Once upon a time, beer was sorry-looking stuff, cloudy and dark. Fortunately, our ancestors drank their brew from heavy ceramic vessels in ill-lit taverns, so it didn't matter much that beer looked like old dishwater.
But two technological innovations worked in synergy to change what we expect of beer. Brewers discovered how to control the heat that roasted their barley malt, creating uniformly pale, golden malts that yielded sparkling beers the color of straw. And glass became widely affordable for the first time, not just the prerogative of a few.
Suddenly, beer not only quenched the thirst and gladdened the heart, it pleased the eye as well. The new light-colored beers became all the rage—pale ales in Britain, light lagers on the continent. And a close connection developed between beers of different styles and glassware.
Not surprisingly, Belgium, home of the funkiest, most diverse range of beers, is also where the relationship between beer and glassware is most elaborate. Breweries produce distinctively shaped glasses emblazoned with their logos, and bars serve beer in the correct glass or risk a customer's dissatisfaction.
These glasses clearly help establish a beer's brand: At a hundred paces, if you spot a café customer sipping from a round-bottomed glass that requires its own wooden holder, you know the beer is a Kwak. To my eye, the most beautiful glass belongs to the Orval monastery in southern Belgium, which has been using the same chunky art nouveau chalice for decades.
Certain general shapes have come to be associated with specific beer styles: stemmed, wide-mouthed tulip glasses with strong beers; tall, slim glasses with delicate lagers. At the University of Leuven in Belgium, the suitability of these glass designs was scientifically tested, and the researchers concluded that breweries and beer drinkers had indeed evolved some general glass shapes that show the beer to its best advantage.
In Germany, the altbiers of Düsseldorf and the kölsch beers in the rival city of Cologne are both served in small, straight, thin-sided glasses that are meant to be emptied and refilled often. In England, an etched crown on the side of a pint glass indicates that it really does measure an honest imperial pint, and there is legislation to prevent a landlord from serving a beer with too much head—and too little beer. (Local tap houses, take note.)
With the proliferation of new beers in the United States, many breweries offer glassware with their logos, usually functional "shaker" pint glasses. A couple of Belgian-style breweries—among them New Belgium in Colorado and Ommegang in New York—have stayed true to tradition with fine wide-mouthed stem glasses.
What does a beer lover need at home? At the risk of sounding silly, you do need glasses, if only to discourage your guests from drinking straight from the bottle. This isn't a matter of fussy etiquette. A glass—any glass—allows the carbonation to lift the beer's aromas to your nose before you drink. Since smell is 50 percent of taste, if you can't smell your beer, you're missing half the flavor. The brewer worked hard to get all that flavor into the beer: don't completely bypass your nose by swigging from the bottle.
A well-equipped bar needs sturdy pint glasses for ales. Slim glasses show off pilsners, allowing the bubbles to travel the length of the glass in the manner of champagne in a flute. Wheat beer fans will want the super-tall German wheat glasses to capture the huge, rocky head. Beyond that, the care of glasses is more important than the glasses themselves. Hot water—lots of it—is all your beer glasses ever need. Detergent leaves a residue that kills the head.
This leads us, finally, to glass etiquette at a bar. The glass you've already emptied of beer once is called "beer clean": It has been rinsed clean—by you—of detergents, oils, and any other head- and flavor-killing pollutants. If the health authorities will allow it, ask the landlord to refill that same beautifully clean glass.
And the frosted glass? No, please. The people who brewed your delicious beer never meant for you to freeze the character right out of their precious creation. This is a living beer, not a frozen margarita. As soon as beer hits a chilled mug, the temperature of the beer plunges, and cold is as effective a killer of taste as holding your nose. Calmly send that icy vessel back in exchange for one at room temperature that will bring out the best in the brew.
Julie Johnson is the editor of All About Beer magazine, allaboutbeer.com.
Saturday, Oct. 31, is Teach a Friend to Brew Day, a national event sponsored by the American Homebrewers Association. Across the country, home-brewing clubs and supply shops host get-togethers where the curious can take their first tentative steps into this rewarding hobby. Locally, Triangle enthusiasts will welcome newbies to watch demonstrations—even one by a six-month novice, just to show how easy it is—and compete for prizes. American Brewmaster, 3021-5 Stonybrook Dr. in Raleigh, hosts a class Saturday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. There's also a class for beginning brewers Tuesday, Nov. 3, from 7 to 9 p.m. at Tir na nOg Irish Pub & Restaurant, 218 S. Blount St. in Raleigh.