Dr. Beersnob: Or How I Stopped Worrying and Love the Glass

Every beer drinker has a “moment” at some point or another — the one beer that absolutely floored you, packed with smells and flavors that suddenly opened up your eyes and taste buds.

With websites like BeerAdvocate, Rate Beer, and a host of blogs making tons of information available at a click, it’s easy to become intoxicated (I had to do it) with a sudden rush of knowledge.

You start by talking up the style or brewery you “discovered” at every subsequent drinking occasion, even if you have no clue what IPA even stands for, for example.

There is nothing wrong with this enthusiasm — the social element of the craft beer movement is what makes it so special — but trying to introduce friends to new, tasty beer can quickly turn into pedantic snobbery.

If this sounds harsh, it’s because I’m speaking as someone who has regrettably been a snob himself and, post-reformation, I’ve seen my fair share of knowledgeable people act in very uncool ways to more casual hobbyists. When people start turning knowledge and experience into a way to judge, mock and put down those less enthusiastic beer drinkers, its not only bad for personal relationships but for the craft beer community as a whole.

However, this column isn’t some strangely penitent warning against snobbery, it’s something that tends to be overemphasized about craft beer nuts and understandably dismissed by everyone else — glassware. Glassware is the symbol of beer snobbery par excellence, but don’t let the bearded asshole down the bartop ruin it for everyone.

What you drink your beer from is an essential part of appreciating the entire holistic experience, but because it’s also such a visible element, people who learn more about glassware tend to bring it up in conversation more than most care for. Some people will brag about drinking say, Duvel, out of only Duvel-branded, oversized tulips (a bell-shaped glass with a flared mouth). Others will never use more than a coozy. The truth falls somewhere in between.

Beer actually does taste different when had at a bar compared to from a bottle due to a combination of differences in how its served and consumed.

We’ve all heard this phrase before: “I would only drink that beer on draft.” Or, “Kegged Heineken is a totally different thing.”

There is some truth to this, though the person saying it may be doing so in order to sound experienced.

First and foremost is carbonation. Beer must overcome fluid dynamics and the forces of gravity to make it from keg to glass, so brewers tend to up the carbonation on draft versions of beer — having a pint from a keg will tend to have a bit more carbonation than the home-sized version.

The extra carbonation changes the way your palate responds to the beer. CO2 bubbles act as “scrubbers,” cleaning out the lingering flavors in your mouth, and generally change the way the beer’s flavors taste.

However, the difference in carbonation is minor at most, but what most people, consciously or unconsciously, notice comes down to the glass. For many beers like Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, most smaller bars that list it will probably only serve it in bottles. When people go out for a beer, the very simple fact that it had been served on draft may be an eye- and taste-opening experience.

In order to get the best and fullest flavors out of any beer it must be poured in a glass first — no matter what bloggers or pundits may argue, this reason reigns. Like most things sudsy, this is not a hard and fast rule and can (no pun intended) apply to any and all containers — from brandy snifter to a novelty mug or ceramic bierstein – and should be ignored when the situation makes having glass ridiculous. Packing a glass for the poolside or for a fall camp out is absolutely absurd. Also, never show up to a cook-out with a bomber of Imperial Stout and a personal glass.

But why does having a glass matter? The most important difference between drinking from a glass and a bottle is that with a glass, which always has a much larger mouth than the small quarter-sized neck of a bottle, you are able to involve your sense of smell.

Garrett Oliver, the head brew master of Brooklyn Brewery and editor/compiler of the Oxford Companion to Brew, loves to cite how many neurons are dedicated to smell that are cut out when the beer isn’t allowed to breathe. The aroma of beer actually activates salivary glands before the glass even reaches your mouth — so when drinking from a bottle, you’re essentially watching a movie with its color or soundtrack missing.

Moreover, certain glasses are designed in order to affect the way beer changes temperature over the course of a drink. Some beers, like pilsners, bocks and Märzen are meant to be served on the cold side, and pilsner glasses are designed with thick sides to keep your hands from warming the beer too quickly. Because cold liquids actually deaden your taste buds, some people find that beer becomes more nuanced and complex as it warms, and many beers are designed to be served at rather warm temperatures. Additionally, tall, thin glasses retain carbonation while deep, shallow glasses create huge bouquets and large aromatic heads.

Bottle conditioned beer, which includes many Belgian and Belgian-style beers, has fermented a second time in the bottle and needs to be decanted in order to release the entire spectrum of its flavors. By pouring off a third of the beer into a glass you taste the beer at its coldest and, because the yeast has settled on the bottom, at its most clear. The second-third will be warmer, less carbonated and mixed with the yeast flavors.

Finally, on an aesthetic level, you miss out on the entire visual elements of beer when it’s locked inside brown glass. The way a beer looks primes your expectations and taste buds – a dark, brown beer immediately suggests a different range of flavors than a straw-yellow or cloudy copper beer.

For those times you want to settle down to a good beer in the comfort of your couch or dinner table, it is easy to get enough glasses to cover almost any type of beer you could think to buy. A pint glass or mug, with a wide mouth and thick sides, covers everything from stouts to IPAs to brown and pale ales. If you’re serious about German beer, whether hefeweizens or dopplebocks, invest in a tall, thin pilsner or weizen glass. Finally, to round out our trio of essentials, you need one “specialty” glass, which should be a straight-sided goblet, curved brandy snifter or thin-stemmed and hourglass shaped tulip glass. This is what you drink high-alcohol, big flavored Belgian tripels, American Imperial IPAs and Russian Imperial stouts out of. Anything more is gravy.

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