Almost no one would drink a decent cabernet from the bottle. Most wouldn’t even pour it into a tumbler. In the popular imagination, wine deserves a proper glass.
But what about beer?
For too many people, beer is something to be consumed straight from the bottle or the can. For relatively bland, mass-produced lagers, this method may suffice. But modern craft beers have an aromatic complexity that rivals or even surpasses that of wine. When drinking from the bottle, much of that complexity is lost. A bottle of fine beer is just as deserving of a proper glass as that cabernet.
Proper glassware affects a beer in many ways, from enhancing the sensory experience to showcasing its eye-catching appearance. An open or closed shape expands or constricts release of aromatic essences. A handle keeps the hand’s heat away from the beer, while a large bowl and a stem encourage cupping that gently warms it. An inward tapering top keeps the foam collected and dense, enhancing its aesthetic appeal.
Until recently, wine glass design has been well ahead of beer. Indeed, wine glasses make excellent vessels for tasting beer. Wine glass makers such as the Austrian firm Riedel apply science and physics to craft glasses that perfectly display the characteristics of particular wine varietals. But now beer glassmakers are upping their game, using that same science in collaboration with brewers to make glassware appropriate to specific beer styles.
The trend started in 2007 with the Samuel Adams Perfect Pint Glass, a collaboration of Boston Beer Co. and the German glassmaker Rastal. Created to showcase the brewery’s flagship Boston Lager, the glass has etching on the bottom that stimulates aroma-propelling bubbles, a feature that has become standard in high-tech beer glassware. The rounded shape collects aromas, and the inward tapered top funnels them to the drinker’s nose. An outward turned lip delivers beer to the front of the tongue to highlight malty sweetness. This glass works well with a variety of lighter, malt-forward beers.
Riedel’s subsidiary company Spiegelau has worked with different breweries on three collaborative beer glass designs. The first was made especially for India pale ale. That was followed by a glass for stouts and one for wheat beers.
For the IPA glass, Spiegelau designers worked with Dogfish Head and Sierra Nevada, two breweries well-known for hop-forward beers. The glass has a narrow, ribbed bottom that serves to aerate the beer, agitating hop aromatics out of it with each sip. Aromas are collected in the rounded middle portion of the glass. The tall, tapered upper glass acts, in the words of Dogfish Head owner Sam Calagione, like an “olfactory cannon,” concentrating and propelling the fragrance from the glass to your nose.
The stout glass was designed with Left Hand Brewing Co. and Rogue Ales. It, too, has a narrow bottom that drives foam and aromas into a wide, inward-tapered bowl. The glass does a spectacular job of concentrating and funneling the roasty aromas of stouts and porters. In my own comparative taste tests using Left Hand Nitro Milk Stout, the stout glass exploded with olfactory satisfaction. Overall aromas were far richer and more nuanced than with other glasses. The stout glass brought out textured tones of cafe mocha with subtle dry-roasted, Oreo-cookie chocolate. Flavors were better balanced with added dry, roasted notes offsetting the beer’s sweetness.
The wheat beer glass, created with Bell’s Brewery, is designed specifically for American- and Belgian-style wheat beers. It has a similar look to the others, but with a bigger bowl to showcase the bready and fruity aromas of those styles. And it does that in spades. The big bowl delivers layers of saltine-cracker-like wheat, tart fruit and zesty spice that other glasses just can’t match. I find the flavors, though, to be flattened, with the zip of fruit and spice de-emphasized.
Michael Agnew is a certified cicerone (beer-world version of sommelier) and owner of A Perfect Pint. He conducts private and corporate beer tasting events in the Twin Cities, and can be reached at michael@ aperfectpint.net.