In a country of beer lovers, this group takes the keg

Czech Position

Pilsner Urquell hosts the Int’l Master Bartender Awards, where top talents compete to pour the perfect Czech pint, and more

“I’m like a kid in a candy shop.” “If you don’t know the history, you know nothing.” “It was the best thing I’ve ever seen.” Statements from three people obviously giddy about something. Everyone has their passion – cars, food; but in this case we are talking about some Czech beer fanatics. Pilsner Urquell zealots to be precise. “Quality and authenticity is how I think about Pilsner Urquell.” “I want them to feel my passion for Pilsner Urquell.”

Welcome to the 6th annual Pilsner Urquell Master Bartender Awards, where the Pilsner love was flowing faster than beer from a tapped keg. Fifteen committed bartenders from across Europe came to Pilsner Urquell’s birthplace where they sat interviews in front of a panel of beer experts, wrote an exam and demonstrated their knowledge of the beer at the Plzeň brewery.

The global competition is the culmination of an annual quality assurance program that recognizes the importance of bartenders when it comes to serving a perfect Pilsner Urquell pint. Contestants first undergo a written exam in their home countries. The top winners then compete in person, undergoing a live interview and demonstrating a perfect pour. This year representatives from Norway to Greece spent two days in Plzeň, touring the brewery and learning more about the beer as well as doing their testing. The finals were held at the Rudolfinum in Prague on October 5. A replica bar was set-up on stage for the five finalists to demonstrate their skills live for the judges.

“Most difficult to judge — it was a tough week. They were all so good, but the top six or seven were special,” Alastair Gilmour, a Scottish international beer expert and writer who has judged the competition for six years, told Czech Position. “Normally, there are three you know are going to be it at the end of the day, but in my mind it took the narrowest of points to win or lose.”

During the ceremony, Petr Dvořák, global brands director for Pilsner Urquell said: “We are trying to seed, promote and reward Pilsner knowledge with this competition. The quality of the participants is exceptionally high and judging is really challenging. We hope they carry the passion and dedication back to their countries.”

The pressure’s on tap

The top 5 finalists were announced live: Czech Republic, Ireland, UK, Finland and Slovakia. One by one the contestants then had to pour three beers; a .3L, .5L and a bottle. All the while they chatted away, explaining what they were doing and why it was important. Judges got to ask questions, too.

“I rinse the glass and empty the tap so there’s no oxidized beer, then I hold the glass at a 45 degree angle so it keeps its strength and goodness,” explained Czech finalist Jaroslav Ucík, who runs the pub U Učíků in the Krkonoše Mountains. “I make a beautiful beer.”

One of only three women in the competition, Salla Sormunen from Finland, said she could feel the passion from the people working in the brewery and their commitment and dedication. Next up was a nice and chatty lad from Dublin, Fearghus McCormack. Asked to describe the taste of Pilsner Urquell, he said: “It has a very unique taste; even if you are not a beer connoisseur you can taste the honey, caramel, a creamy bite. The aftertaste has a sweetness and bitterness – a lovely combo.” His pour went well – oohs and ahhs from the crowd as he added the foam and a round of applause as he served the judges.

“I will prepare the perfect beer for you!” stated Slovak finalist Peter Škripko. Another friendly type, Škripko strode confidently across the stage and explained every step of the process; even going so far as to taste a sip of beer first, before proclaiming it perfect.

The final bartender to face the judges was Robert Kecskes from the UK. When asked how Pilsner Urquell was different from other beers he said it was their brewing process, traditional equipment and local ingredients. The branding department had a proud moment when Kecskes, serving the judges, said: “You place the beer on a branded coaster with the logo facing the customer.” Unfortunately, when asked to share some information about the beer’s early history, he couldn’t come up with the facts, gamely asking to have a different question instead.

The best beer puller is …

And then the moment of truth. To the sound of a drum roll: Third place, Peter Škripko from Slovakia; second place, Jaroslav Učík from the Czech Republic; and the winner — Fearghus McCormack of Ireland.

“It feels amazing, to see all this and how important it is to Pilsner Urquell,” McCormack told Czech Position after the ceremony. “Everyone here is a winner; the bartenders were so nice, it really made the whole experience, and I’ve learned a huge amount — the cellars in Plzeň, the pedigree behind the product — it’s an inspiration.”

Václav Berka is the senior trade brewer for Pilsner Urquell and a third generation brew master. A judge for the past six competitions, he was pleased to see McCormack take home the Bohemian crystal trophy.

“The trophy is in the right hands; I met Fearghus at the national finals in Ireland and well-done, Fearghus,” he told Czech Position. “From year to year the quality of the competitors is higher and higher; the top five tonight were very close, it was visible in the final round. This competition is very important to support Pilsner Urquell quality around the world. We want to train more people to serve it, care for it, and their knowledge is added value for their customers.”

As they like to say at Pilsner Urquell, it’s the brew master who brews the beer, but the bartender who makes it.