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Does Your Beer Glass Matter?

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During a very packed trip through New England last week, I managed to squeeze in a late tour to the Sam Adams Brewery where I learned that if a bartender attempts to serve my Sam in anything other than a sanctioned Sam Adams glass, I should consider sending it back.

I’ll admit that for the most part, I’ve regarded the fancy glasses paired with some beers as the outcome of well-executed marketing plans. I mean it’s a simple enough branding formula that boils down to “we want people to know you’re drinking X, so we are going to create a glass that can help others recognize that you’re drinking X.” And this is certainly a part of the picture; however, like serious wine drinkers, beer connoisseurs know that the glass can make all the difference in their beer-drinking experience.

Typically, my beer comes in a pint glass, which seems the standard treatment for this libation: it leaves enough space for a nice head, and allows beer drinkers to appreciate the color and clarity of their beverage. But is it enough to really enjoy the rich notes that fermented barley can produce?

Our relationship with beer dates back some 9,000 BC when the fermenting process was discovered independently by several cultures. As this is a history that’s fairly accessible, I won’t delve too deeply here. In line with this particular story, however, is the history of “glassware”—the containers that hold our libations reflect the social context of our times. These products reflect the technologies and the knowledge at our disposal through the ages.

The earliest beer and drinking vessels were probably animal skins, but terracotta pots, bowls, and jugs were well established by 9,000 BC and the residue found in these types of vessels has allowed archaeologists such as Patrick McGovern to reconstruct early beer recipes. McGovern has documented the oldest barley beer and the oldest known alcoholic beverages drawing from the traces of ingredients left behind in early beverage containers. Though it is unlikely we would recognize the beer of old as beer today, the essential recipe was the same: grain, water, yeast.

Early Bronze Terracotta Drinking Vessel, 3300 - 2900 BC.

The pottery used to store grain and beer was durable but fairly fragile—hardly suitable to a nomadic lifestyle. That is not to say that hunter-gatherer groups did not make and use pottery—given with access to clay, it would have been within reach of interested parties—but as a means of storage, it was likely linked to a more sedentary lifestyle. The development of the potter’s wheel sped the production of pottery and lowered costs, placing the products within reach of more people. However, clay cups and bowls would largely be displaced as drinking vessels around 75 – 50 BC when the Phoenicians mastered the art of glassblowing. Craftsmen spread their trade along the Mediterranean, through Rome, and into Europe as demand for their skills—and glass drinking bowls—increased in the second and first centuries BC.

However, it’s not until about the 14th-century that we come across vessels specifically associated with beer drinking: tankards and steins. Tankards were large, open wooden vessels bound with iron or leather and used to carry water. However, following the bubonic plague, when concerns about sanitation were paramount, the tankard evolved into a tall, one-handled, lidded mug made from pewter. The latter iteration came to be known as the stein, though the two seem to be used interchangeably. The lid was meant to keep impurities from the drink, but the pewter carried a hidden danger to contend with: lead poisoning.

Wooden tankard found on board the 16th century carrack Mary Rose.

Also, metal and glass containers were largely out of reach of the general population, who relied on wooden beakers and earthenware for drinking vessels. These materials lacked the longevity of metal and glass, and tended to absorb beer and ultimately smell rank, which would have hindered one’s mead enjoyment. Though craftsmen would explore alternative firing techniques to strengthen the containers, by the 19th-century demand for glass drinking vessels was high and the means to produce them for the masses was within reach. Glass offered beer patrons a chance to appreciate the rare instances of clarity achieved by brewers in this age. (And people were interested in knowing what they were drinking. Pewter and other metals hid the contents—including the sediments—floating in one’s brew.)

The 1920s saw the introduction of a 10-sided handled pint mug. The idea behind this mug was that the handle meant that drinkers kept their hands off of the glass itself, which kept the beer cooler longer. However, this glass was bumped in the late 1940s in favor of a dimpled glass. A social shift seems to have driven this change: darker beers which had been poured in the 10-sided were considered old-fashioned—an old man’s drink—and amber beers, which were rising in popularity, looked better as light hit the dimples in the glass.

The dimpled glass would give way to a straighter glass with a slight bulge at the top, which was originally designed to minimize the chipping that occurred when glassware rubbed together but also may have boosted the aromatic experience of beer. What follows is a proliferation of beer glasses, each having a specific effect on the beverage contained within. The Artois Chalice, for example, has a larger body to keep the beer cooler for longer and a laser etched bottom meant to release bubbles in such a way as to maintain the beer’s head. The Tulip Glass enhances the aroma of the ale with a slightly narrow neck that traps the rich smells that emanate from the brew.

The Sam Adams Boston Lager Glass is a combination of all of this history (click to embiggen the image on the right). It seems to take elements from many different types of glasses to craft a specific experience for the beer drinker. As Dave, our enthusiastic tour guide explained, the double thick bottom is meant to better control the heat exchange from the table, and the laser-etched imperfection that the glasses contain assists in the precise release of carbonation so your beer isn’t flat. Also important to temperature control is the fact that the majority of the beer sits in the bulge above the stem where beer drinkers are likely to grasp the glass. So even though the glass itself is thin, you should still have a cold brew. The bulge is an aromatic catcher that tickles the nose, and the lip pours the beverage evenly over the front of the drinker’s palate, enhancing the sweetness of the drink.

The standard pint glass—while it’s admittedly better than a plastic cup—falls just short of the experience that a specialty glass crafts. Pint glasses are cheap and durable, and bars probably get a bulk of them from breweries as promotional items, but if you know your beer, then you might want to consider the experience you’re treating yourself to. We have spent a considerable part of our history honing our expertise when it comes to beer, and crafting vessels that enhance our drinking experience—would you send your beer back?



For the accompanying photo album, please visit the AiP Fan Page.

Resources and Additional Reading:
A Brief History of Beer Steins, Gary Kirsner
A Short History of Beer Glasses, Martin Cornell, Zythophile
Beer: A Different Glass For Every Brew Can Add to the Drinking Experience, Derek Schneider, The Chronicle
Beer Glass Styles, The Brew Club
Do Beer Glasses Matter, The Brew Club
The Beer Archaeologist, Abigail Tucker, Smithsonian Magazine
Stone Age Had Booze and Prohibition, Popular Science (pdf)

Photo credits: Creative Commons / Loyala Marymount University Archaeology Center / Wikimedia Commons / Sam Adams

Krystal D'Costa About the Author: Krystal D'Costa is an anthropologist working in digital media in New York City. You can follow AiP on Facebook. Follow on Twitter @krystaldcosta.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. neuromusic 12:17 pm 08/22/2011

    And here, I was expecting you might argue that, even today, one’s choice of a beer glass is influenced by multiple social factors, including the large amounts of marketing and legal costs spent by brewers like Sam Adams to convince consumers that their glass is special and “perfect”:'similar'-beer-glass

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  2. 2. Hasufin 1:10 pm 08/22/2011

    It’s not unreasonable to think that beer was first made in earthenware jars – it seems to be closely linked with the rise of sedentism, or more accurately with agriculture (sedentism preceding that, at least fitfully, by about a millennium). There’s no particular indication that beer predates that, at least off the top of my head.

    I do know that straws go back far earlier than Phoenician times: there is a relief of Hammurabi sipping beer through a long golden straw, so the straw idea can be dated to at least 1800 BCE. Of course, it’s fair to assume that golden straws were outside the reach of most Babylonians, but likely other options did exist.

    That relief (maybe this one? is telling in other ways, too. Of course, it suggests that beer was a part of the diet for at least the rich, and it also suggests that its consumption was a communal experience.

    But, you’re talking about the glasses. Not being a beer drinker, I’ve not paid much attention. One thing I have noted, in pouring beer for others, is that many pilsner glasses flare out such that while the rate of accumulation of head increases, the height of the head continues at a constant rate – it certainly makes it easier to regulate the pour!

    Personal preference plays a huge factor in glass selection. When I make mixed drinks, I try to use the correct type of glass for the drink – we have hurricane glasses, martini glasses, pilsner glasses, both red and white wine glasses, snifters, etc. My girlfriend, however, wants everything in a tumbler no matter what it is. She prefers the confidence that she’s not going to break delicate stemware over the presentation of the drink. There’s probably no significant difference in the drink itself as a result, but I confess I feel better if I can use the “proper” glass.

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  3. 3. mem from somerville 3:52 pm 08/22/2011

    I saw the best old beer glass vessels at the Corning Glass Museum some time ago. They were clear and open, didn’t have handles, and were huge. But what they had were indentations in the glass for fingers and the thumb. That way your bratwurst-grease covered hands wouldn’t slip! #FTW!!

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  4. 4. Krystal D'Costa in reply to Krystal D'Costa 4:20 pm 08/22/2011

    Thanks for the link, neuromusic, and thanks for hammering the point home. Clearly, the dance continues, as is evidenced by the abundance of glasses paired with Belgian and German beers. I assume that elite beer drinkers can immediately tell the contents of a glass based on its design, but the average imbiber just seems to want it cold and full (if my Twitter stream is anything to go by), so it begs the question as to whether the marketing of these glasses is truly effective. Then again, perhaps the intensity of “beer culture” is a factor here.


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  5. 5. Krystal D'Costa in reply to Krystal D'Costa 4:30 pm 08/22/2011

    Hasufin, I read the bit about the straws also. But I understood that straws were pretty commonplace (though golden ones were probably reserved for the likes of Hammurabi) because the beer was full of sediments that people didn’t want to consume. I have a hard time imagining drinking beer with a straw today, but when in Rome … or Egypt or Mesopotamia.

    It’s my understanding that beer drinking played in role ritual processes early on, and it was a part of the daily diet. It has a high caloric count, right? And the fermentation produced safer drinking material than what was available. These elements definitely suggest a communal experience — a part from hanging at the “taverns,” if beer was a part of the family meal, then it becomes an element of community in terms of relationship maintenance.

    Ah, pilsners! They’re similar to pints and have that abbreviated stem meant to keep the beer from getting too warm while being held. However, in most cases, beer doesn’t spend much time in the drinker’s hand. It generally gets set down or drunk before it gets too warm. There is *something* about having the right glass – but I wonder how many people actually know or care. I was talking with someone yesterday about this post, and he looked me dead in the eye with a smile, and said, “I gotta tell you Miss Krystal, as long as it’s cold, I won’t even wait for a glass. The can is just fine for me!”

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  6. 6. Krystal D'Costa in reply to Krystal D'Costa 4:33 pm 08/22/2011

    Hah! But what if your hands didn’t fit the indentation, mem? The straw might come in handy after all (see Hasufin’s comment above.)

    Readers, you can view some of the collection of the Corning Glass Museum online.

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  7. 7. denisosu 6:13 pm 08/22/2011

    Nice post, and I can confirm from a Belgian colleague who did his Chemical Engineering PhD on beer glasses (not beer-goggles, which was my first question…) that the glass really does matter if you want to optimise the beer-drinking experience the way the brewer intended it, in terms of head, temperature, aroma, etc. Maybe the best analogy for using the wrong glass is drinking a good red wine with food that’s more suited to white wine – it’s not as if the wine suddenly doesn’t taste good, but you’re just not getting the best out of it …

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  8. 8. Krystal D'Costa in reply to Krystal D'Costa 9:37 am 08/23/2011

    Denisosu, thanks for chiming in. The impromptu Facebook poll and Twitter responses I’ve seen suggest that the glass isn’t very important to many people (e.g., who needs a glass when you can chug it from a can?) I wonder if this is a cultural response. Belgium has a rich beer history and culture, so perhaps they’re more in tune with the nuances of the drink itself? Perhaps we’ll see a shift in responses with the rise of micro-brewing here in the US.

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  9. 9. martyncornell 10:29 pm 10/31/2012

    “it’s not until about the 14th-century that we come across vessels specifically associated with beer drinking …”

    The Bell Beaker people seem to have been making beer mugs from around 2800 BC

    “I have a hard time imagining drinking beer with a straw today”

    Still going on in Southern and East Africa, to drink traditional sorghum beer. See eg here

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