We’ve all seen two poles of beer presentation. Some bars or taprooms will pour their beers into one or two types of glasses, for simplicity, cost, or ease. Usually the beer style itself won’t matter–it’s the total volume of glassware is the determining factor–schooner, pint, maybe liter. At home, similarly, you might use any kind of vessel: shaker pints, beveled water glasses, wine stemware, coffee mugs. Most people in fact do not stock all the types of possible beer glassware (newsflash: there are a lot). On the other side of the spectrum, some brewery taprooms or bars (or super-aficionado home drinkers) will strongly insist on serving each style (or brand, sometimes) in select, “proper” or official vessels. I’m not here to insist upon using specific glassware, nor am I going to tell you that you can just use any glass you want. Wait: you can, in fact, use any glass you want, but there are reasons why certain choices are going to be better than others, and you might actually care. This could be a mind-boggling, endlessly pedantic or pop-sci article, sure–but I’m just going to stick with the main concepts, so fear not. The following breakdowns don’t just apply to beers–wine and other beverages can play too.
Okay, size does matter. Generally, if you’re going to drink a pale ale or an English bitter, you’ll want 16-20 ounces of said beer, unless you’re the designated driver, or ailing, or whatever. Not so much the same for a higher gravity or richer beer–say, a barley wine or imperial porter. Four to eight ounces will be sufficient, and having a smaller volume glass is going to fit the beer best. This is an obvious category, but smaller glasses that are beer appropriate are sometimes hard to find!
This one is really just dependent on how you want something to look. If you’re just having a post-work pint, something plain and simple will do. If you’re serving beer of any kind in a more upscale setting, a more elaborate type of vessel is probably a good choice. Or not. Sometimes a pint can just be a pint, even next to fancy food and suits. But let’s also think about the presentation of color, which is a huge aspect of appreciating and evaluating a beer. While some traditional vessels are made of beautiful pottery or clay (or metal, as in steins), these vessels won’t let you see the color or the nice foamy head. It’s part of the appreciation of beer! See it, and know it.
Most beers like to be cold–some quite cold, like pilsners or light lagers. Some are best at a slightly higher temperature (like English ales, maltier beers, etc.) Keeping this in mind, let’s think about the thickness of glass in a vessel–the thinner, the less time it will take to change temperature closer to ambient room temperature. Also important: where on the glass you are going to place your hand? Hands are warmer even than the room (usually, that is). This is one argument for stemware–your hand isn’t ever touching the body of the glass where the beer or other drink is kept. That is, if you want keep the contents cold. Choices, choices.
Carbon dioxide is a gas that in a closed environment remains in suspension in a liquid if forced, provided a limited headspace. Once a beer or other carbed beverage is poured, the gas leaves the liquid, bubbling delightfully in one’s mouth in the short-term. Some beers are meant to be highly carbonated (like a saison, or a pilsner) and some are less so (English ales and aged beers, typically). In theory, the wider a vessel is open to the atmosphere, the faster the gas can and will escape from solution. Basically, the shallower the glass, the faster you can expect the beverage to go flat (in theory). This doesn’t really matter that much as it won’t be a huge change from the time you take your first sip to the last-it’s usually not long enough for a beer to go flat, but it’s possible. Carbonation doesn’t just change the mousse or mouthfeel of a drink, it also can alter how it tastes. Sweetness and bitterness are perceived differently with different levels of carbonation.
Aroma is a huge part of food and drink enjoyment. Your sense of smell accounts for a huge portion of the overall sensation of taste. Ever try to drink a delicious beer with a cold? Probably the malt and hop flavors seemed unbalanced, bitter, tannic, metallic, or just off. Sometimes aroma is very similar to the beer’s flavor, but it’s usually somewhat distinct. The aroma and the taste work in tandem to portray a whole set of flavors. With a wider glass, you can smell the beer much more easily, and probably even when you’re not sipping it. If you can’t fit your nose into the glass’s circumference, your drinking experience will likely be very different.
Think about the small differences in drinking vessels. A steaming cup of hot tea in a pottery mug, thick and glazed, the thin delicate edge of a champagne flute, the rustic feeling of a metal camp cup of cocoa. The contents are the most important items, always, but the thickness, smoothness, and shape of what you place your lips and hands on also truly matters. Everyone has their preferences. I personally don’t enjoy the flavor of beer from metal glasses, and anything in a Dixie cup is really unpleasant (unless it’s Jello shots, and then really, I’m not sure the flavor is the main event…no, definitely not).
There are even more possibilities for breaking down the “science” of service vessels and glassware, but these are the main tenets. If having “proper” or designated glassware gives you a feeling of sense or authority, then by all means, buy the glassware you want and serve things you enjoy from them. If you feel connected specifically to drinking port in a shot glass or barley wine in a rocks glass, then go ahead. The most important things are a) be thoughtful and conscious about your best possible drinking experience and b) really people, just enjoy drinking.