On Friday, I was one of the judges for the Stella Artois Draught Masters National Championship at One King West in Toronto. Never having really taken part in an event of that scope before, I didn’t know exactly what to expect going in. In terms of writing about beer and, indeed, drinking beer, I’m more or less a craft guy, and I think that’s fairly common knowledge. It would be hard to come to any other conclusion reading the Sun Media column or for the blog. Stella Artois is, despite its relatively modest origins as a Christmas beer at the beginning of the 18th century, a huge international brand. Were I one of their representatives, I might have easily chosen someone who is more supportive generally of huge international brands to judge the thing.
Not that I’m complaining. It’s a nice activity to switch to after commuting back and forth all week to Niagara-On-The-Lake. It’s good to have variety.
Let me explain how the Draught Masters competition works. Basically, there’s an official nine step process for pouring Stella Artois that involves making sure the glass is clean, making sure the beer has the right amount of head in the glass and, finally, making sure that you serve the beer in the middle of the coaster with the logo facing out. These are all important things to consider and they contribute to the customer’s experience. You don’t want someone else’s lip crud on the rim of your glass. That’s just nasty. Also, you don’t want a poorly poured pint that’s half foam.
The logo thing… well, branding is important. You want people in the bar to see that someone has just ordered a Stella Artois, I guess. Probably they will then think to order one themselves. It also serves an ergonomic purpose in that there’s an indent on the same side of the stem of the chalice that the logo is on. No matter which hand you reach for the glass with, your thumb will find the indent. I’m sure that’s part of the reasoning, but it’s mostly branding.
I showed up about an hour early for the event to undergo training on the pouring ritual. Clearly, it has stuck sufficiently that I am able, two days later, to recount that there are certainly some steps involved. I may not recall the precise order. It seems like the kind of thing that you would eventually become really good at if you were behind a bar repeating them several dozen times a week.
The competition worked in eight head to head brackets, leading several confused people to attempt to place a large wager on Gonzaga. There were competitors from all over the country, and those competitors had gone through the regional finals in order to get to that point. It’s not like the X Factor, exactly, although the production budget was certainly similar. I mean, you don’t get the competitor’s life stories. If you were a journalist covering the actual event, it would be hard to make head or tails of it.
All you really have to go with is that these are obviously very talented bartenders who have spent a lot of time getting their timing down in order to pour a Stella Artois properly. I mean, you can’t really ask “why are you here?” They’re there because they can pour a pint of Stella better than everyone else who attempted to pour a pint of Stella. It’s not the world championships, so you can’t very well ask how it feels to be champion of the world and whether they’re going to go to Disneyland. I think I ended up one substantive question over the course of the evening and it was “So… why did you go with the Steampunk Top Hat as part of your ensemble?” The answer was, as you probably already suspect, that it looked cool.
In terms of the vibe of the evening, it was very interesting. They had gone with a 60’s Hollywood theme, which I was massively underdressed for. There were attractive young women in costume as hostesses. At the bar, there was branded glassware as far as the eye could see. Shelves and shelves and shelves. There was a DJ booth set up in the center of the room and an elaborate system of projected images matched to the architecture behind the stage. The voting was done on touchscreen systems which were explained to us at great length by a very patient man in what looked to be a very uncomfortable earpiece and black suit.
When the main event actually started, it put me in mind of the beginning of Rocky IV; the match between Apollo Creed and Ivan Drago. There were flashing lights, there was a roaring crowd. I don’t know what capacity for the room was, but given the tightly run ship they were working with, I can pretty largely guarantee that they never went over. Instead of James Brown doing “Living in America” we had a very talented vocalist doing a note for note perfect Jackson 5 tribute. Instead of Apollo Creed wearing a comically oversized red, white and blue top hat, we had the Steampunk guy from Waterloo. In fairness, Carl Weathers could not have pulled off a hat with goggles.
The contestants, since they’re pretty skilled bartenders, move with some considerable speed. It’s hard to keep absolute track of everything they’re doing when they’re going at speed. I think the judges did a pretty good job, considering. The winner, passing on to the next round in Buenos Aires, was Clement Beauchesnes (one wonders whether he bears any relation to the Vankleek Hill mob).
I’ll be entirely honest with you: I think he took it because he didn’t incorporate any kind of flair into the act. He just poured a beer to the best of his ability. Also, despite the fact that all of the competitors had clearly been doing this for a while, it’s a different thing to get up in front of a room with a couple of thousand excitable people in it and pour a beer while the PA system blasts House of Pain. I think that in that setting, keeping it simple is a winning recipe. Just do the thing and forget about the fact that The Scorpions are now Rocking You Like A Hurricane while you’re trying to line up the logo and the bass is rattling your vertebrae. He had concentration. Well done, Clement.
As evenings go, I think it was a success. I know that a lot of people had a lot of fun. I know that a number of talented bartenders got a trip to Toronto and that one gets to go to Buenos Aires. I know that it’s predicated on beer being served properly, which I can get behind.
It is also, if I’m being honest, a little bit difficult not to feel silly judging people pouring beer when you’ve logged about six hours lifetime behind a bar.