The first time I truly saw the difference that glassware can make to the flavour of a beer was a little over ten years ago. I was living with a friend of mine and, at the end of a long bottling day, I had come home with a couple of staffies* of a pepperberry rye black IPA. My friend is, to this day, more of a Hahn Superdry sort of a chap but he was willing to give this a go. Honestly, I think we were both a little shocked at how much he enjoyed it. This wasn’t an easy-drinker, though it still remains one of my favourite beers. This was a big, viscous, spicy, complex devil of a beer clocking in at 7.3%, dark as pitch and at least as pungent.
*Those bottles that were unfit for commercial release due to, for example, damaged labels, underfilling, etc. that we could take home free after the shift.
And yet he loved it. We drank it from tall bottles until the supply began to run dry. When we were down to one last bottle, I split it into two glasses in the kitchen and brought it back. He took a swig and recoiled as if slapped before asking “what the hell is this? This is undrinkable! Where’s the beer we had before?”
I panicked a little – these were staffies, after all. Perhaps this one had been set aside because it still had line cleaner in it, or came right from the end of the tank and was full of some kind of best-not-thought-about, hop-yeast-hybrid sludge, or maybe it had not met quality control and only found its way into the staffies pile by accident. So I looked very carefully at my own glass. Seemed fine. So I took a sniff. Seemed fine. So I took a sip. Seemed fine. I took his glass. Seemed fine. I asked him what was wrong, and he just couldn’t handle the bitterness. The flavour in general seemed to be overwhelming for him at that point.
I was confused. We’d been drinking this specific batch of brew for the past few hours. I could literally and directly trace its provenance from tank to bottle to hand. Why was he only now finding it unbearable, having loved it so much earlier? Had a build-up of lupulin on his tongue hit critical mass? Why had the flavour suddenly become so rich as to be overwhelming? If the beer was the same, the only other variable was the glass. Could it be that something so simple as using a glass could magnify the flavour so much?
The short answer, it turns out, is yes. The long answer is… well, the rest of this post.
Now, a large part of any hobby or interest is cutting through the wank. There’s such an awful lot of it. Of course, this is by no means restricted to appreciating beer**. So let’s do what we can, and answer the question – glassware; does it really make a difference?
**In fact, almost all of this could easily pertain to any kind of potable – coffee, wine, whiskey. Probably water if you want to get all European about it. Anything, really.
When learning about beer it is likely that early on, someone will try to convince you that beer should always be consumed from a glass. They may then go on to explain why specific beers should be taken from very specific glasses indeed. The idea is severalfold. At its most simple, this allows the volatile compounds that make up the aroma and the flavour of the beer to find their way not only onto your tongue, but also into your nose. This enhances your perception of all the characteristics of the beer. Drinking straight from the source blocks those compounds in; the narrow aperture in the neck of a bottle or the lip of a can prevents those good things from getting out, and doesn’t allow those molecules into your nose. You need them to hit both your nose and tongue to allow you to paint a fuller picture of the flavour of the beer.
Aside from the simple fact that having a greater surface area allows those molecules access to your schnozz and vice versa, by the simple act of pouring they are also actively launched upwards and outwards, ejected by the carbonation, and, for the advanced class, giving your glass a cheeky swirl. That means more aroma, and that means more flavour for you. But there is more to it even than that. Different glasses present a different flavour profile. Which sounds shockingly close to bullshit, but is, in fact, true. One of the most pretentious things I thought I had ever read up to that point in my life was a piece where someone had said something along the lines of ‘I defy you to enjoy a pilsner from a chardonnay glass. It simply can’t be done.’
And it’s… probably not true but has a basis in truth. There are so many different sizes and styles of beer glass – some are to do with branding, some are to do with tradition, some are regional. Most are indifferent. Your average pub, for instance, will probably serve you your lagers and ales, be they Kolsch, sour, stout or IPA in the exact same oh-so-familiar glassware. But some vessels are specifically designed to allow one beer or family of beers to be sampled in its most perfect way. By concentrating, diffusing, or directing the aroma in such a way as to coax out the most from the beer, or contrariwise, to supress or avoid possible nastiness that can be expressed by a beer if it is sampled in the ‘wrong’ glass.
Differently shaped glasses concentrate and direct those aromas more deliberately, in specific ways to show off the unique qualities of a style. Beers with a lighter aroma or less of a focus on aroma, such as rich ales with toffied bodies and jammy notes present more of the qualities of flavour than aroma. As they don’t have flavour profiles reliant on spritzy, highly effervescent, active and agitating aroma molecules, they will be served in glasses that have a big, round belly and a wider aperture, to allow those aromas to collect and be directed into your nose. Beers with a higher emphasis on aroma and the flavours that are best developed that way such as lagers will typically be served in taller glasses with straight sides, because the potent aromas do need to be channelled up, but don’t need to be concentrated in order to be effective. And other styles such as IPAs that are basically a showcase for hop flavours and aromas will be presented in a glass with a bit of a swell and a narrower opening to develop and very lightly concentrate those aromas, but not so much as to make them overpowering. In essence; some glasses gently present you with a beer, some rocket it directly into your face. Believe it or not, this makes some beers taste better than they might otherwise.
So pouring into a glass allows the maximum amount of aroma to reach your nose. Well and good. But this also allows oxygen to begin suffusing the beer, and oxygen is the enemy of beer flavour. Specialised glassware, however, is designed to combat this as well. Nucleated glasses, or drinking vessels made of glass with nucleation points, have been designed in such a way as to cause the formation of bubbles. They do this by giving the dissolved carbon dioxide in the glass at least one point to coax the dissolved gas back out of the liquid and cause the bubbles to form and rise, helping to maintain the head of the beer. They do this by providing some degree of texture on the ordinarily extremely smooth surface of the glass, perhaps with a ‘rough’ spot, or an etched point, or even laser-engraved lines. These rough spots allow the gas a place to form bubbles – this is the ‘nucleation point’ and it too helps to make your beer taste better.
This is because having nucleation points (in addition to the process of transferring the beer from keg, can or bottle into the glass) causes the formation of the ‘head’, which is also pretty important for the fullest experience of beer tasting. The insulating layer of foam seals the flavour-rich beer off from the oxygen-rich atmosphere that is just waiting to rush in and murder said flavour. The prevention of the oxidation allows the beer to taste fresher, longer. For the most part, beer is the opposite of wine in that regard. You typically don’t want to allow a beer to ‘breathe’. That raft of head allows you to sip through it whilst allowing the least amount of oxygen possible to dissolve into the beer to ruin its perky taste with bitter old age.
You see a lot of cultures around the world who really put a lot of stock into the formation of the head of a beer. Japan, for one. If you come from somewhere like Australia where people will happily see you dead in the gutter for handing them a beer with a head over a centimetre thick, you may be a bit shocked to find that the first beer you order in Japan arrives with foam making up about a third of the glass. Germany is similar. And anyone who has been to bistros in France or Belgium (or the old Belgian Bier Cafe) may have observed the ritual of elaborately over-pouring the beer and smoothing the top over with a specialised palette knife in a glass of water next to the taps. This is not, as might be surmised, to present the crispest pour of beer (though that is a part of it) but rather, the thin layer of water over the top of the foam allows the head to be retained even longer. The water layer protects the foam layer, which protects the beer from oxidisation.
Or so the theory goes.
If this all still sounds a bit too much like wank for you to get on board, I will urge you to do one simple experiment. Take a beer – any beer you like – and take three differently shaped glasses. Could be anything. A straight sided old Nutella glass, a nicely concave wine glass and a tumbler. Or a champagne flute, a pint glass and a mug. Whatever they are, just pick three glasses that have uniquely shaped profiles, and pour your bottle or can equally into those glasses. Bonus points if you have something that has a mouthpiece, like a water bottle or a port sipper, and of course you can always stack up the beer in its bottle or can against the glasses to see the difference in the flavour that you receive. When you taste them, whether or not you can put your finger on how exactly, you will probably get the impression that it you are drinking three separate beers. Very similar, but just subtly different. And if anybody gives you grief for drinking three beers at a time, you just tell them that you have a passion for science.