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(photo credit: Courtesy of Anheuser-Busch/ Susan Goldman)
Some pronounce it "drawt," some "drowt," others "drawft" and others say "draft," but no matter the language, competitors from 30 countries recently competed in the World Draughtmaster Championship, held in Leuven, Belgium, the home of Stella Artois beer. Essentially a beer pouring competition, this spirited contest challenged the world's finest bartenders in a rigorous test of pouring technique, accuracy, cleanliness and speed. Proper procedure was critical, but as in ice skating or ballroom dancing competitions, showmanship and human judging played a role.
The contestants were mostly in their 20s and 30s, with varied shapes and sizes and, of course, languages. They included the fiery Serb Marita Barna, with piercing eyes and magenta hair; talkative Tad Robson from Canada; vibrant Brazilian Vivian Silva; funny Nick Drabble from Australia, and Israeli champion Maor Friedman, from Rosh Ha'ayin.
For the first round of the competition, participants had to pour two perfect Stellas and present them to the grim faced judges in two minutes or less. (The seated judges are considered "customers.") Every beer must be poured, the head scraped, the glass washed again and served expertly, in the proper, clean glass (technically considered a chalice) following strict rules and guidelines of the nine-step Belgian Pouring Ritual. The winner becomes the world draughtmaster champion and takes home the glory - and a 2,500 euro top prize.
At the appointed signal, Friedman ambled over to the gleaming white pouring station and began his presentation. Soothing background music played as the crowd of about 250 people eagerly watched. Friedman expertly began "purifying" the chalices. Two judges, standing at each end of the workstation, hovered near him like vultures observing a wounded rabbit. Paul van de Walle, one of the judges said, "The foam must be between three and four centimeters, no more or less." This comes out to approximately the width of two fingers. Friedman finished up to applause, even as the Belgian contestant prepared for his turn at the tap.
Friedman works at the Dublin Irish Pub in Herzliya which (no surprise) specializes in beers. Though he became the Israeli champion against tough competitors, "it was nothing like this," he said. Besides pouring a great beer, Friedman, standing two meters and six centimeters tall, stood out from the crowd.
This international event, held in a tented room inside the massive Stella Artois brewery, featured flag waving, the occasional broken glass, laughter and cheers, nervous pacing and non-stop complimentary beer. Not just for the competitors, but for friends, family and everybody else. However, you could tell it was Belgium because what other international event would have a "waffle break"?
"It was a bit stressful," said Friedman after his performance. He admitted that he only recently began appreciating the nuances of beer. "I don't know a third of what I need to know," he said, twirling his long hair. Friedman, 24 and single, was an anti-aircraft officer and has just entered law school. "I'm a better bartender than student. You learn something new every day behind the bar."
Gruff, serious Alexander Armon, an important Israeli beer and wine distributor, was one of Friedman's companions at the event. "Beer is cultural," he said. "Israel only consumes about 14 liters of beer per person per year - that's nothing. Something like this competition will help."
By comparison, according to a 2007 study, the Czech Republic leads the world in beer consumption with an astounding 160 liters per person per year. The Belgians also enjoy their beer at 93 liters per annum. Producing many lagers, ales, Trappist beers, blondes, bruns, fruit beers and rouges, each of the approximately 585 Belgian beers is poured into its own, unique glass. As for quantity, one Belgian told me about his days playing field hockey where after matches, each team would come together and every man would buy a round of blonde. There are 11 players per side making it a 22-round evening - that's a lot of beer.
The Belgians often pair their foods with fine beers, instead of wine. For instance, sea bass papillote with tomatoes, onion and fennel is perfectly suited with a crisp Hoegaarden white beer.
Though many thought he did a superb job, Friedman did not make the final cut. The remaining 12 in the finals fought a tense battle of foam, form and function. Cheering sections, particularly the Serbian and Ukrainian contingents, boisterously encouraged their favorite sons and daughters. And it may have helped. Volodymyr Vavryk, a bartender from Kiev, came in third. A pretty, petite, terribly efficient woman, Claire Dong, from Beijing, was No. 2. And the new world draughtmaster champion is Tommy Goukens, from Laakdal, Belgium.
Home field advantage? Perhaps - but undeniably Goukens, a handsome, charismatic hit with the ladies, pours a perfect beer and why not, he's been working since 12 at his father's bar. This was the sixth win for Belgium out of the 12 years the competition has been running.
Some grumbled about the "political" nature of the winner, but it was all forgiven, with more waffles and flowing Stella Artois lubricating the friendly international crowd. The stresses of the competition were danced away into the wee hours by the mostly young competitors. At one point, the women from Serbia, Brazil and Luxembourg danced seductively on the bar, making a sandwich out of Anthony Alba, the America contestant, who didn't seem to mind at all. "This is kind of like Eurovision," laughed Friedman while watching the crowd and enjoying another fresh, cold Stella Artois.