The great beer battle of 2013

Rinse, pour, skim, check, and serve. Rinse, pour, skim, check, and serve.

Malaysian Jimmy Goh had probably gone through the steps of Heineken's Five-Step Star Serve ritual to pour the best possible glass of Heineken beer thousands of times, but this would be the most important rinsing, pouring, skimming, checking and serving he would ever do in his life.

Goh was up on stage at the final of the 2013 Heineken Global Bartender Finals at The Heineken Experience event in Amsterdam in The Netherlands, facing off against hometown favourite Sander van Veenendaal for the title of Heineken's Best Bartender in The World.

To do so, he had to pour two perfect pints of beer according to the Star Serve ritual, put it on a tray, then walk with the tray down a short sloping pathway, and serve the beer to the panel of judges. Sounds easy? Tell that to the 18 other contestants from all over the world who Goh and van Veenendaal had to beat in order to get to the final showdown that we attended last month.

Goh was one of 20 top bartenders from Heineken Star Serve outlets all over the world vying for that title, all of whom have perfected the art of pouring a Heineken according to the Five-Step Star Serve ritual. They may have poured hundreds, or even thousands of Heinekens before back home, but this time, they had to do it in front of a panel of eagle-eyed judges who were scrutinising every single detail of their pour - from the cleanliness of the glassware, the amount of foam in the glass, and down to the smile of the contestant as he or she set down the glass of Heineken.

Now, you may think pouring a beer is easy, but being able to pour a consistently GOOD beer over and over again takes a lot of practise and skill, which is why Heineken came up with Star Serve in 2012.

Star Serve is Heineken's global draught beer quality programme, designed to optimise the drinking experience of their consumers in each of the 50-plus markets where Heineken draught beer is available.

According to Heineken global activation director Hans Erik Tuijt, the company already has the quality of the beer down pat, but too many things can happen on the way from the brewery to the customer's glass.

"Before you are allowed to brew Heineken, you have to send in sample brews to Amsterdam, which are tasted by a taste panel and judged against many criteria. The quality needs to be the same everywhere, because people travel and expect the same taste of Heineken anywhere they go," he said, adding that the purpose of the Star Serve is to make sure that bartenders are trained to treat the beer properly, and to make sure each glass of Heineken is served perfectly.

"I want you to get a perfectly served Heineken every time you order one, no matter which country you're in."

Heineken global draught master Frank Evers reckons that a customer would only order a second beer if the quality of the first was good.

"The first beer I have is the one that tells me about the quality of the beer. If the first one is good, then I would know the second one will probably be just as good."

Five steps to quality

So how does the Star Serve ritual help ensure that you get perfect Heineken anywhere you go?

Explaining each step of the ritual, Evers stressed that there was a valid reason for every single step.

"First, rinsing. I don't care if you are the best bar-keeper in the world, but if you start with a dirty glass, you don't stand a chance," he said.

"Also, rinsing the glass cools it down - a warm glass will not keep the beer cold."

Next comes the pour. When pouring, the bartender is supposed to open the tap, then slip the glass under the nozzle (without touching it) at a 45° angle, then straighten the glass when it is almost full, and set it aside. This is to ensure that a nice foam of head forms on top of the beer.

Then it's time for step three - the skimming of the head, which supposedly takes the bitterness of the hops away from the top of the foam, and seals the head to make sure it remains intact even as the glass is emptied.

To illustrate the importance of skimming, Evers poured two beers, skimming only one of them. Side by side, the difference was clear - the bubbles of the unskimmed one were bigger, and when you take a sip, the bitterness of the hops hits your nose and taste buds immediately.

"The skimmed one is softer and easier to drink, and the foam will stay on top of the beer much longer," he said.

Step four, the bartender then needs to check that the amount of foam is correct (it should sit right on the shoulders of the Heineken star logo on the glass), and then finally, serve it with the Heineken brand facing the customer.

Seems easy enough, no? Now, imagine you have to repeat that process over and over again while working a busy bar, or in the case of the Global Bartenders' Final, in front of Evers, a panel of judges and a crowd of noisy, cheering supporters.

According to Evers, the point of the competition is to make the bartenders practise the Star Serve.

"The Star Serve programme is mandatory for all Heineken markets, but you have to keep practising to be good at it.

"What I was looking for was how to keep the bartenders motivated to do what we have taught them.

"We want all the barkeepers we have trained around the world to keep practising the pour so they get a chance to be part of the final," he said, adding that while cocktail or coffee barista competitions are quite common, there's never been a beer pouring competition before.

"People tend to take beer pouring for granted. Many beers have their own rituals, but they are not just gimmicks - every ritual is designed to make sure you serve the beer in the best way possible."

All night long, the eagle-eyed Evers hovered over each and every contestant as they poured their beer, scrutinising the cleanliness of their glasses, the speed of their pour, and other minute details most of us would not notice.

"Being in a competition is very different from working a bar. In a bar you are in your comfort zone, but in a competition, all your attention is on ONE beer and every single mistake will be noticed," he said.

"My job is to look for those mistakes - letting the glass touch the nozzle, or skimming a little too late, or allowing a single drop of beer to touch the foam ... I will deduct points for those. I judge the bartender's precision and attention to detail."

The final showdown

This was it, the final showdown between Goh and van Veenendaal for the title of first ever best Heineken bartender in the world.

Throughout the competition, the 28-year-old bartender from The Patio Bar in Genting Highlands' First World Hotel had been unstoppable, gliding through the preliminary rounds in the top two positions before beating contestants from the Czech Republic and Egypt in the quarter-final and semi-final "pour-offs" respectively.

In an interview before the competition, Goh said that he was looking to try his best to win the title, and now he was only one pour away from doing so.

Having breezed through the earlier rounds thanks to his immaculate pours and confident demeanour, he upped his game considerably during the final by adding a little bit of "magic" into the mix, throwing his glasses playfully around as he rinsed them, checked them, and poured his beers.

The pour was smooth, the foam was perfect, and as he skimmed the top of the head off, Evers could be seen nodding in approval.

As Goh strutted down the walkway, tray in hand, to present his beers, we knew that this was as perfect a pour and presentation as we had ever seen.

But van Veenendaal was no pushover. The 33-year-old bartender from Grand Café de Lindenhof in the Dutch town of Soest had been systematically pulverising his opponents throughout the competition with his charming smile, eye-catching presentation (he used dry ice on the tray for a dramatic effect), and of course, his pinpoint pouring precision.

The pressure was on him though - representing The Netherlands here in Amsterdam, the heart of Heineken, he could not let his countrymen down.

With Goh already setting the bar pretty high, there were signs of nervousness on van Veenendaal's face, arguably for the first time in the entire competition.

Where Goh had added a little more flair to his routine, van Veenendaal added more steel, more precision to his - checking and double-checking his glasses to make sure they were crystal clear, furrowing his brow in concentration as he snapped back the tap to pour the beer, then waiting for the precise moment to skim the foam before adding his customary dry ice to the tray and presenting the beer with a flash of that charismatic smile. Technically, it was almost perfect, and everyone in the room knew that the result would go right down the wire.

"Those were two of the most technically perfect pours I have ever seen," Evers said while we waited eagerly for the results.

Sure enough, as the points went up one by one on the screen, Goh and van Veenendaal were neck and neck in the technical aspects of the ritual. However, Goh eventually lost out in the presentation and "magic" categories by a narrow margin of 1.5 points, which meant that the Dutchman was eventually crowned Heineken's Best Bartender In The World.

Goh may have lost in the final, but he is still the second best bartender in the world, and there is no shame in losing to the overwhelming favourite and local hero. Anyway, he did not walk away empty-handed that day, having won the best introduction video award that night, and also gained an unforgettable experience.

"It was an extremely close call and even though I did not win, it was an amazing experience to be part of the Heineken Star Serve programme," he said.