A pint by any other shape?

Using the proper glass for a beer’s style makes a difference, unless it doesn’t

Sierra Nevada’s specialty IPA glass in action at the brewery.

Sierra Nevada’s specialty IPA glass in action at the brewery.

photo by melanie mactavish

There was a time when enjoying a beer meant simply cracking open a can of cheap lager and thoughtlessly sipping it on the couch. In the last two decades, we’ve graduated beyond that mentality as craft brewers have introduced new styles and increasingly higher grades of quality beer than most people imagined possible 20 years ago. But along with better beer, the craft-brew revolution has brought us something else: finicky guidelines on what glass to drink from.

Not just any glass will do, many brewers and connoisseurs of beer tell us. Rather, each style of beer should be served in its own style of glass. A wheat beer is to be poured into a “weizen” glass, a tall narrow glass that bulges slightly at the top. Some Belgian styles are served in wide-rimmed goblet-looking vessels. Lagers are served in slender delicate flutes called “pilsner” glasses. Strong barleywines are often served in small sherry snifters. By contrast, the standard beer glass—the ubiquitous piece called a shaker glass—does no favors for any beer, glassware aficionados say. It is only used at all because it’s easy for bar managers to stack, rinse and handle.

The idea of style-specific glassware is based on the premise that a beer’s subtlest nuances will literally escape, or elude detection as you gulp it, if the glass is not shaped in a way that helps to aerate the beer and deliver the aromas and flavors to your tongue. Many beer-focused bars adhere to glassware guidelines by keeping an array of glass styles on their shelves.

Recently, another piece was added to their arsenals. Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., in collaboration with Dogfish Head Craft Brewed Ales, created a new glass specifically designed for drinking IPAs. The lower interior of the glass is ribbed, which aerates the beer as it’s poured. Then, a small nub at the bottom center of the glass called a nucleation point helps to release carbon dioxide from the beer, which flows upward as a stream of bubbles.

“In almost any beer glass, you’ll see bubbles rising up from points on the inside of the glass, but the nucleation point magnifies this effect,” says Bill Manley, beer ambassador for Sierra Nevada. “When you look into this glass filled with beer, what you see is a small tornado of bubbles rising from the bottom.”

At the top of the glass, the rim narrows, helping to contain the beer’s foam and aromas so it can be better enjoyed. The collaborative IPA glass costs $9 at the Sierra Nevada gift shop.

Not everyone in the beer industry vouches for the science of beer glassware. At Lagunitas Brewing Co. in Petaluma, founder Tony Magee says the notion of having specific glasses for specific beers “is some of the most pretentious nonsense ever to fall into the craft [beer] realm.”

“I think the special glassware is pure branding, not much more,” says Magee, whose beer is served in mason jars at the Lagunitas taprooms in both Petaluma and Chicago. “A fluted lip and a sharp or rounded edge may have some impact on your perception of the beer, but why would you need the glass to make the beer taste better if the beer was delicious in the first place? It’s just promotion.”

Joe Tucker, owner of the popular RateBeer.com website concedes that the experience of holding a nice goblet or snifter may enhance one’s experience of drinking a beer. In this way, one could argue that the glassware has made a beer taste better, Tucker says. However, he does not believe that every beer style must be served in its own glass, which he considers a convention established by marketers.

“I’m very dubious of people’s claims that a certain glass will increase the performance of their beer,” Tucker says.

Tucker says sensory scientists who have analyzed different styles of glassware have concluded that subtle differences in shape make little, if any, difference in how a wine tastes. He feels the same conclusion can be applied to specialized beer glassware.

So how should one drink a beer? Tucker says any snifter-style glass with a rim that is narrower than the body of the glass will allow the aromas to waft off of a beer while remaining within the glass. Thing is, the snifter should work fine for all beers, Tucker says.

And if you don’t have a snifter? Use a wine glass, says Tucker, who feels your beer—whether stout, pilsner or IPA—won’t know the difference.