Monday, May 23, 2011

Beer glasses, bringing heaven to your lips

A glass is not just a glass… Every wine drinker can tell you that the shape of the glass matters, and they have a whole series of different types to go with a range of wines. No, this is not just another example of wine snobbery, it has actual scientific facts as foundation! The shape helps define how much foam is produced or kept, how the aromas are released, and this has a tremendous impact on your beer drinking experience. Think about that time you had a cold. Your nose completely stuffed. No food could bring you comfort, it all tasted bland! This is because our perception of taste is linked to the smell of the food (some illustrious and rather notorious exceptions notwithstanding, we all know those cheeses…).
A great visual, from, with a quick and interesting overview!
The foam acts as a net, that keeps the volatile elements in the beer trapped: oils from the hops, alcohol, esters, spices, they all release their own aroma, and dependent on the style of beer, you want more or less of these aromas. The tulip glass, for example (think Duvel), helps to maintain a good head on heavier malty beers, while keeping a lot of the aromas in the glass, to highlight them. The typical ‘Guinness’-glass on the other hand, has a completely different set of features. The smaller area at the bottom, where you hold the glass, decreases the heat that is being transferred from your hand to the beer, so it stays cool longer. The wide mouth helps for the frothy head, and makes it easy to sip and drink from. A glass we all know very well, is the American pint glass. They are cheap to make, easy to store, and the wide opening enables easy drinking. On the other hand, they have none of the features that help create or maintain a foam head (such as a bulge or bowl area to restore the head), or to trap or direct the released aromas. In short, the perfect glass for the mass produced American lager.
There are now easily 10 to 15 different types of glassware for beer that can be distinguished. Each has their own characteristics, befitting distinctive styles. But it is not all about the science of aroma and foam bubbles. The eye also wants some candy! Just to give one example, the bevels in the traditional beer mug were introduced when amber beers became popular, accentuating and highlighting the deep color and hues in the beer. The logos also became part of the attraction, giving each brewery a chance to showcase their beers, even at the bar: as you walk in, you can see what everyone else is drinking, and perhaps see their own special glass, sparking this longing for a sip of their brews…
My collection so far, with a glass for each of the Trappist beers in front
Beer glasses have come a long way. From rough clay pots, from which people in the ancient Middle East drank through straws to avoid the leftover chunks from the brewing process, to rough earthen beakers, in the middle ages wooden cups, a great intermezzo when the Vikings ruled the seas with drinking horns and, so they whisper, skulls, to leather pouches that were stitched together and lined with tar to make them impermeable (unbreakable, they were perfect for bars: they could not become weapons in a fight… Also, because you cannot put it down, you have to drink it quickly!). Around the 1500’s the first real glass beer vessels became common, but still expensive. Stone mugs were much cheaper to make, and offered other advantages (keeping the beer cool, easy decoration possibilities, easier to make than glass,…). There are a lot of reasons you can find about the lids on the steins (from the German word for stone, hard fired clay), going from a simple way to keep falling leaves and insects out of the beer, or that they were introduced at a time the bubonic plague decimated Europe, to keep flies from dropping in and making the drinker sick.
Another great beer vessel that developed was the pewter tankard. With or without the glass bottom, it is part of English ale traditions, to the point that morris dancers to this day still each have their own tankard they carry around as they make their dancing rounds of the pubs. One of the reasons given for the glass bottom, were the hard-handed methods of the crimps in ‘recruiting’ seamen for the British navy. Without telling who they were, they would offer free drinks, but with a coin (the enlistment bonus) dropped in the tankard. Accepting the drink, the unfortunate fellows would also unknowingly accept the enlistment bonus, and subsequently be coerced into service. So the glass bottom allowed a quick way to check if they could accept the free drink or if they should pass the opportunity to travel the world for years on end.
With the industrialization came bigger breweries, new and better ways to distribute beer, and cheaper ways to make beer glasses. New styles of beer developed, and new glassware followed suit. Some fun items, such as boot shaped glasses, to the very unique ‘Kwak’ glass (made for coachmen, to help them have a beer and a holder that would not spill as they drove the coach), or chalice shaped glasses for the Trappist monks who preferred a drinking vessel they were used to, name it, they probably made it at some point. A great variety to showcase an immense range of beers, highlight their properties, aromas and tastes, and looking fabulous at the same time. But let all this not leave you thirsty: grab a glass, fill it with beer, look at it, get a whiff of the aroma, and take that first sip into heaven. All that, to give you that glorious experience you just lived again: Beer, well done.

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