03/07/2012 1:22PM

Hovdey: 'Stella' joins mint juleps on Kentucky Derby drink menu


LOUISVILLE – Churchill Downs Racetrack today announced a multi-year partnership, naming the world’s best-selling Belgian beer Stella Artois as “The Official Beer Sponsor of Churchill Downs, the Kentucky Oaks, and the Kentucky Derby.”

There is no reason on earth why the Kentucky Derby, one of America’s greatest sporting events, should not have its very own official beer, even if it is brewed in Belgium. Belgium is known for its horse racing about as much as Kentucky is famous for its beer.

(Sidebar: Belgium – 30,528 square miles, population 10.3 million, capital Brussels, home of the European Union, official languages Dutch and French, racetracks Hippodrome Wellington and Hippodrome Waregem, movies you have seen set in Belgium, “In Bruges.”)

No question, the Derby’s got to have a beer – Belgian, Brazilian, Botswanan, doesn’t matter. You can’t be drinking sticky, head-pounding mint juleps all day long without a little carbonated relief. Besides, every major sports league or sporting event worth its suds has a cold brew firmly attached. Even the Breeders’ Cup has done its part through its association with Dos Equis.

Coors Light is the official beer of Nascar. Michelob Ultra has the PGA. Bud Light, the big daddy, is the official beer of the NFL, the NBA, and Major League Baseball, while Corona is the brewed beverage of choice for ATP Men’s Tennis. Miller Lite does the Dallas Cowboys.

The Derby was probably a great sponsorship “get” for Stella Artois, since the 2012 London Olympics (Heineken), the 2014 FIFA World Cup (Budweiser) and Major League Fishing (Busch) already were taken. So was the NHL – which chose MolsonCoors over Labatt’s – and surfing’s World Championship Tour, whose official beer is, what else, Foster’s.

By now the reader is either dizzy, parched, or toasting up a plate of nachos. The Kentucky Derby, in its yearning to be part of the wider sports world, is doing nothing more than tapping into the magical prescription that horse racing should be more like Nascar, the same Nascar that wears its many sponsors on its sleeve, fenders, hood, door panels, and any other surface that will harbor a gaudy logo.

Nascar has an official truck (Ford), an official passenger car (Toyota), an official credit card (Visa), an official cookie (Nabisco), an official shaving product (Gillette), and an official deodorant, antiperspirant, and body wash (Old Spice) and even, though unofficially, an official babe (Danica Patrick). So why shouldn’t the Kentucky Derby have an official beer?

Only thing is, Stella Artois (Belgian, remember) seems a little upscale. True enough, the Derby tries to appeal to the hoi polloi, despite the slippery demographic of the A-list (Rappers? Starlets? Reality show hosts?). But there is a powerful element of the man in the street to the Derby customer base which does not exactly line up with the Stella Artois image, at least as described by a U.S. representative of the brand.

“Just like horse racing, Stella Artois has a rich heritage with longstanding traditions, dating back more than 600 years,” said Andy Goeler, vice president of import, craft, and specialties at Anheuser-Busch. “From its specially-designed Chalice to the 9-Step Pouring Ritual, it’s about creating a sophisticated beer drinking experience, which is a perfect fit for the Derby’s first-class events.”

You heard right, a nine-step ritual. Each one has a name, like “The Sacrifice” or the “Beheading” or finally “The Bestowal.” One of the steps actually requires the beer to be poured into a clean glass, and another demands said glass be wiped on sides and bottom before serving. The “right amount of foam” is usually two fingers (not in the beer, dummy). While drawing from the tap, the glass must be held at a 45 degree angle. There is nothing mentioned of how the barkeep should be pure of heart, but it’s probably a given.

I’m guessing the Stella ritual will be saved for the high-end Kentucky Derby events, when such an elaborate serving ceremony can be offered in a more appreciative atmosphere. In fact, the typical Kentucky Derby customer has only two demands when it comes to getting a beer. They want it cold and they want it now – “now” being a function of the length of the line, and there are some whoppers on Derby Day.

But the Stella Artois people know what they’re doing. Their ads can be savored for the sheer entertainment value. And I’m sorry, but when I traveled Europe with a friend in my relative youth, bereft of much local language, it was a gas to wander into any bar on the continent and say “Stella,” like some down-market Stanley Kowalski, and in an instant be gladly served. We did not count the steps.

It would be a shame, though, for the vast majority of Kentucky Derby patrons to go without their Stella Artois just because a nine-step pouring ritual is impractical in a crowd of 125,000. Here, then, is a scaled back version that could suit Derby Day to a tee:

Step 1 – “The Scrum,” in which the customer uses what leverage he can to maintain his position in the line near the paddock while handicapping the next race.

Step 2 – “The Order,” in which multiple Stellas are requested so as not to require many more Step 1s.

Step 3 – “The Offering,” in which the customer realizes hotel prices are not the only Louisville gouge during Derby Week.

Step 4 – “The Beer,” in which the plastic cups are presented with ceremonial flair, their white suds sloshing gloriously down the front of the counter.

Step 5 – “The Escape,” in which four beers are carried away by one person in the classic three-beer cradle and the fourth gripped in the teeth.

As the man says, stay thirsty.