each other by the elevator.
I try to calculate how many cubes of cheese and pieces of pepperoni I would need to make a decent sandwich. There aren't enough left. I think about whether or not I could climb those sauerkraut jars -- they're stacked pretty high, could be slippery. I'd probably have to take my shoes off. Where are Saabs made, anyway? The people at the table next to us still have cheese.
I think I'm drunk.
As the seventh and eighth beers are placed on our table, we discuss our rating systems. Some tasters simply rate each beer from one to 10. Another draws facial expressions next to each beer on her list, clearly giving Beer No. Seven (Belk's Extra Special Bitter, from Anderson Brewing Co.) the grimace of someone stoically nursing a case of hemorrhoids. Across the table, a third taster says he writes "D" for delicious and "O" for OK. Things begin to fall apart when he awards a beer "D" for don't like. We question the merits of his grading system and suggest he number them from one and 10 instead.
"How can I put numbers on my taste buds?" he asks earnestly, as a bottle of the ninth and final beer is placed by my elbow.
"Quite so," I think to myself, as I absent-mindedly wonder if the people at the next table are going to finish their cheese. ©