A Simple Glassware System for Beer

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In an earlier post I alluded to how, as an enjoyer of beer, I’d like to see more places in the Bay Area serve beer in better glasses. It’s a bit off to me that, in a culture that values food and flavor as much as the Bay does, so many otherwise thoughtful places still serve beer in the American shaker pint — a glass that does nothing to enhance the character or enjoyment of craft beer. 

On the other hand, of course, nearly every beer style has its own “appropriate” glassware, which means that a bar or restaurant with even a small rotating tap list would have to stock dozens and dozens of different types of glasses to stay “correct”, and very few places could justify that on an operational basis.

The cost and space requirements of having a gazillion types of glasses was a concern for us while opening The Half Orange last year. This led us to develop the following, simple and not very expensive glassware system. I think that this glassware protocol — combined with keeping draft lines clean, using a glass rinser, and training all beer servers on a proper pour with head — makes for a phenomenal beer drinking experience at only the slightest additional cost compared to using American shaker pints. I’m sharing it here as a template that any restaurant or bar can use to improve the beer drinking experience for their customers without having to make many operational changes.

GLASS STYLES AND BEER STYLES

Historically, most beer styles developed slowly in specific towns or regions. Presumably the glass styles in those areas developed along with the beers, and the end result is that, in the broadest sense, the “proper” glassware for a given beer is the glass used by the people in the area that beer style comes from, when they drink that style if beer.

Fortunately, because the glass and the beer style evolved together, this historic pairing of beer and glass usually makes for an ideal drinking experience. For instance, the long narrow glass of the Pilsner beer functions like a Champagne flute — the minimal surface area helps retain carbonation and a cold serving temperature, which in turn highlights both the dry crispness of the beer and its subtle aromatics. Meanwhile the tulip shape of the Belgian style allows the drinker to more fully experience its aromatic complexity while also allowing the beer to “open up” in the same way a wine does when released from its bottle.

Now, in the current craft beer world, there are many beers being brewed that don’t easily map to a historic style — either the beer is so changed from the base style as to be effectively different (i.e., West Coast IPA), it’s a hybrid style (IPA brewed with Belgian yeast), or it’s something so far out of left field that it’s hard to place (Ale Industries’ delicious “Spring Fling” iced mocha beer).

Even in this case, however, the basic way a beer server would usually select a glass is to map the beer as best as possible to a known style, and then serve the beer in the glass associated with that style. And this method works really well! In my experience, using this method almost always gets you to a glass that is either the best for serving that beer, or very good for serving that beer. (I will confess that Spring Fling stumped me to the point that I had to do a taste test on different glasses before serving the beer; the Belgian tulip won out purely on the basis of taste experience.)

GLASSWARE TYPES

At your friendly big-city beer palace, it’s not unusual for them to maintain dozens and dozens of styles of glasses. Sometimes they’ll even buy the glasses from the brewery, including the logo of the beer on the glass so you know you’re getting the brewery’s choice. I think that’s fun, it’s a treat to drink a Hopf hefeweizen from a Hopf glass. (That said, American craft breweries in my experience don’t tend to pair their branded glassware with their beer styles, they usually just have one style they like.)

But having a raft of different glassware types isn’t really practical for most of us, so I’m just going to focus on a few important ones.

THE AMERICAN SHAKER PINT

  

First of all, here is the bane of my beer-drinking existence — the ubiquitous American shaker pint.

This glass is beloved by bars for the following reasons: it’s hella cheap, it’s strong and resistant to breaking, it stacks very high and requires little footprint, and it’s essential for making mixed drinks (that’s why it’s called a “shaker” pint, it’s designed to be part of a shaker in cocktail making). Note that none of these reasons include “it makes a great beer drinking experience.” It doesn’t, it’s just the worst.

The shaker pint maximizes oxygen exposure, causing delicate beers to lose their carbonation and cold beers to warm up quickly; it minimizes head retention, killing the aromatics of bigger or more complex beers; and the thick glass also reduces the flavor of the beer (I don’t understand this on a scientific level, but I notice it with thick wine glasses too, I think it’s something about how much of your palate can come in contact with the liquid when you’re mostly sucking on a windshield).

If you’re going to make one change to your glassware program, simply replacing American shaker pints with any thin rimmed glass will make the biggest positive difference.

Anecdote: before local craft beer was ubiquitous in Mexican wine country, many of my favorite restaurants would serve their beer — all domestic macrobrews such as Victoria or Modelo — in large wine glasses. Even this simple substitution made for a superior drinking experience to the American shaker pint, and depending on the likelihood of customer resistance I’d recommend that wine-centric places just serve beer in wine glasses, if the alternative due to space reasons is the shaker pint.

PUB GLASS, PILSNER AND TULIP

What we settled on for our simple glassware program is to use three archetypical glasses: 1) the English pub glass, 2) the Pilsner glass, and 3) the tulip. Each glass represents one of the three major classes of beers, respectively: 1) English style ales and their West Coast style descendants; 2) German styles and by extension all lagers; and 3) Belgian styles.

Additionally, these three classes of beer correspond to the three major categories of brewing yeast: ale yeast of the non-Belgian type, lager yeast, and Belgian yeast. Unsurprisingly, the glassware from each region tends to highlight the best parts of the characteristic beer brewed from that region’s yeast. So, lagers’ delicate flavors are protected by the Pilsner glass, while the bigger bowl of the tulip highlights the complex aromatics produced by Belgian yeasts.

 

 Left to right: pub glass, Pilsner, tulip

Because these glasses map indirectly to different yeast, we have re-named the pub glass and tulip in-house as “ale glass” and “Belgian glass”. Probably I should just go ahead re-name the Pilsner glass as a “lager glass” to complete the process. This nomenclature makes it easier for the team to remember which beer goes in which glass — if the beer is an ale, it goes in the ale glass. If it’s brewed with lager yeast — even if it’s a black beer like Death & Taxes — it goes in a pilsner glass. If it’s a Belgian style, including sours and fruit beers, it goes in the Belgian glass.

Certain mapping gets a little more complex. Hefeweizen style wheat-beers, being a German style beer typically served in tall skinny glasses, gets a Pilsner. Kölsch is an ale brewed in the style of a light German lager, and we give it a Pilsner glass; while California Common is a lager brewed at ale temperatures, and we also give it a Pilsner glass. In both of these latter cases, the delicate nature of the beer trumps the question of whether it’s at base an ale or lager.

Other one-off style choices I’ve made: Scottish styles, traditionally served in a Thistle glass, gets a tulip on the basis that it’s the closest shape. Belgian-style witbier get a tulip, too, in my world, even though a Pilsner might be just as appropriate. I like the way that the tulip glass emphasizes the spice notes of the witbier (and also of Saisons).

We chose tulips that are a little smaller than our other glasses — they are about 13.2 ounces rather than the 16 ounces of our ale and Pilsner glasses. Once the head is calculated out, our tulip pour is about 11 ounces (we advertise it as 10) and our ale and pilsner pour is about 15 ounces (we advertise it at 14). I like having smaller tulips because many Belgian-style beers tend to be a little more intense — and a little more expensive — than other styles, so a slightly smaller portion size is more enjoyable both for the drinking and the wallet.

For similar reasons, we’ll put almost any beer over 8% ABV in a tulip, even if it’s an IPA type or a lager (typically that would be a double or triple IPL). I just think when you’re drinking a 10% beer, 11 ounces per serving is plenty, it’s almost as much alcohol as two glasses of European white wine. Plus beers this strong tend to have strong, complex aromatics and show best at warmer temperatures, both of which play to the strengths of the tulip glass.

DOING IT YOURSELF

The specific glassware we use are the following: 

English Pub (Ale) Glass: Libbey 14806HT Nonic 16 oz pub glass

Pilsner Glass: Cardinal 4900 Arcoroc 16 oz Martigues

Tulip: Bormioli Executive 13.2 oz tulip

You can typically buy these glasses via special order from any restaurant supply or tableware store.

Additionally, I recommend always using a glass rinser before serving. You can get these through Micromatic or your draft system installer can get it (and install it) for you.

Also, of course, no matter how good your glassware is, you’ll still have quality problems if your lines are dirty or your team isn’t pouring beers well. So it’s important to stay on top of those issues as well. But if you get all three of these elements in place, I guarantee that your customers will notice how much better their beers are!

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