When I first encountered it, beer only came in cans or Solo cups. But now that tailgates and off-campus parties are but faint memories and my options are more craft and less mystery keg, I decided it’s time to step up my game and find out – just why are there so many different shapes of glasses for beer?
A better first question might have been – Why use a glass at all? It has to do with the fact that your nose and mouth are a dynamic duo when it comes to your sense of taste. When you drink out of a bottle or can, you leave your nose out of the party. There’s a case to be made that the eye is an important part of this equation, as well. Pouring a beer into a glass shows off its color, clarity, bubbles, and foam, a view that can add to your excitement when you’re about to partake in the refreshing elixir that’s been delighting humankind since approximately 9,000 B.C..
Compared to the thousands of years that humans enjoyed beer out of stone, wood, and even sacks of leather, the proliferation and popularization of beer glasses is relatively new, given that glass wasn’t mass produced until the late 1800s. Our journey charting the history of beer glasses will take us on a trans-Atlantic journey starting in jolly old England around 1920.
The first mass-produced beer glass was the 10-sided pint mug. The mug replaced pewter tankards but maintained a handle, which kept pub patrons’ hands from inadvertently warming up their brews. After WWII, this model was replaced by a shorter and wider mug embellished with a grenade-like pattern. While not designed to enhance the taste of a beer, the mug’s character, sturdiness, and size makes it a great addition to a party, and it’s recently experienced a resurgence across the pub scene. Buy them here.
Nonic Pint Glasses
By the 1980s, English pub owners had a new option that was easier to store and clean. These “nonic” pint glasses resemble the American pint glass we’re used to seeing, with the exception of a bulge about two inches below the mouth of the glass. This bulge protects the rim of the glass from being chipped, or nicked (hence the name). A close cousin of the nonic is the tulip pint glass (see the Guinness glass). British ales, lagers, porters, and stouts will feel right at home in these vessels. Buy them here.
Goblets, Snifters, and Tulips – oh my!
For the next stop on our tour de glassware, we’ll cross the Strait of Dover from England into Belgium, where brewing dates back to the monasteries and abbeys of the Middle Ages. Here we’ll encounter some dark beers and strong ales served in goblets and their sturdier cousin, the chalice. These two glasses have wide mouths that allow for big gulps and direct the beer to the back of your tongue, home to the taste buds that detect bitterness. Two other glass varieties, snifters and tulips, resemble the goblet family, but they narrow at the top to lock in the beer’s aroma and allow for swirling, which can continually refresh a beer’s scent. Buy them here, here, and here.
Crossing Belgium’s southeastern border, we’ll encounter a few more kinds of glasses in Germany. Stange, which means “pole” in Germany is the easiest glass to describe — it’s simply a glass cylinder. The thin shape of a stange glass preserves the carbonation in delicate beers like kolsches. Some are purposefully short in order to prevent the beer from getting too warm or losing its fizz in the glass. But don’t worry — that doesn’t mean you won’t be drinking as much! Traditionally, stanges arrive en masse in a “kranz,” German for “wreath.” Buy them here.
Weizen glasses are designed to accentuate all the qualities of Bavarian style wheat beer. Their rounded tops preserve the fluffy foam head, enhancing your aromatic experience of the beer, while the thin glass shows off its bright hue. While some bars serve wheat beers with a lemon or orange slice, be warned: citrus juices can erode your beer’s head, thus eliminating some of the fun for your nose. Buy them here.
From Germany, we’ll head further east to the Czech Republic, home to what may be defined as the Miss Universe of beers: the sparkling golden pilsner. When pilsner was invented in the Bohemian village of Pilsen in 1842, its light clarity was like nothing the beer-drinking world had ever seen. In many ways, the tall and slender glass that widens toward the top is designed to showcase the color and carbonation of the beer that’s been turning heads since the 1840s. Other light beers like bock beers and blonde ales will shine in a pilsner glass too. Buy them here.
American Pint Glass
Back in the U.S.A., the American pint glass is more or less omnipresent in bars and restaurants. The primary appeal of this glass is utility: it’s cheap to make and buy, easy to stack, difficult to break, and versatile (it’s sometimes referred to as a “Shaker Pint,” as its straight edges line up nicely with a shaker when crafting a cocktail). The American pint glass is more or less neutral — it won’t necessarily help or harm your experience of drinking beer. The one exception here is if you’re drinking something strong like a Belgian ale. In that case, if you can’t get your hands on a chalice or snifter, you’d be better off with a wine glass than an American pint glass. Buy them here.
But it’s not all business as usual back home in the states. In fact, one of the newest members of the beer glass universe debuted here in 2013, born from a partnership between American breweries Dogfish Head and Sierra Nevada with German glassmaker Spiegelau. This 19-ounce glass resembles an elongated goblet atop a ridged bottom. While the rounded top preserves the head and locks in flavor, the ridges agitate the beer, continually releasing the hoppy aroma and flavor characteristic of IPAs. Buy them here.
Just how much does the shape of a glass affect the taste of a beer? It’s a subject of much debate. Some contend that the proliferation of beer glassware is nothing more than a money-making scheme, and I’d be foolish to think that wasn’t part of the equation. But I’m also a sucker for a good story. Sure, I know that the Belgians and Czechs were enjoying Trappist ales and pilsners before the widespread use of chalices and pilsner glasses, but now, these shapes have become symbols of the people who brought these beers to life. The chalice evokes the Thirteenth Century monks serving beer in their abbeys while the pilsner sparkling in its slender flute recalls the Bohemian villagers who looked on with wonder as a new clear brew flowed from their casks. The shape of a beer glass may enhance a beer’s look, taste, and smell. But for me, it certainly adds a fourth dimension: a story. And adding history to hops makes enjoying one of humankind’s oldest delicacies just that much sweeter.
— Head photo: Personal Creations.