I’m starting to form a contrary opinion to something I’m starting to hear put forth quite frequently and I’d like to see what others out there think. Collecting glassware seems to be a natural extension of our hobby. I’m sure most of us have glasses we’ve acquired from breweries, gift boxes, etc; that we enjoy using when we drink out beers.
And due to form and function, I’m sure many of us have certain glasses that we gravitate towards depending on the style of beer that we’re about to enjoy. After all, I’m not going to suggest for one minute that an imperial stout doesn’t look a tad bit silly in a thin pilsner glass, or that pouring a heady weizen is problematic in a small snifter. But the opinion I’m starting to see tossed around is that a beer TASTES better depending on the glass it’s being drunk from.
To grasp where the under lying current of this belief is coming in from, I believe we have to look to a group of people where it may have all begun – wine lovers.
“Why?”, I hear you ask. Why not? We haven’t blamed them for anything in awhile. Somewhere back in the 80’s or 90’s a company called Riedel began selling a series of wine glasses that were specific to a variety of wine. Soon it was possible to have a specific glass from which to drink a Chardonnay, a Zinfandel or a Merlot. The company kept expanding this series, with each glass carefully describing how its shape and opening better enhanced the aspects of the wine it was made for. Soon a small group of consumers believed that if you dared pour a Cabernet into a Chardonnay glass, the glass police were going to come, arrest you, and toss you in a jail cell next to the people who dare pull off that tag off the mattresses that says “DO NOT REMOVE”. And from here (at least to a small degree) I believe the seed of this opinion was planted into the drinking community, where it would (years later) begin to slowly creep into the subconscious of the craft beer world. After all, watch the craft beer world and you’ll see that (although some don’t like to admit it) some people really are trying to send it down the same path as wine; beer tastings, beer and food pairings, aging beer, vintage beers. So why would it be surprising that this concept of a certain glass for a certain wine also slowly begin to spread through out the craft beer world?
But does this assertion which Riedel is making money off of really make any sense? I’ll get more into some of the physiology questions I have when I switch back to beer but I find myself asking several questions. First, if the type of glass is really THAT important to get the most out of a certain wine, then why do jury glasses (used to judge wine) all come in the same shape and size independent of the wine style in question? And why did sommeliers historical use silver tastevins of the same standard shape when they were evaluating wines? And finally, why have I spent so much time in commercial wine cellars watching wine makers evaluate barrel samples using the same type of glass regardless of the type of wine that’s in the barrel? To be honest, to me, it appears that the importance of the type of glass when it comes to tasting wine is only being pushed out to the consumer, mostly from the companies that make a profit off the glassware.
So back to beer. Along comes the craft beer scene and for the most part what you had was the standard 16oz “Libby” sleeve. But after awhile different beer glasses started to show up. Pilsner glasses were already pretty common, being the only type of glass that adorned the bar at my father’s house when I was growing up. But soon glasses from England, Belgian and German began to hit the scene. And then the “gift set” (bottles of beer coupled with a glass) started to appear. Suddenly one could buy bottles of Chimay with the chalice like glass that would make a consumer assume that it obviously was the type of glass it was meant to be drunk from. Craft beer bars started serving different beers in different style glasses. Heck, Samuel Adams developed a glass whose sole purpose was to optimize the experience of drinking their lager. So again the end user has no choice but to believe that the glass has to matter. Doesn’t it?
But my noise and mouth come with over a hundred thousand years of evolutionary development to pick out and discern different scents and tastes. The nose has the ability to detect some compounds at the parts-per-million (and some compounds like mercaptan which gives natural gas its odor at the parts-per-billion) level and the mouth is equally skilled at detecting flavors at low levels in food and drink. So I ask, if I’m about to take a whiff or sip of a beer (basically getting my nose right up in it, I’m not asking the aromas to travel more than a couple of centimeters) will the fact that the glass has a lip or more of a bowl shape on it really make me smell the hops better? Have you ever thought to yourself, “I’m not really getting the hops in this Deviant Dale’s, maybe I need to put it in a different glass”?
“But”, I can hear some people ask “if the glass doesn’t matter, then why do so many styles have particular glasses? Why did that Chimay gift pack come with a chalice?” Far question. Maybe, just maybe, that just happened to be the style of glass in use in the region. I could believe that Pilsner glasses were simply just made that way at the time beer became popular in the Czech republic. I could also believe that style of glass would come across the Atlantic as emigrants from that area and Germany came to America. And I would not be surprised to find out that all that happened, without anyone really thinking if the shape of the glass was showcasing the best qualities (taste wise) of the beer they were drinking. Just as I would not be surprised that a Trappist brewery located in an Abby would use gift glasses that look like chalices.
“Well my craft beer bar serves beers in certain glasses. Obviously they must know something,” some people would continue. Yes, but what they know is how much the beer you’re asking for costs them to tap as well as its ABV. A beer that is costly to them per keg is going to get served in a smaller glass. A smaller glass means more servings per keg which means more money made off the keg to offset the higher cost of the keg. So in all likely hood a high ABV barleywine like 21st Amendment’s Lower da Boom, or a high dollar keg like DFH’s Saison du Buff, are both going to be served in the same small glass (as in my case the other night when both were served to me in an 8oz brandy snifter).
Does my swing to this opinion mean that I will be dragging all my drinking glasses out to the recycling bin, and that you should too? Hell no! Keep them! Enjoy them! Some I’m sure look awesome with certain beers in them. Some I’m sure have memories attached to them if you’ve picked them up on a trip to a brewery. And some, well some you just love. That’s just part of being a craft beer lover. Making the experience better, absolutely. Making the beer taste better…? Let me know what you think.
Time for another beer…