Tension builds as Émélie Ouellet approaches the portable Stella Artois bar on the stage of the Halifax Alehouse. She's won the first two rounds of this regional qualifier for the Draught Master title, and is looking pretty confident for this last round, pitted against New Brunswick's Gary Burris.
Ouellet is a young (but over 21; the Draught Master world finals are in New York) native of Tracadie-Sheila, NB, now living in Halifax. If there's a story in two New Brunswickers facing off at the end of this competition, it's overshadowed by Ouellet making it to the finals at all. She didn't qualify in one of the regional pour-offs held at the Old Triangle locations in Halifax and Moncton, but via the "wild card" qualifiers held just before the finals at the Alehouse.
She actually came to cheer on her friend Marc Levesque, who had already qualified, but as often happens around bars and beer, one thing led to another. Soon Ouellet found herself on centre stage at the last leg of the Atlantic regionals, with the winner going to the nationals in Toronto on July 25---with a chance to win a trip to Belgium and then New York to compete in the World Draught Master Competition.
The competition is supported locally by Labatt, who supplied two of the judges, Jeff Green and Norm Mensour. The other two judges were local food and travel writer Bill Spurr and I. It was a bit nerve-wracking. First we had to attend a training seminar put on by Green at the Beer Institute in the Brewery Market, learning the steps for pouring a beer per competition guidelines. Then we had to do one in front of the Labatt folks. Performing under pressure like that must be akin to doing porn, head jokes and all.
Truth is, I really don't believe in the nine-step Stella pouring ritual. It's mostly bunk, the beer equivalent of tantric sex. Beer is either good or it isn't, and all this dressing and dolling up can't make a silk purse out of a sour beer. Stella is a pretty good continental lager, but far from the best of what Belgium has to offer. And more to the point: an awful lot of perfectly good beer is wasted in this ritual. Does beer oxidize so quickly that you need to worry about the first few millilitres out of a tap that is in steady use? Do you need to worry about drips from the tap entering a just-poured beer? Just clear the lines from last night's old beer, and clean the lines properly and regularly, and you'll be fine, thanks. My main concern when evaluating a pour is: "Is it full?"
That said, watching and judging this competition was a hell of a good time, and it was nice to see people treating beer with as much respect as wine. It deserves this.
Ouellet takes the chalice---by the stem, as required, never touching the bowl---and washes the bowl vigourously, then the stem and the bottom. She dips it gracefully, stem down, to rinse it once, twice, a third time just to be sure. This excites the mostly male audience, lining the rafters of the Alehouse like Romans at the Colosseum awaiting the lions. She starts the tap, allowing the foam to turn to liquid gold, then inserts the chalice at a 45-degree angle, gradually moving to vertical, allowing the beer to flow over. The tap is closed and the glass pulled back, then a swipe of the knife takes off the larger bubbles, preserving the creamy head. She presents the glass to the audience and us judges (taking notes with pen and clipboard---this is serious business), putting two fingers up to the head to show the proper pour. She completes the ritual by rinsing the glass, applying the paper Stella-logoed drip catcher and setting the beer on the coaster. Ouellet finishes with an enthusiastic, Acadien-accented "Enjoy your Stella Artois!"
Everyone in the house knew that she had won. Her score of 88 out of 100 is a near-perfect pour. Not too bad for a gladiator who showed up as a supporter.
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