Monday, October 12, 2009

The Glass Menagerie Part II

These days, beer is served primarily in pint glasses, which serve to keep bar and restaurant costs down rather than to maximize the flavor possibilities of the brew. Often these glasses are branded to further the marketing component that has overcome flavor as the means by which beer is made attractive to the consumer. Even the Belgians, who have maintained the attention to flavor with their multitude of ornate glasses, are not immune to this marketing prospect: they go beyond merely branding their glassware to insist that each beer must go in its own specific—and branded—glass.

So there is a predominant marketing component to beer pints and glassware. But this should most definitely take a backseat to the flavor possibilities that various styles of glass—branded or not—bring to beer.

As beers of different styles have distinctive characteristics, the appropriate glasses for each style will be the ones that accentuate those characteristics. Glass differentiation depends upon the beer’s need for: enhancing aromatic volatiles (the compounds in beer that give off aroma), showcasing appearance, and affecting/maintaining beer head.

Pint glasses do nothing for head retention. They are wide and tall, so foam rapidly evaporates from the glass. Thinner, simpler, straight-sided glasses—like Stanges and Pilsners (whether footed or stemmed)—tend to maintain head due to the narrow shape; there is less surface area for the foam to escape. Thus, crisp brews—that rely on the taste sensation of quenching bubbles as much as aroma for flavor—belong in these glasses.

Beers with just a bit more aromatic complexity will benefit from wider versions of these narrow glasses, called Bechers, as they provide a wider rim for aroma enjoyment; the drinker’s olfactory senses are literally exposed to more of the beer, and more of the aromatic volatiles. Such beers, like the Düsseldorf Altbier, have more aromas to offer, yet are still quite drinkable in this straight-sided vessel

Certain styles require that the beer glass widen, and still others—with even further flavor distinction—require some curve to the glass, with a tapering toward the rim. This curve focuses aromas as the drinker sips, say, a refreshing Saison, with its understated nuance. These curved glasses can gain stems and become Pokals, granting the opportunity to swirl the glass. An opportunity perfectly suited to the Doppelbock, with its rich malty mysteries.

Swirling takes the curve one step further by creating more foam in the glass. Aromatics are increased by the encouraged foaming, and by the foam sticking momentarily to the sides of the glass and then quickly evaporating. This increases the amount of aromas that will be brought by bubbles to the surface and netted; with evaporation, aromatics explode forth from the glass. No such luxury exists for the pint glass. Aromatic focusing and swirling possibilities can be taken even further with the introduction of Tulips, Goblets, and Snifters. Think of these as Pokals on steroids, built for the most complex of beers: Barleywine, American Imperial IPA, Russian Imperial Stout.

While we will be sure to serve each beer in its requisite style of glass, we will not be employing labeled glassware at ChurchKey or Birch & Barley. Properly labeled, i.e. branded glassware is typically left out when beers are served in pint glasses, but with glasses of design distinction (think Belgian or German specialty glasses), many feel each specific beer must have its particular branded glass.

In Europe, especially Belgium, each brand of beer will often have its own glass. I’ve often been told overseas that a beer that was in stock was unavailable because that beer’s logoed glass had gone missing. Yet what was so special about that particular glass, beside the name on it? Countless other glasses of similar design would have maximized that beer’s flavor. In fact many breweries have multiple glasses of different shapes with the same branding, and many breweries share the same glass design but merely brand it with their respective brands. The pertinent point here is that there are a number of glass designs and styles that fall within a few families of glass. Realizing what it is about a particular beer and its respective glass that makes it a fitting match lets you begin to see patterns of styles, and the glassware that befit those styles. By doing our research, we have been able to procure a range of glasses that ensure all styles and flavors represented on our menus are well served. After accumulating this unlabeled glass menagerie, we realized that the branding, which can be employed by even the most artisanal breweries, is nothing more than a common link to the business of the macrobreweries, where branded glassware showcases the business acumen that transcends even the product’s quality or complexity. We will choose to let the liquid, with the help of proper presentation, style of glassware, and service temperature, advertise its own merits.

Greg Engert, Beer Director


  1. This level of detail is overlooked so often at establishments around this fine city. Speaking as a craft brewer in DC, I thank you Greg for your dedication to the art and displaying it so finely. I surely can't wait to experience everything ChurchKey has to offer.


  2. I agree with every word, now will you please stop torturing us all and open already?


    ~Waiting and Thirsty

  3. Greg - Just wanted to tip my hat to you for inspiring me in the kitchen this past weekend. I made Butternut Squash Risotto and substituted Sierra Nevada Pale Ale for the white wine and it was WONDERFUL. The thought never would've occurred to me had I not been reading this blog! I love that Birch & Barley and ChurchKey are elevating beer and experimenting with it in the kitchen. Gave you a shout out on my blog!

  4. Very interesting read...makes me even more anxious to plan a pilgrimage to your establishment VERY soon! I can only imagine what awaits....