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Beer: Head-to-head competition

Few things are as evanescent as the froth on top of a beer, but foam is important for brewers and consumers alike.

Those bubbles of CO2 release aroma, enhancing your enjoyment of the beer. “You’re missing out on 90 percent of the experience if you don’t get the aroma,” says Katie Coco, high-end portfolio manager for Capital Eagle (the local Anheuser-Busch distributor).

Allowing some of the dissolved gas to dissipate prevents it from winding up in your stomach. You’re less likely to feel bloated if you pour your beer into a glass instead of drinking it directly from the bottle or can.

And a snowy white collar on top of an amber body just looks right.

Attention must be paid to the foam on a properly poured glass of Stella Artois.

Other alcoholic beverages, such as sparkling wine and cider, contain CO2, but they won’t yield a stable head. That’s because compounds in beer (proteins in barley and wheat, alpha acids in hops) provide a latticework that keeps the gas bubbles in suspension.

Corn and rice, adjuncts commonly used to lighten beer, don’t provide these compounds. Large national brands, which contain a high proportion of adjuncts, have especially fleeting heads. According to Frank Deford in "Lite Reading" (Penguin, 1984), prop men with egg beaters used to stand by when beer commercials were filmed, ready to whip up the beer between takes.

Particles of detergent or grease clinging to a glass can destroy a head of foam. Often, a brewery will get the blame for a flaccid brew when a careless bartender is the real culprit. Traces of heavy metals can act as a foam stabilizer, and, during the 1960s, some breweries added cobalt salts to their brew to keep the head from collapsing too quickly. The compounds were government-approved and harmless in small amounts, but they could induce possible heart failure in heavy drinkers, who might down a case or more per day. About 30 people died before the additives were removed.

When it comes to foam preservation, InBev, the world’s largest brewer (it owns Anheuser-Busch), has come up with a much better alternative: Teach server and customer alike the proper way to pour a beer. That’s the rationale behind the Stella Artois World Draught Masters competition.

“We’ve been doing this for 14 years, but it was always bartender- and retailer-based,” Coco says. “This year we’ve opened it up to consumers.” Preliminary bouts were held at various Washington watering holes during the summer. Last Friday, 16 contestants demonstrated their pouring skills at the W Hotel a block from the White House. Aimee Chambers, a University of Maryland student majoring in city planning (but with no bartending experience), edged out Brady Locher, a University of Baltimore law student (who had spent four months slinging beers in a pub in Galway, Ireland). Chambers will represent the District at the national championship to be held Friday in Boston. If she triumphs there, she’ll move on to London to vie for the World Draughts Masters title on Oct. 28.

Contestants were judged on personal flair and, more importantly, on adherence to a nine-step pouring ritual promulgated by the company. Cleanliness is valued somewhat ahead of godliness in the procedure.

Steps 1 and 2 involve rinsing the glass thoroughly and letting the first few drops of beer from the tap fall into the drain. (Stale beer that’s been sitting in a draft line overnight can impart an unpleasant flavor.)

Stella Artois is an unforgiving beer, an European-style pilsner with a whiff of malt and a delicate spicy hop character, and any contaminant will make its presence known immediately. A perfectly poured glass of Stella should be topped with a layer of foam two fingers wide. (If you ask which two fingers, the logo glass has a hash mark that tells you where the head should begin.) This is achieved by tilting the glass at a 45-degree angle beneath the tap and gradually straightening it as it fills up.

The server is then supposed to take a device called a “head cutter” (it resembles a letter opener) and slough off the top of the head. It’s not simply to prevent overflow. Coco explains that the bigger bubbles on top are less stable and can cause the rest of the head to dissipate more rapidly.

At a demonstration at Marvin the night before the contest, I learned that pouring from the tap is a lot trickier than pouring from a bottle. You don’t control the flow of the beer, and some draft systems exert more pressure than others. Coco, who is highly knowledgeable about beer, tried her hand and winds up with what looks like a beer milkshake.

Why go to all this trouble? Beer drinkers today are pickier than their forebears, and more likely to refuse a glass that’s flat or has an off-flavor. “Consumers in D.C. are willing to pay more for an expensive beer if it’s served right,” says Coco.

Incidentally, Stella Artois isn’t the only brand with a pouring ritual. Draft Guinness, which is impregnated with a blend of carbon dioxide and nitrogen and run through a device called a restrictor plate to produce that creamy, small-bubble foam, requires its own set of skills. If you think you can pour a mean glass of Guinness, you might want to check out the Guinness Pro Challenge. Contestants must submit an essay of 100 words or less on how they “boldly stepped up to face an athletic challenge and persevered.” The winner and three guests will be flown to Dallas in February 2011 (Super Bowl week) to compete against retired NFL halfback Jerome Bettis in a Guinness “pour-off.”

Perhaps a prelude to beer pouring as an Olympic event? I’m sure both the Stella Artois and Guinness folk would love to see it added to the 2012 games as a trial sport.

-- Greg Kitsock

By The Food Section  |  September 13, 2010; 2:00 PM ET
Categories:  Beer  | Tags: Beer, Greg Kitsock  
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