Beer: Imperial Stout Brewery: Marble Brewery Style: Russian Imperial Stout ABV: 11 percent
May 8, 2013. Eleven men sit around a large meeting room table inside the Micromatic Facility in Machesney Park, Illinois. Some wear the tired eyes of jet lag; others intently study piles of paper notes; many attempt to sustain conversations broken apart by nervous laughter and restless leg syndrome.
After a time, Ray Daniels enters the room. The man who founded the Cicerone Certification Program, an assessment program for experts in the beer industry, is tall and nearly bald. He looks and sounds like J.K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson in the Spider-Man movies -- gruff but lovable.
But there's no love today. He's passing out hefty packets of essays that will serve as the first section of the Master Cicerone exam. Over the next 48 hours, the candidates gathered here will be tested on beer knowledge of the highest degree. Styles, history, draft systems, beer evaluation, brewing technology, and beer- and food-pairing will be covered in-depth throughout 10 hours of written questions, two hours of beer tasting and two hours of one-on-one interviews with industry experts.
Though more than 25,000 people have attained the first-level Cicerone rank known as Certified Beer Server, before the exam held May 8 and 9, there were only six Master Cicerones. The candidates gathered here -- one of whom, if you haven't yet guessed, is me -- need a score of 85 percent or better to become the seventh. After two days of knowledge regurgitation and hand cramps, just one person achieved that score.
Pat Fahey is the exam content manager and the East Coast exam manager for the Cicerone Certification Program, a position in which he develops content for the Certified Cicerone level of the program and coordinates exams on the Eastern seaboard. The founder of the Better Beer Society in Minneapolis-St. Paul, Fahey also freelances for Leaders Beverage Consulting and teaches beer education classes at the Hopleaf, a famed Chicago beer bar. At just 25 years old, he's also the youngest person to earn the title of Master Cicerone.
On an unrelated note, I'm fucking depressed and in desperate need of alcohol's sorrow-drowning capabilities. Luckily, there's a beer for that.
Marble Imperial Stout comes to Arizona from Marble Brewery, a beer-maker with one of the most underrated portfolios available in the state. Though the brewery gets its name from Marble Avenue, a street situated in the warehouse district of northern Albuquerque, it could just as well allude to their penchant for making "rock solid beer" -- both the brewery's citrusy IPA and their super-hopped Red are worth seeking out.
But it's booze and bourbon I'm after at the moment, both of which can be found in Marble's Imperial Stout. In a snifter, the brew is impenetrably black, an inescapable abyss in which to throw all your cares. One finger of creamy, cocoa-colored froth grips the sides of the glass in sheets.
The aroma exhibits pronounced molasses notes along with roasted peanuts, dark chocolate, maple syrup, prune juice and a hint of licorice. Each of these are easily picked out, which is impressive given the aroma's gentle nature. It's a subtle, gently-sloping aroma, rather than the sharp beak you'd expect to find in a beer of this might.
The flavor begins similarly with dry, smoky molasses, but it's followed swiftly by barrel notes: oak, vanilla, brown sugar. And why not? This brew was aged for a whole year in bourbon barrels. Dark chocolate-covered raisins with a touch of smoke and a splash of pure alcohol round things out. Things get fruitier as it warms -- I actually enjoyed it more cold, when it held a more pronounced bourbon flavor. The real standount, however, is the body. It's glorious -- thick and rich, it coats the tongue like candle wax, transforming the beer into a hefty, creamy treat.
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Marble Imperial Stout is a dark beer, perfect for when you're in your dark place, but it will probably work just as well for celebrating. I'll let you know a year from now -- after the next Master Cicerone exam.
Zach Fowle is a Certified Cicerone, an accredited guide to beer. He works at World of Beer in Tempe.