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Glassware: A Victim of the Beer vs. Wine Culture Clash

Beer with no Head
This is a sad beer with no head poured into a shaker pint that’s not beer clean. (Picture from homebrewmanual.com)

Apparently, there’s quite a debate in the beer world about whether glassware matters.  I’ve read several blogs lately that fall all along the spectrum of opinions.  Those who believe it matters tend to fall under the “tradition” spectrum with the logic that the beer developed in concert with the appropriate glassware for a reason.  This is a fairly legitimate argument, although not 100% fool proof. Certain traditional styles were designed to highlight other attributes than just flavor.  The traditional tall weise beer glass was designed to build a huge, fluffy head, build long streamers of carbonation, and highlight the elegant cloudiness and “glow” of the light passing through the beer. Visually, it makes for a striking presentation.  Additionally, it will taste good; partially because of the experiential factor and partially because of the significant head.

The other side of  the debate rebels against specific glassware because is smacks of snobbery, and dare we say, WINE snobbery.  The world of wine is filled with dozens of different glasses supposedly designed by style experts to highlight and properly present the wine in its best light.  Surely, this can’t be right!  It’s just a way to sell more glassware.  It’s probably a little of each.  Sometime, try taking a wine and drink it from different shaped glasses.  There is a perceivable difference.  I’ve done it.  I feel that many beer people have this inferiority complex when it comes to wine people.  Beer, in the United States and other countries, has long been the crude little brother of wine.  Beer was for swilling while wine was for sophisticated enjoyment.  I’ve run into both sides of this argument.  Certain segments of the beer world feel that they have to rebel against wine snobbery by being extra “blue collar” in their approach to beer.  Sure, they want to drink great tasting beer but they don’t want to do “wine-y” things like put it in a glass other than a pint or pair it with amazing food.  On the flip side, some wine people still view beer (even craft beer) as less sophisticated and complex than wine, usable only for casual drinking.  It’s a culture class in which beer and glassware have become pawns.

But Really, what is the purpose of a beer glass?  The first answer is simple: getting beer into your mouth.  But what’s the deeper purpose of a beer glass?  It should allow you to be able to get the full expression of the brewer’s intent.  The brewer wants the beer to taste as it was designed to be tasted.  For more details on what’s going on with your tongue and taste, check out my post: “The Myth of the Tongue Map and Other Tasty Bits.”  In reality, taste only amounts to 6 different stimuli that are sent to your brain.  The majority of what you taste is actually what you smell.  The human nose and brain can perceive approximately 10,000 different aromas.  Flavor is aroma. But how do we get the aroma from the beer to our nose to our brains?  Carbonation.

This well poured beer served in the proper glass is going to taste great!
Whether added to the beer during bottle/keg conditioning or forced into the beer, the tiny gas bubbles play a crucial role in the flavor of a beer.  First, the carbonation protects the beer from oxygen, one of the enemies of beer, both in the bottle and in the glass.  A nice fluffy head on your beer acts as a protective layer while you’re drinking it.  Without head, your beer can taste significantly oxidized by the time you get to the bottom of the glass.  Additionally, a beer poured without head will cause poor CO2 release.  Not only will you be drinking your beer, but about 2.5 glasses of air locked in solution.  You’ll get the classic beer bloat and burping.  Also, drinking the no head beer will cause the CO2 to explode out of the glass in the back of your throat while your drinking it.  You’ll get the carbonation burn, which is fine and enjoyable when drinking a soda pop, but horrid when drinking a beer.  But really, glassware doesn’t prevent this problem, only proper bar service can.  If you get a beer poured to the top with no head, send it back.  They think they’re doing you a favor by not cheating you on volume but in reality they’re cheating you on flavor.

Now we’ve covered what carbonnation itself does, what does it do for the other ingredients in the beer?  You have to be able to smell the aromas in the beer to “taste” the beer.  Short of snorting the liquid, you need something to carry the aroma from the liquid to your nose.  Again, the wonder gas CO2 comes through! The air releasing from the beer takes with it molecules that you’re able to sniff in and smell.  When you drink the liquid, the carbonation helps carry the aroma up into your retro-nasal allowing you to get the full impression of the beer all at once.  Finally, the carbonation helps scrub the tongue clean allowing you to taste your next sip of beer or bite of food fully.

But what does this all have to do with glassware?  Well, glassware is the prime instrument of carbonation release (assuming our bartender poured with proper technique and a beer clean glass).  The classic shaker pint glass is one of the worst shapes for beer.  The upward sloping walls don’t retain aroma well and allow for very quick head dissipation which means your beer will oxidize, and you’ll not be able to get the full depth of the aroma.  Additionally, its harder to swirl so you can help release fresh carbonation and aroma.  Well, if the standard pint isn’t what you want, what do you want?

Well, this may annoy some beer people, but a wine glass.  The round bowl allows for room to swirl and release some aroma, and the closed top allows for the aroma to gather in the top of the glass without escaping.  The stem allows you to hold the glass without smudging it and ruining your view and also keeps you from prematurely heating up your beer.  Conversely, the large surface area of the bowl allows you to warm up the beer with both your hands if it’s too cold. If you don’t want to use a wine glass, the beer tulip is becoming a very popular alternative.  It provides all the same functionality of the wine glass, but in a package that looks more like a “beer glass.”  So…..

Taste equals aroma which is carried by carbonation which is managed with glassware, therefore glassware DOES affect the flavor of a beer.

23 thoughts on “Glassware: A Victim of the Beer vs. Wine Culture Clash

  1. Very nice arguments. I’m debating to respond here or do a point by point on my end. Either way, I’m booked tonight and have a tap take over tomorrow, so it won’t be for awhile. Till then I will concede one thing and disclose another.

    Conceded: A “libby” style glass is probably the crappiest beer vessel out there that is consistently used to serve beer. But they’re not likely to go away.

    Disclose: I’ve drank many a beer out of a wine glass. A wine glass in fact that is one of those Riedel, style specific glasses I mentioned. But I didn’t buy it because I thought it would make my zin taste better. I bought it because I liked the shape and it can hold a boat load of wine (what can I say, I hate wimpy wine glasses).

    Great post!

  2. I really like this post. I don’t think a multitude of glasses is imperative. I think that the fact that the Original Beer Hunter, Michael Jackson, had a tasting glass set of only 4 glasses tells us a lot. Pint, Snifter, Tulip and Stange (Slender Cylinder) glass.

    Regardless of that, I personally think that a little bit of research goes a long way. If you’re spending upwards of $10 for a premium craft beer you should get the fullest enjoyment out of it if you serve it the way they want you to drink it. Meaning glassware and temperature and proper pour (especially for hef’s).

    Great post again. Keep em coming.

  3. You’re on a roll here. Again a great post. My take on the issue is that for tasting I use a glass that easily holds at least 33cl. It has room to swirl and can hold the aroma’s inside the glass. I nusually never buy beer glasses, but sometimes Belgina beers can have a really beautiful glass. Karmeliet, Orval and others. Those add to the experience due to sheer beauty. In the end you need a functional glass if you’re being serious, otherwise you need a few for the senses…

    1. And honestly, the visual appeal of a beer is a huge part of the sensory experience. I guess we use all 5 senses when drinking. I mean, I get excite when you pop the top off of a bottle and you hear the “CO2” woosh. And I do love my Chimay glass, I love the nucleation in the bottom.

  4. I’m with everyone else… great post! As far as what type of glassware I own, I have several shaker/pint glasses, a growing collection of tulip glasses, and 2 English pint glasses (nonic?). Do they really affect the flavor? No clue. From a purely “Wow that beer is pretty!” perspective, the tulip is best. I also need to pick up one of those big snifter types for the stouts and porters. I get jealous every time I see someone’s stunning beertography! Guess I’m a sucker for a pretty glass. 🙂

    1. I have several different wine glass, a few standard tulips, a few pints, and a few large snifters, although the snifters see most of their work in relation to whiskey. My partner is always complaining about how much glassware I have.

  5. Awesome post! I just started following you, and am very new to the world of craft beers. In the past couple of months I’ve noticed so many mistakes made by poor bar servers. I’ve seen them get yelled at by patrons if there is a head on their beers, and I’ve seen them serve in chilled glasses while sitting side by side with a friend who home-brews. We just cringed and smiled! People just don’t know what they are missing sometimes I guess. I have a pretty decent selection of glasses, but sadly my favorite is still my 24 ounce mug!

    1. I haven’t actually tried one. I understand the principle that was used to create it. It provides a bowl for gathering aroma, a trumpeted top to allow you to stick your nose and to drink. It has a nucleation at the bottom to stimulate CO2 release. All good things. In principle, it should be a sound choice.

  6. Again, great post. I recently listened to an archived episode of Basic Brewing Radio that organized an experiment with Chris Colby from Brew Your Own: http://www.byo.com/blogs/science-ill-drink-to-that-.html

    The episode can be listened to here: http://is.gd/lLQYN0

    If I remember correctly, the general gist was that a chalice/goblet was found to be the ideal glassware due to the reasons you spell out here. If the glass didn’t have etching, the beer was able to hold its carbonation levels for a greater amount of time, too.

    1. I like the etching. It makes the beer throw more of its carbonation so it keeps a better head. It may make the beer go flat eventually, but I don’t need to drink a beer over 4 hours. I’ve sipped a beer over the period of 2 hours and had no problem with my etched glass making the beer go flat.l

  7. You had me until the last paragraph. Especially this:

    “The stem allows you to hold the glass without smudging it and ruining your view”

    Im sorry, but that is one of the most pretentious, ridiculously beer snobby things I have ever read.

    Your immediate go to for a wine glass (which I can’t argue work, stemless wine glasses were my go to for a couple months before I built up my glassware collection) and the glaring lack of inclusion of snifters stood out to me. You mention tulips, which I’m surprised isn’t your immediate go to. So I guess while I agree with the overall tone of your post, the last paragraph just doesn’t sit well with me.

    1. I was merely offering some of the various reasons one may use a wine glass. I actually do use a nice crystal tulip I got at Sierra Nevada years ago as my main tasting glass. That ways all beers are treated equally for review. I usually use a wine glass when I visit friends since that’s the best glass available. Most people have shaker pints or wine glasses. That’s the main suggestions for why it’s a great choice. The shape is good, and it’s ubiquitous.

      As far as “beer snobbery,” that’s more of an attitude towards other. Out in the world, I try to be a friendly beer ambassador because I want people to learn about and enjoy craft beer. But when I write stuff, I try to present all the various reasons something may be an advantage or disadvantage. Using the stem to keep smudges off your bowl is your choice, but it is a mechanical advantage of the stem, as well as keeping body heat transfer to your liquid to a minimum.

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