I had my first taste of beer today in a long, long time. For those of you who don’t know, I run a very busy Irish bar in Bondi. Strange you might think, for one so abstemious to operate forty or fifty hours a week in the capacity of a publican. But that’s what I do nonetheless. A representative came in from a beer company and had a new “Pale Ale” he was offering for sale. He had a sample with him, so I tried it – kind of as simple as that. The beer was crisp and tarty, with a high sour aftertaste that hit the top of your throat. There were hints of hoppy, yeasty fermentation, yet the beer quickly culled this with a sharp dryness that made you think you needed to drink more. There was a fine balance between heavy and light and it got me thinking about my life and career….
I have worked in the alcohol game for a long time now. I used to be a taste tester for Guinness when I was in my mid twenties. That is no joke or lie. Sure it’s no wonder I developed a quare addiction. I saw an ad one day in a paper looking for taste testers. The pay was good and the hours nice and casual, which suited my working in a fancy bar in the city of Dublin. The irony was a little lost on me at the time, when I rocked up to The Ormond Hotel along the Quays in Dublin to try out. James Joyce famously set the chapter called “Sirens” from his novel Ulysses here. Joyce based his novel on the structure of Homers epic poem “The Odyssey”. In the Sirens chapter, Odysseus forces his men to tie him to the mast so he can hear the Sirens enchanting song. He forces his men to put wax in their ears and refuse his pleas to untie him as their boat sails past the island with the enchanting sirens and their songs. Their sweet cadences lured multitudes of helpless sailors to their death on rocks in the shallow water. Odysseus wanted to hear what could kill him, yet not give into it.
I went to the reception and registered. I took a seat and when my name was called I went into a big conference room where there were seven or eight tables set out with paper and plastic cups on them. I took a seat and a lady came over and introduced herself and then proceeded to tell me that she would be bringing out samples which I had to grade – sweet, sour, dry, acidic etc. I smiled and the first tray came out. There were five little cups with a clear liquid in them. I quickly sipped each one and made a note of what they were. This went on for about fifteen minutes. It all seemed pretty easy. At the end I was thanked for my time and I went about my business (a few pints as I was in the city). The next day I got a phone call from the company informing me that I had been selected. I was told that although there were one or two people more accurate, I was hands down the quickest in identifying the flavours. I was chuffed and accepted the job.
The job…well, what a job for someone who loved the jar as much as I did. Every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday a mini bus would pick me up from my house and bring a group of seven or eight of us into St. James’s Gate, the home of Guinness in Dublin. It was a great feeling that first time stepping onto that hallowed stone. So much history and so much Guinness! In truth we all felt a little privileged and special – we were being trained and paid to taste alcohol at the HQ of all things Irish and alcoholic. It was like being an Oompa Loompa with the secret to some special Willy Wonka flavour. We spent five or so hours tasting and sipping various alcohols. We would begin with ales, then beers, then different types of beers. We were taught all the myriad of flavours which are in any one beer. We were taught about the various types of brewing and what affected the flavours. We were being trained, we were told, to be experts in the field of Diageo’s (who own Guinness) brands.
Well, the great part was that for five hours a day, three days a week, I was being paid handsomely to taste beers. It was awesome for the little alco in me. And so I maintained this lifestyle for a few months. On the Thursday I wouldn’t drink as much as I had to work in the evening. And life was rosy for a while, or at least rosy cheeked! The bad thing unfortunately for my decadent lifestyle, was that I wanted to play football again. Football entails training. And training entails Tuesday and Thursday nights. So instead of me slipping and sipping graciously around the city in a mild afternoon midweek haze, regaling crowds with my ability to discern the nuances of Budweiser vs Budvar, I jacked it in and left the dream of becoming that mysterious “Man From Del Monte type”, who would be flown around the world to give the Guinness the nod of approval in Singapore, or the Bud the shake of dismay in Rio.
The booze has been right there throughout my life, same same for most of us. Yet I have been a rep for Guinness, a taste tester for them and am now a purveyor of their fine ales. I am deep in the bubbles of its cold, popping froth. I am tied to the mast with the sweet honeyed voices calling me to shore. Those sirens never stop singing. And they sound so sweet, so intoxicating. They want me back, but I’ve told my men not to untie me. Not till the island is long, long gone and we can no more hear their song.