I’m not sure it’s altogether good to be the person whose name pops up when the question is asked: “Who can we get to burble on for 20 minutes about the history of beer glasses?”, but at least it got me drinking at someone else’s expense in the Met Bar in Old Park Lane, where the manager boasts that every top celebrity worth naming has parked their A-list posterior on his surprisingly shabby red leather banquettes. (And drinking at someone else’s expense is definitely what you want to be doing at the Met, when a small bottle of Meantime pale ale, £1.50 or so in Waitrose, is £8 – that’s not quite £14 a pint.)
My invitation to the Met Bar was to add a little history to a tasting organised by Spiegelau, the Austrian glassware company, to promote their new range of beer glasses.
Each of the glasses has been designed so that, in theory, it brings out the best in a particular beer style, or range of styles. The 500ml, slightly waisted, wide-mouthed glass is best, according to Georg Riedel, president of Spiegelau, for strong English ales and helles-style lagers. The tall wheat beer glass is made for – well, you can work that out. A stemmed tulip-shaped glass has been designed for Pilsner-style lagers, and is also good for Belgian ales, Spiegelau says.
But does the shape of the glass really make a difference? Yes, I was surprised to find it most definitely does, and not just to the aroma. Of the four beers at the tasting, the biggest change from glass to glass was with the Innis & Gunn, the oak-aged beer from Scotland. The “wheat” glass accentuated the vanilla/oaky elements in the beer, the “pilsner” glass in contrast brought the toffee/caramel notes right up front, but the “ale” glass, while delivering a distinctly thinner mouthfeel, allowed much more of the complexity in the beer to come through.
All the other beers, which included a wheat beer, naturally; Zatec pils from the Czech Republic; and Sierra Nevada IPA from the United States, performed differently in each of the three glasses. You wouldn’t say the wheat beer was ruined by drinking it out of the Pilsner glass, for example, but it was definitely better from the glass shape traditionally associated with the style. Similarly the Zatec struggled in the wheat beer glass, but the Saaz hop aromas seemed to appreciate the shorter journey from beer to nose available with the Pilsner glass.
These were also beautiful vessels to look at, thin, delicate – but at £6 a pop, they should be pretty classy. The audience for the tasting was drawn from similar up-market outlets to the Met Bar, people who are already clients, or likely clients for Spiegelau’s up-market wine glasses, and who could afford the cost of up-market beer glasses. You couldn’t use these down the Dog and Duck, where the inevitable regular breakages, let alone the “shrinkage” as customers decided they’d like Spiegelau glasses to drink out of at home, would hammer the profit margin.
But as the classic English dimple pint mug – thick, clunky and, yes, ugly – was laughed at by the chaps from Spiegelau, I though: “It’s true, British pub glassware does not encourage respect for the liquid inside.” There is, generally, nothing to indicate that the vessel containing the beer is anything other than a method of holding a substantial quantity of intoxicating liquid on its journey between beer tap (or bottle) and stomach.
Certainly if we ever want women to take cask ale seriously, the kind of beer glasses found in British pubs are not going to assist. Someone needs to produce a draught beer glass that is robust, cheap, safe (because there are idiots around), stylish, and delivers the aromas, flavours and mouthfeel of British ale in an optimum manner. I don’t think the glasses we have currently tick anything there except box number two, cheapness.
What might even be needed is a complete rethink. Is the pint actually the best quantity to drink beer in? Now that you no longer, thanks to central heating, have to sit in your overcoat in the public bar while drinking, a pint warms up too quickly after it’s been served. Legally, in the UK, you can sell draught beer only in pints, half-pints, third-pints or multiples thereof. What about introducing the two-thirds pint glass, 378ml, which is within a nod of the American “12-ounce” serving, and which is a perfectly satisfying volume of beer. The glasses, being smaller, could be more stylish, and it might even encourage people to consume less per session …