On Beer Glassware: Good is Good, But Bad is Still Okay

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I’ve always been skeptical of Fancy Beer Glasses. I saw them as high-margin accessories, sold for the sake of exclusivity and not necessarily with the best intentions of the beer in mind. Could beer really taste better in an expensive glass? Was this a scientific fact, or was it just the assumption that “more expensive” is synonymous with “better quality?”

I’ve been skeptical, but I’ve also been a part of the culture. Sure - I’ve had fancy beer glasses in the past. I loved them. They were comfortable, and I’ll admit they make me feel fancy. But I’d use them with caution. (Let’s be honest. Nothing says “arrogance” like pulling out a set of special glasses.)

Also, I was never fully convinced. Beers are beers - some are better and some are not - but taste is subjective. You like what you like, regardless of the glass in which it lives, so what’s the point?

It was with all of this skepticism that I walked into the party room at Tinner’s last week to attend a beer/glass pairing seminar put on by the folks at J.J’s Wine, Spirits & Cigars and led by a sales rep from Spiegelau - a company owned by Riedel, the OTHER fancy glass name you might know. The set-up: four Spiegelau glasses (a tall wheat beer glass, a standard lager glass, a "stemmed pilsner" stout glass and a newcomer: the sought after IPA glass) and a standard branded pint glass, which we learned was actually a “shaker glass,” and was for the rest of the night referred to as a “joker” glass.

As in, you’re a joker if you drink out of it. (I know.)

We passed around the beer, pouring half into the “right” glass and half into the “joker” glass. We sampled them both - first from the Spiegelau glass, then from the standard pint - and we would be helped along by the Spiegelau sales rep. “Do you taste the chocolate?” “A bit of caramel.” “Citrus and grassy.” The joker glass would get rough treatment. “Have you ever been to a house that has cats? Tastes like that, right?” “Musty and old.” “Flat and gross.”

We learned about the science of the glass - how smoother and thinner glass leads to better beer. We learned about every nook and cranny of the process, at each step our fearless leader reminding us how advanced the Spiegelau method is and how important it is to drink only out of these fancy glasses. We were given planters - PLANTERS!!! - to dump our “joker” glass beer into. “Once it goes into one of those glasses, you can’t save it. You might as well dump it out.”

The bad part is that, if there were any misconceptions about how snobby these glasses could feel, the seminar did little to dissuade them. These are snobby glasses. These are glasses of the well-heeled. These are glasses for the upper crust.

The good part is that, as arrogant as the fancy glass treatment sounded, he was accurate on several counts. Because the thick glass of your standard pint glass pulls coolness away from your beer through conduction, it really is a lesser alternative to the thin Spiegelau glasses. Additionally, well constructed glasses help keep a beer’s natural carbonation going, leading to a constant bubbling that provides more head, not to mention more aroma, which makes up a huge percentage of our ability to taste beer.

Those fancy IPA glasses? They’re pretty cool. Our IPAs DID taste better out of those glasses; the ridges on the bottom swooshed up our beer just enough to let loose with some righteous hop aroma. Those snifter-style “pilsner” glasses are perfect for thick, heavy stouts and barleywines; the edges curve in to trap what little carbonation a thick beer still retains, and the aroma is pulled in like a heavy blanket on top of that tan head.

But when they say in the class, “Never drink out of the bottle,” I have to call them out. When they talk about bringing your own glasses to a Spiegelau restaurant, I have to shudder. Beer isn’t an exclusive consumable. It’s not caviar. It’s not $100/bottle brandy. It’s beer, and while it has made great bounds in the “acceptability” department, it has not yet crossed over into the land of arrogance and exclusion.

Near the end of his opening pitch, our Spiegelau sales person equated beer to a high definition film. You could watch it on a crappy 1950’s black-and-white tube, or you could watch it on a high-cost 75-inch high definition television. It’s going to be better on the higher-cost television. Your beer will be better in a Spiegelau glass.

That’s not the point, though, is it? Beer can’t be equated to methods and vessels. It’s content. You drink beer because you like how it tastes, not because of the color or presentation. So beer isn’t a high definition film. That’s the wrong metric. Good beer is like Breaking Bad or Arrested Development - highly rated shows that give you great content in addition to good aesthetics. You could watch Breaking Bad on your high definition television, sure. Or, you could watch it with a sub-par connection on Netflix at an airport. Either way, you’re going to love the story - only the visual aspects will suffer.

This is how I feel about these glasses. The beer will be good regardless of what you put it in. But it will be a little better if you put it in the proper glass. Don’t get me wrong: these glasses are fantastic. They are fun. If you know someone who loves beer, you should totally buy him or her some Spiegelau glasses for Christmas.

But don’t think that you aren’t getting the real thing if you don’t use them. Don’t think you need to dump your beer because it’s been tainted by the scratches of your home glassware, or by the glass bottle in which it sat for weeks. Our Spiegelau salesperson kept referring to our pint glass as the “wrong” glass, as if by using it we were somehow committing some atrocity, as if this beer was so fragile and tender that even pouring it into the “wrong” glass would kill the hops and turn it into something equating cat urine.

He told us that beer tastes better in the Spiegelau glasses. And he was completely accurate.

But he wasn’t right.

Good beer is what you make of it. Glass or not, your Zombie Monkey porter is going to be good. Glass or not, your Samuel Adams Cherry Wheat might taste like crayons. Glass or not, “joker” or not, straight from the bottle or not, your favorite beer is going to be your favorite beer.

- Corey Vilhauer