Proper and appropriate glassware is as much a part of the craft beer experience as the product itself. Every fan of craft beer has shelves full of branded glasses of various shapes and sizes, promotional giveaways from bars, restaurants, breweries and distributors.
There is an existing quasi-science to drinking glassware. A large part of craft beer is experiential, including sight and aroma as well as taste and texture and environment. Depending on the particular beer style—with some more aromatic than others—a properly shaped serving glass can enhance the drinking experience or likewise cripple it by hampering the delivery of volatile product to the appropriate sensory receptors.
Or so the theory goes. Of course, there is little to no actual science to back up these claims of specialized glass design, that one curve of the stemware funnels flavor elements to your palate better than another.
Bunk, I say. To all of it—well, most of it.
I am not discounting the huge role that aroma plays in the sensation of taste and flavor detection. This is an established scientific fact, with various analyses of our mouth, palate and sinuses showing the interaction with our sensory apparatus and our environment. Nor am I denying that (to a degree) a longer, extended glass with a narrowing rim can serve to funnel aromatic element (to a degree) into a finite opening to which the nose and mouth are optimally presented. To the extent that a wine glass or snifter is superior to a diner’s ceramic coffee mug, this point I concede.
I have long maintained only a few absolute craft beer axioms, one of which is this: Good craft beer shines no matter the vessel in which it is served. Branded Belgian crystal, the standard shaker pint, a wooden stein or a goatskin bag—a world-class beer will be a substantial sensory experience regardless of the serving method or obscure and specialized shape of the glass, mug or stoneware into which it is poured. One cannot forget that iconic scene at the end of Sideways (2004) where Paul Giamatti enthusiastically drinks an obsessively prized 1961 Chateau Cheval Blanc out of a styrofoam cup in a fast food restaurant. This I believe to be true.
Good craft beer shines no matter the vessel in which it is served.
Stemware is often lauded for its construction of keeping our warm-blooded hands away from the alcohol, thus preventing the transfer of heat that otherwise raises the serving temperature of the beverage. The thermodynamics behind this may be true; however, a warming beer is part of the drinking experience. Craft beers have a dynamic story to be told, from freshly chilled pour to the last lukewarm sip, and their chemistry and character may change accordingly. Many beers begin poorly yet finish triumphantly (and vice versa), as more flavor elements come available and others subside as the beverage warms to room temperature.
There also exists the marketing aspect: Does this particular beer taste better if the logo on the glass matches the brewer? Where does physiology end and psychology begin? If our perception of branded glassware genuinely enhances the experience, then that is valid but hardly objective. Marketing is marketing and its effects on the consumer are well-documented, but here we stray into an area of personal judgment and subjective effectiveness.
In the interests of safety and sanitation, many bars, pubs and breweries began using disposable food-grade plastic cups during last year’s pandemic and related serving restrictions. I believe this stripped away our established prejudices about glassware, as no one balked at the mass-produced plastic serving vessels. To the contrary: Unhindered by inconsistent washing and sanitation practices, each pour in a virgin plastic cup was assured to be free of lingering detergents and oils. The nose was amply present from the standardized wide-mouthed cup, and the tasting experience none the diminished.
Even more reliable was the freedom from nonstandard serving sizes provided by off-the-shelf plastic cups. Long has the commercial market been drifting away from the standard shaker-style pint glass. “Cheater” pints are favored by many establishments (with a thicker base, holding only 14 ounces instead of the defined 16), or a smaller Willi Becher or nonic-style glassware providing an elegant yet also reduced pour of 14 ounces. On this front, commercial plastic cups mostly held the line with their industry-standard 16 ounces.
Fanciful branded glassware is a fun hobby but do not be fooled into thinking an elite serving ritual is always required for the best experience of a quality craft beer. Plastic pint cups cannot lie, and the truth always tastes best.