Taste gets all the attention, but great beer really can delight four of the five senses.
There’s a beer’s color and clarity, beckoning from the glass. There’s aroma, where a deep inhale can hint at the flavor to come or bring wonders of its own. There’s flavor, of course, tickling the taste buds. But after the sip, there’s also how a beer feels in your mouth, dry or creamy, thin or full, fizzy or flat.
Brewers put a lot of effort into each one of these dimensions of a beer, so if you’re really going to appreciate beer, you’ve got to stop drinking it out of the bottle or can. Without a pour into a glass, you’re almost entirely ignoring sight and smell, and shortchanging flavor to boot, because a large portion of taste is derived from smell.
“Glassware is key nowadays when it comes to beer,” Julia Herz, craft beer program director for the Brewers Association, said in a video on craftbeer.com. “It’s not imperative, but would you drink wine out of the bottle? No. The same treatment and respect should be done for craft beer.”
So, the first step is using a glass. Any (clean) glass is better than the container your beer came in, but the right kind of glass can enhance the experience further.
There are a multitude of different fancy beer glasses, many of them traditionally tied to certain beer styles or geographical groups of styles. But the key factor that makes some glasses better than others is simple: fluting, or inward tapering, near the top of the glass helps concentrate a beer’s aroma.
And yet, if you order a beer in most bars and restaurants, you’re likely to get it in a glass never intended for drinking: the shaker pint glass. That straight-sloped, conical glass began as a cocktail shaker and gained favor as a serving vessel because it’s cheap, durable and stackable — a throwback to the industrial beer era when “experiencing” a beer was as common as twerking and planking.
California’s legendary Russian River Brewing, source of the renowned Pliny the Elder India pale ale, is so anti-shaker glass that it has an imprint of improper and proper glassware on the corks that close up many of its fancier bottles, with a big X through the outline of the shaker.
“The glass you get in most bars in America is actually one of the worst you can use for a beer tasting,” Russian River founder Vinnie Cilurzo said in the craftbeer.com video.
Some beer bars go all out on glassware, stocking dozens of options that traditionally match whatever style of beer you might order. Here in Madison, The Malt House has the most expansive glassware inventory I’ve seen, with several dramatic-looking glasses paired with specific beers, many of them meant to catch the eye as much as enhance the drinking experience.
The Pauwel Kwak glass, for example, is 2 feet tall and thin, with a bulb at the bottom that necessitates a wooden apparatus to hold the glass upright. This was functional when it was served in 18th century Belgian stagecoaches, but the reason it exists today is because it looks cool, drawing attention to the beer and its drinker.
Proper glassware does not need to go this far. And in the spirit of the imminent holiday gift season, I’m here to offer a practical, affordable solution to your loved one’s improper glassware problem: The Libbey Craft Brew Sampler set of six glasses.
Yes, that’s a naked product plug, because I got two sets of these glasses the year I became the Beer Baron and I love them. I had an exceedingly difficult time finding local stores that carried quality beer glasses without logos — a concern for the pictures for this column — although retailers have shown signs of catching on in the 3½ years since. In that time, I’ve only lost one glass — a tulip, cracked in the dishwasher — despite, uh, heavy use. And for the price — $20 at many online outlets — the set has a good variety of versatile, functional and attractive glasses.
Let’s take a look at the different glasses in this set — and two others I wish were in it.
Nonic pint glass
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This is my workhorse. Somewhat similar to the shaker glass, the nonic (“no-nick”) glass has a broader top than bottom, so it’s stackable, which wins points in the food service industry, but it has a little flare on the neck that helps retain the beer’s aroma, although not as much as some of the other glasses we’ll see below. This glass is English in origin, so it’s traditionally paired with styles like brown ale, pale ale, porter and IPA. If a beer is really special, though, I’m looking for a glass that focuses aroma better. Its large volume has made it useful in my home also as a water glass, if you’re into that sort of thing.
No other glass in my cupboard says “I’m a beer geek” more than the tulip glass, but that distinctive stem and the dramatic shape have purpose. The stem minimizes warming hand-to-glass contact. The shape preserves the beer’s head and allows the aromas to be concentrated at the inward taper while also providing an easier-to-drink outward taper at the top. Libbey calls this dandiest of beer glasses a Belgian ale glass, but I find it also works well for heavy-aroma beers such as IPAs and stouts.
This isn’t quite a true goblet, which tends to be heavier, with a broader mouth and less inward taper — all reasons I like this glass more. The stem and inward taper are similar to the tulip, but that taper continues all the way to the mouth, preserving those aromas. Libbey calls this a porter/stout glass, focusing on color, to which I’d add amber for the same reason and IPA, for the aroma-enhancing qualities.
This tall, slender glass was developed to showcase its namesake beer’s light color and effervescence. And the bubbles do look really good in there, but I find it a little too teetery to use it for much more than its traditional pairing.
One of the most distinctive glasses in the beer world, the tall, high-volume weizen glass evolved to hold German wheat beers. It’s noted for its height and large volume — Libbey’s elegant version is 23 ounces, the largest in the set, thanks to an oversized bowl — which were designed to show off the hefeweizen’s trademark cloudiness and promote the yeasty, fluffy white head. A shorter and much smaller version of this glass became the standard “tapper” glass in Wisconsin bars several generations back. Loyal readers will know I don’t do much recreational drinking of wheat beers, and the weizen glass isn’t versatile enough to get much use with other styles I drink more often.
This might be the best beer glass in the world. The Willi Becher is also known as the German pint, and while it looks pretty straightforward, there’s a barely noticeable inward taper at the top that does that aroma thing really well. There’s no stem, so it’s a little more practical than the goblet or tulip, and it’s a little less fancy, which I usually consider a plus. Many beer bars use the Willi Becher as their default serving vessel for a 16- or 20-ounce pour. It’s a tapered variant of the stange, a glass traditionally used to serve German bocks, kölsches, altbiers, but I use it for just about anything.
As much as I like the Libbey set, it really whiffs by not including these two classic beer glasses:
The shapely Irish pint — most of them you’ve seen probably had the Guinness logo on the side instead of the Leinie’s one above — succeeds where the shaker fails because of that gentle curve that usually flares inward at the very top.
I turn to one of my snifters — both have logos, so I’ve never used them for column photos — when I break out a really special beer. The snifter focus beer aromas more than any of the other glasses here, and the smaller size is helpful with high-alcohol (and, generally, high flavor) beers. It’s a mainstay of any good beer bar, particularly for 6-, 8- or 10-ounce pours.