Does Fancy Glassware Really Matter?

December 04, 2018

By Gray Chapman, December 04, 2018

Twenty years ago, when Dave Blanchard was traveling through Europe, he realized he was rarely drinking out of the same type of glass twice. In places like Belgium and Germany, bartenders paid a fastidious level attention to glassware in a way he’d never before experienced at bars in the U.S., where the shaker pint still reigned supreme. Instead of a one-beer-fits-all approach, these pubs stocked a myriad of glassware of all shapes and sizes, meant to enhance the individual drinking experience of every single bottle and draught beer.

That level of detail would become a fundamental principle at Brick Store Pub, the Decatur, Georgia beer bar he and his partners opened in 1997. “We weren’t going to do pitchers of beer, and we weren’t going to do shaker pint glasses,” he says. Instead, every single beer served at Brick Store is served in a specific glass from said beer’s brewery. “Not an easy thing to do when you have 30 different draft beers and several hundred bottle products, and every time you sell one of those products, you gotta have a system where the glass for that particular beer is easily accessible and well stocked and organized,” Blanchard says, adding that their glassware inventory now numbers in the thousands. In other words, it’s a huge pain in the ass, but he wouldn’t have it any other way. “It’s a detail I’m very proud of.”

But for the average consumer, does specialty glassware make a difference?

Glassware as Tradition

Beyond the meticulous focus on matching each beer to a brewery-specific glass, Blanchard says certain beer styles are just meant for certain vessels (and vice versa). The shape and size of particular beer glasses, he explains, was initially a strategic decision on behalf of the brewmasters, who designed their brewery’s proprietary glassware specifically to enhance the flavor of the beer.

Tulip-shaped glasses like goblets and chalices, Blanchard says, were developed by Belgian brewmasters not only to direct the beer toward specific tastebuds on the tongue—an idea which is, in fact, based on scientific fact—but also to allow for easier swirling of the beer and sniffing of the dense concentration of aromas in the head. According to Imbibe, the tall, tapered glasses used for hefeweizens were developed in Bavaria to show off the beer’s iconic dense head as well as its carbonation. And in the Czech Republic, the slender pilsner glass was largely developed with sight, in addition to taste and scent, in mind: rather than hiding the beer in an opaque mug, the glass enabled the golden hue and effervescence to really shine, according to Asheville-based beer educators Brew-Ed. A short stem allowed drinkers to hold the glass without transferring too much heat from their hand.

Just as one would never expect a decent wine bar to serve a Chianti Classico in a coffee mug, you’ll never catch a Brick Store bartender pouring your pilsner or Hefeweizen into a pint glass.”

Nowadays, custom glassware is usually more of an opportunity for branding than a vessel engineered for maximum beer enjoyment, but a few breweries have continued in the tradition of developing proprietary glassware to specifically enhance the aromas and tastes of their beers, from the Dogfish Head IPA Glass—“created to support the complex and volatile aromas” associated with the style—to Sam Adams’ Perfect Pint Glass.

It’s perhaps telling that several glassware styles were developed not just with taste and scent in mind, but also with sight. While it’s important for drinkers to sniff out those clove and banana notes in their hefe, and taste them too, a drink’s appearance can be just as influential an ingredient. To that end, just as one would never expect a decent wine bar to serve a Chianti Classico in a coffee mug, you’ll never catch a Brick Store bartender pouring your pilsner or Hefeweizen into a pint glass, or serving your IPA or pale ale into a pilsner glass. You’re paying not just for the beer, and not just for the care and craft that went into the beer, but also for the experience. Presentation is fundamental to that. This fastidious focus on detail, says Blanchard, “shows that you're taking enormous care into what you're doing.” Why sell yourself—and by proxy, your brewer, your guest, your bar—short by doing otherwise?

Ironically, as I’m speaking to him on the phone, Blanchard is posted up at a bar inside the Atlanta airport, where a bartender has served his Newcastle Brown Ale in a Blue Moon hefeweizen glass. Heresy!

Glassware as a Fussy Turnoff  

Josh Allard, a national account manager for Ballast Point, is a self-appointed advocate for shaker pints and believes that fancy glassware really doesn’t make a difference—at least not to the vast majority of people drinking out of it. “Frankly, about .01 percent of the population is going to be able to tell any sort of difference in the flavor and experience of the beer based on what glass it's in,” Allard tells me. While he admits there’s a time and place for certain glassware—i.e. with high-gravity beers—he sees craft beer’s kink for specialty glassware largely as a barrier to entry for the uninitiated.

When you start talking about how you can't appreciate good beer unless you're putting it in the right glass, you are raising the barrier to entry to craft beer.”

“When you start talking about how you can't appreciate good beer unless you're putting it in the right glass, you are raising the barrier to entry to craft beer,” he says. “To me, I think that's kind of against the entire point.” Finger-wagging someone for drinking a hefeweizen from a pint glass is, from his perspective, antithetical to the populist spirit of craft beer—and doesn’t exactly give off the most accessible, approachable vibe to newcomers. “When we say stuff like that, all we're doing is giving people a reason to stick with their Bud Light.”

He espouses the gospel of the shaker pint as an ideal, efficient, and near-universal beer vessel: not only are they stackable, versatile, and easy to wash, but they’re sturdy, too. “They’re not going to break every time someone cheers-es with them,” Allard says. (Incidentally, some consumers I talked to cited this very quality as a reason they too prefer plain, unassuming pints over dainty goblets.)

For the pro-glassware constituency, the idea of serving a pilsner or a Bavarian wheat beer in a plain pint glass may seem like a small crime, a watering-down of the experience, a transgression against the brewer. Allard worries that this very line of thinking not only plays into the very stereotypes craft beer has been trying to shake for decades — it also falls into the same trap that made wine such an exclusive, snooty, fussy club. “This is the very thing that was supposed to be different about craft beer and wine. Wine, we know, has been treated as elitist and that you have to be a level-15 master somm in order to really ‘get’ it,” says Allard. “And craft beer was supposed to be for the people.”

Illustration by Remo Remoquillo

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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