I’m asked a lot why I often use wine glasses for beer tasting events. The main reason is because they work. The wine people have been doing glassware for a long time and they do it well. White wine glass design makes these vessels a good size for sample pours and they do a great job delivering the maximum aromatic experience of a beer.
But there is a second, more troubling reason that I use wine glasses—every venue has them. Every restaurant, bar, or event center has wine glasses, often a different glass for red wine and white. But ask for an appropriate beer glass and you are typically stuck with shaker pints or highballs, neither of which do anything to enhance the character of beer.
Beer lags behind wine in the glassware arena. Truth be told, we’re still at the point of convincing drinkers to use a glass. While few would be tempted to chug decent wine from the bottle, most folks have no qualms about quaffing a cold-one from the can. Wine glass design experts have glassware down to a science. They have researched the shapes that best showcase the aromas of different grapes. Wine glass rims are carefully designed to deliver each varietal to the right part of the tongue for best effect. To paraphrase a comment by George Riedel, scion of the Riedel Wine Glass Company, “Wine glass design is not magic. It’s science and physics.”
Check It Out: The Beer Dabbler Store has its very own glassware section!
Beer has its own special glassware, some of which does actually appear to be designed to enhance the character of specific beers. The tall, tapered shape and inward-curving rim of a wheat beer glass is perfectly constructed to show off the fluffy foam and yeasty aromatics of German hefeweizen. But many beer glass types seem to be driven more by tradition than efficacy. The nonic pint for instance recalls friendly pints quaffed in a cozy English pub. While it is preferred by beer aficionados over the standard shaker pint, I fail to smell or taste any significant difference between them. And dimpled mugs? What have those ever done to enhance the profile of a beer?
Other specialized beer glasses work better as branding gimmicks than beer-enhancing, drinking vessels. The Kwak glass is the extreme example. The slender, flared flute with the ball at the bottom has an interesting provenance as a coachman’s glass. The rounded bottom gave it weight that allowed it to rock with the wagon’s motion as it hung in a holder at the driver’s side. I guess there were no open-container laws back in the day. But actually drinking from the thing is nearly impossible. There is always that initial moment of confusion. “Do I take it out of the wooden holder or leave it in?” Leave it in the holder and you face the constant fear that it will fall out as you raise the glass. Take it out and you can’t set the thing down. Either way there is a good chance you are going to end up spilling beer down the front of your shirt.
When science is applied to beer glassware design — unlike with wine glass design — the results are met with derision and extreme skepticism by many members of the beer community. Following the announcement a few months back of the IPA glass designed by Riedel’s beer glass subsidiary Spiegelau with the help of Sierra Nevada founder Ken Grossman and Dogfish Head’s Sam Calagione, well-known beer writer Lew Bryson quipped, “Jesus H. Christ. More prescriptive bullshit about how we’re supposed to drink our beer. Every beer I have today, I’m going to drink right out of the bottle or can, or in a shaker glass. And they’ll taste great.” My own comparative taste test though, proved to me that science did deliver. Although the difference was small, the glass did improve my experience of India Pale Ale.
Even in competition we give glassware short shrift. When sommeliers gather to judge wine they use proper stemware that’s made to the strictest standards of wine glass design. The standard in this country even for large national and international beer competitions like the Great American Beer Festival and the World Beer Cup is 9-ounce, straight-sided, plastic cups. Do a side-by-side comparison with the same beer in a white wine glass and you will immediately notice the difference.