Can there really be too much of a good thing? Well, yes, actually, there can be.
Some time ago, I ordered a barleywine at a local brewpub. Barleywines are one of my favorite beer styles, and if one appears on a menu, I will almost always order it. That night, it was an English barleywine, a style dating from around the turn of the last century: sweeter and less hoppy than American interpretations. A malt-forward beer, the best examples of the style are characterized by nuanced layers of aroma and flavor that call to mind toffee, dark fruit (raisins, dried figs), and fortified wine. Typically, it is presented in a brandy snifter, a glass that suits the style perfectly. The inward tapered shape helps retain that gorgeous aroma and its smaller size (typically around eight ounces) is just right for a drink that can reach 12 percent alcohol by volume.
Imagine my dismay when the beer arrived in a thick-walled, 16-ounce shaker pint glass, one of those ubiquitous outward flared beer glasses that you find in every American bar. Now, some might argue that I was lucky. After all, I was getting 16 ounces but only paying for eight, and I was getting twice as much of one of my favorites. But I did not feel lucky. Barleywines are meant to be savored. They should be sipped, not gulped. The server had made a major mistake. Not only had she cost her employer money and encouraged over-consumption of a high-alcohol drink, she had unintentionally ruined her customer’s experience.
Beer glasses are more than a convenient method of conveying beer from the tap, or the bottle, to our mouths. They are an integral part of the experience of drinking beer, and the right (or wrong) glass can make or break that experience. That is why any brewpub or gastro pub worth its salt will stock a wide inventory of different glassware to accommodate their craft beers.
Aesthetic appreciation is chief among the attributes of the right beer and right glass combination. Let’s return to the barleywine for a moment. The rounded and delicate snifter creates a beautiful visual presentation. Barleywines run from gold to dark amber in color. When held to the light, a ruby flame often appears buried deep within the amber globe, visually complementing the warming effects of the alcohol. Because the opening of the snifter is smaller than the globe, it concentrates aromas. Gently swirl the liquid in the glass to release the aromas, and then bring it up to your nose. Breath in. Take a sip. The snifter demands that you pay attention to the drink within.
The right glass also honors the beer it contains. Belgian golden ales beg to be poured into stemmed tulip glasses. The inward taper of the bowl traps aroma and flavor, while the outward flare of the rim delivers the liquid across the tongue. One of the great pleasures of golden ale is the extraordinary head of foam that forms when the beer is properly poured. The tapered, slightly elongated shape of the tulip not only helps to shape and retain the mountain of foam, but by turning the head in on itself, also produces a creamier texture.
Another beer known for its prodigious head of foam is German hefeweizen. Hefeweizens are unfiltered wheat beers renowned for their big, yeast-driven banana and clove flavors. It is hard to imagine drinking this beer in anything other than the classic Hefeweizen vase. The large glass (over 16 ounces) easily accommodates the three to four inches of pillow-like foam, while the curvaceous shape invites your hand to grab it and hold it near. Altogether, an impressive visual presentation: a Matterhorn of creamy white resting atop a column of gloriously hazy golden-orange ale. The large size tells you to go ahead and take a long drink. Its relatively modest five percent alcohol level makes it a perfect thirst-quencher for a summer afternoon.
Beer glassware does more than deliver the appropriate sensual experience: it also connects the drinker to long-standing traditions and therefore also to history and culture. The iconic shaped glasses we associate with English and Irish pubs are the nonick and tulip pints. The upwardly plumpish tulip pint is the glass featured in the old classic Guinness ads and posters. It is very hard to look at a tulip pint and not think of a pint of Guinness. Such glassware also reminds us that tradition is often born of practicality. The bulge near the middle of the nonick protects the glasses from chipping when they collide with each other (get it — no nick), and also provides, as does the convex-shaped tulip pint, a convenient grip when drinking in the often-crowded confines of a public house.
In Scotland, Scotch ales are traditionally served in thistle glasses, so named because their shape resembles the flower of the thistle plant. Basically a modified version of a stemmed tulip glass, the thistle glass is the perfect vessel for the strong, malty ale. Also know as Wee Heavies, Scotch ales are big and caramel sweet, sometimes balanced with a bit of peaty smokiness. The bowl of the thistle glass concentrates the flavors and aromas of the beer while the thin outward taper of the rim directs the beer across the mouth for a more complex tasting experience. The thistle glass also connects the drinker to the proud heritage of Scottish brewing, the thistle being the national flower and the most recognized symbol of the country. The Scottish brewing tradition differs significantly from the English. Hops do not grow well in the cold northern climate of Scotland. Rather than spend money to purchase English hops, the defiant Scots developed malt forward beers that did not rely on hops for bittering. We are reminded of this tradition of independence every time we hoist a thistle glass.
Having a Belgian Abby or Trappist-style ale, say an Orval or Chimay? If you have a savvy server or are lucky enough to actually be in Belgium, chances are excellent that the beer will be presented to you in a goblet or glass chalice. These sturdy, squat vessels complement the rich and flavor-heavy higher-alcohol beverages they contain, classics such as Belgian Dubbles and Tripels. The Trappist monks have been brewing some of the world’s best beers in their monasteries since the 1600’s, adhering to principles of self-sufficiency, quality ingredients, and attention to detail. The glass chalice recalls those used in religious ceremonies and reminds us of the great craft and attention that have attended monastic brewing traditions for centuries.
Finally, there is the ubiquitous shaker pint: the one that, to my disappointment, held my barleywine. They are much maligned by beer aficionados. They are certainly not the right glass for barleywines or other nuanced and high-alcohol beers. They won’t work for big beers such as Imperial stouts or Belgian ales. The alcohol level of these beers is too high, and the shaker pint encourages long drinks rather than contemplative sips. However, given the right beer and occasion, they too can provide an appealing sensual experience and connect to their traditions. They are the perfect glass for those stalwart American beers that served as the foundation of the American craft beer movement in the 1980s — pale, red and brown ales, such as Sierra Nevada’s American Pale Ale or New Belgium’s Fat Tire amber. Prior to the movement, beers in the U.S. were typically served in smaller, nondescript glasseswhich suited the lack-luster nature of the beers they contained. The pioneers of American craft beer wanted something bigger and bolder in which to enjoy their exciting new beers. They improvised a solution: the glass half of every bartender’s standard cocktail shaker. They were large enough, and the flared shape helped to form a nice head of foam, which in turn provided a platform for the big hoppy aromas that characterized many of the new craft styles. The outward flare of the shape makes them easier to grasp, while the considerable heft says, “here is a beer worth paying attention to.”
The importance of the beer glass cannot be overstated. When you are served your favorite beer in the right glass, you know that you are in an establishment that cares as much as you do. Glassware helps make the occasion and tells you how to drink the beer. It tells you whether the beer should be sipped and admired, honored as a tradition, or simply be thought of as part of the camaraderie at the local pub. Every great beer has its own story, and the right glass takes you there. •