Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Glass Menagerie Part I

Glass as a drinking vessel did not become available to the masses until the 19th century, when the Industrial Revolution made its mass production affordable. Before this point, most drinking vessels were made of various opaque materials that emphasized the drinkability of the liquid over the aromatics or the visual appearance; historically, drinking vessels were made from wood, leather, stoneware, or whatever else may have been handy.

Beer, while not as historically favored, did—by virtue of its Ecclesiastical associations—receive hierarchical treatment. Common beers, brewed by laymen, would be drunk from the aforementioned opaque vessels; these were sturdy and voluminous. The Clergy would drink their beer and wine from the chalices that had come to be adorned and ornamental; in this way showcasing the Church’s journey away from the common chalice of Christ and toward the empowered affluent sanctimony where Papacy and Empire became one. In being stemmed and wide-mouthed, the chalices could encourage the swirling of the esteemed brews to further accentuate aromas more easily accessed by the wide mouth. So the chalice made beer something beyond a mere drink, it made it something to be cherished by the religious elite for flavor and aroma as well. But the design of the chalice was most pertinent to satisfy the appetite of the eye (beer’s murky appearance and fleeting existence made it an unlikely visual symbol of wealth). The chalice served chiefly as a trophy of wealth and power, and for that reason never fully enhanced the visual or aromatic qualities of the beers of that time.

When mass production of glass appeared, many traditional styles of beer continued on with their simplistic accompanying vessels, merely replacing previous materials of production with glass. Stanges, simple straight-sided Bechers, and Tumblers continued to hold the styles of beer we look upon today as traditional: Kolsch, Altbier, Witbier, Lambic, Saison, Rauchbier, Flemish Red-Brown Ale (as well as a host of styles lost to history). As previously mentioned, the brews of the Trappist monks developed ornate glass chalices that really served as status symbols, rather than as flavor enhancers.

With the Industrial Revolution came the wider availability of glassware and perked a bourgeoning interest in the appearance of the liquid within; all of this coincided with the rapidly expanding availability of paler beers, which had become as appreciated for their appearance as for their new, cleaner flavors. This interest in appearance led the glassmakers to develop all sorts of stemmed glassware, called Pokals, which were often nothing more than previously existing vessels atop stems. This gave a heightened appreciation to all beers, as countless Pokals became available in myriad shapes and sizes. These Pokals had varying degrees of ornamentation and varying improvements on one’s ability to appreciate the beer for something beyond taste and, now, appearance; each style affected the drinker’s appreciation of aroma, and transformed tasting into a more complex experience known as flavor.

Even some of the traditional vessels that did not gain stems were often footed, and/or curved; in hindsight, these vessels already served to gather aroma by tapering at the mouth to focus aromatic volatiles and inhibit the mere swilling of the beverage. With glass vessels that then had stems and tapered mouths, beer could be admired as a beautiful drink befitting a beautiful glass, and also be experienced much more fully as a complex flavor experience.

But beer, like glass, eventually became mass-produced, commercialized, and nearly flavorless; this process led beer to be less insistently appealing to anyone, but definitely rendered it as inoffensive to nearly everyone. With a blank canvas of flavor to work upon, advertisement and influence ensured the success and expansion of major breweries. Sound business practices and conglomeration robbed most of the world’s beer of the very flavors that had once demanded specific nuanced glassware. No wonder then that as mass produced “lager” beer, low on flavor, merely quenching, mildly intoxicating and inexpensive, gradually took over the world market to be singularly associated with the idea of beer, the idea of a beer glass became as simple, and as one-dimensional, as the standard pint glass.

This pint glass became popular not for its ability to showcase the particular aspects of the beer it held, but for its utility. Typically thick walled with a gentle flare from base to rim, these glasses could be stacked, stored, and moved easily, with less opportunity for breakage; also, these glasses could be chilled to then maintain the preferred lower serving temperature for a longer time, thus assuring the “refreshing” distraction from the lack of flavor or substance. (Ironically, the proliferation of pint glass usage removed traditional handles from mugs, and the more “sophisticated” stems from glasses. These structures actually helped to keep the hand’s heat off of the vessel and maintain colder beer temperatures. So increasing the ease of glass usage and maximizing profitability actually ran counter intuitively to masking a lack of flavor with continuous chill.)

This glass was thus very attractive to the publican or restaurateur: it maintained the profitability of selling cheap, macro lagers by not incurring any additional cost to deliver it from draft to the consumer (draft being preferable due to less packaging and bulk shipment). One imagines that most of these “beer guys” would have been happy to allow the customer to sup from the draft lines themselves, had they spent the money to clean them every now and then. Instead they utilized a glass of no flavor distinction, or tradition, which truthfully suited the beers carried within. It follows that when such brews were served by the bottle, they typically came with a twist cap and no additional glass vessel. The bottle itself, with its tapered mouth and inability to deliver aromatics, worked to keep the swill super cold and to quench thirsts. One needn’t smell something that merely refreshes and delivers a cheap, mild buzz. And the beautiful color possibilities of real beer were not present in said brews, so a colored bottle or can worked well as storage and drinking vessel.

At ChurchKey and Birch & Barley, we will not be serving such “beer” and thus we will attend to the ways we serve and store our excellent lagers and ales. Because no single beer will be a thirst-quenching alcohol conveyor, we will need more than just pint glasses to serve them (and will work to deter the swilling of beer straight from the can or glass). Of course, we will also need more than just one single temperature (of near the freezing point of 32 degrees F) at which to serve our brews so that glass and temperature may work together to provide the ultimate tasting experience.

Greg Engert, Beer Director

1 comment:

  1. Loving the little "history lessons" here on your blog about the history of beer and cuisine! Keep it coming!