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Anthropology in Practice

Anthropology in Practice

Exploring the human condition.

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?

Cheers.

 

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

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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

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

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