Can this glass actually make beer taste better?

July 11

A glass with a tapered head concentrates aromas, bringing the drinker’s nose closer to the scent. (Spiegelau USA)

Well-established within sommelier circles is the understanding that the characteristics of a wine glass can strongly influence taste. Thin flute glasses, for instance, helps to preserve champagne’s effervescent quality by minimizing exposure to air while wide-rimmed bowl-shaped glasses allow red wines to “breathe,” producing a softer aroma as tannins intermingle with the surrounding air.

Surprisingly, this manner of thinking has been, for the most part, conspicuously absent among the beer drinking set. Well, perhaps it’s not too surprising considering that beer culture, at its core, is persistently blue-collar — to the point where the tradition of drinking it out of red plastic cups is celebrated as an iconic symbol of unpretentiousness that naturally lends itself to a sense of camaraderie.

Riedel, the esteemed Austrian glass manufacturer that pioneered the concept of wine-enhancing glasses, is pushing to change all that. Under the company’s Spiegelau brand, the company has recently launched a special line of beer glasses, each custom built to enhance a particular variety of beer. There’s the IPA glass, a tulip-style design with a ribbed base that’s engineered to give pale ales a frothy boost. Earlier this year, they followed that up with a similar version that’s ideally suited for stouts.

Matt Rutkowski, vice president of Spiegelau USA, is charged with the tall task of demonstrating to the masses that variations in a glass’s dimensions, no matter how slight, can indeed have a real, discernible effect on how beer is experienced via the senses. In this capacity, he heads the company’s research and development efforts, hosts tasting events throughout the country and often delves into the complex interplay between glass and brew. At this point, he admits, the job has turned into somewhat of a personal crusade.

“I like to think of the concept of flavor-enhancing beer glasses as similar to making sure you have a good racket whenever you’re playing tennis,” he explains. “We’re not trying to be snobby, but it’s for people like myself who are passionate about craft beer.”

He isn’t the only one, though, who believes that a sweeping change of some sort is long overdue. Others, like Brewmaster Garrett Oliver of Brooklyn Brewery, have also expressed similar sentiments concerning the pervasively lax attitude toward beer consumption that, by and large, has kept enthusiasts from formalizing practices that can optimize the enjoyment of what some consider an underappreciated beverage. Paired with the right technology, cultivating such ingrained drinking habits may someday lead to such deeper appreciation for a brewing process that, compared to wine, produces a much wider range of flavors.

“While there’s kind of a tradition of associating a glass with a certain beer brand, people generally just haven’t yet been very attuned to how different glass shapes affects aroma and taste,” Rutkowski says. “It’s kind of baffling because this relationship comes into play even more so with beer than it does with wine, since beer is carbonated.”

If anything, the science behind improving the beer drinking experience through container modification looks to be quite sound. In an interview with Gizmodo, Henry Lau and Rik Sargent of Physics.org’s Cheers Physics break down how the idea works:

The type of glass your beer is served in really does affect the enjoyment of your beer! Some glasses — like a thinner pilsner-style glass-are great for naturally fizzier beers. They will have less liquid in contact with the bottom of the glass, causing a smaller head. Bubbles are also important for releasing the beers’ aromas. When bubbles in the head burst, they spray a miniscule amount of liquid into the air, reaching your nose and tickling your sense of smell with delightful bouquets. To accentuate this, glasses with a tapered head concentrate the aroma and force the drinker’s nose closer to the beer.

Another important variable in maintaining peak flavor is temperature. For this reason, Rutkowski recommends that “whatever you do, don’t drink beer out of pint glasses.” The problem, he says, is that the walls are often so thick that they absorb much of coldness, rather than holding it within the beer. Thus as the temperature inside warms, the beer goes flat. Basically, he adds, it’s “the perfect storm to ruin your beer.”

To develop the best possible stout glass, Rutkowski’s team underwent a rigorous period of experimentation that resulted in 12 prototypes. After a series of elimination-style taste testing, carried out in collaboration with Rogue Ales and the Left Hand Brewing Company, the process culminated in tulip bowl-shaped glass comprised of a strong yet, thin material made of quartz blended with a small amount of zinc.

An independent test showed that the thin walls kept beer colder than pint glasses by 2.5 degrees after five minutes. Meanwhile, the tapered head helps to trap carbonation and concentrate the aroma toward the drinker’s nostrils. At the very top, the exceptionally thin rim works to better distribute the flow towards the middle of the tongue for a smooth finish. So far, the stout glass has received positive reviews from several outlets, including Wired, The Daily News and Popular Science.

“The biggest doubters throughout all of this were the brewers,” Rutkowski adds. “It’s hard for them to believe that their beer can taste so different just because of the glass it’s poured in. But when they noticed how profound the differences were, they were floored.”

Like the IPA glass, a set of two stout glasses are available for purchase on the company’s site for $24.90. Currently, Spiegelau currently has a couple additional “secret” designs in the pipeline, with the first one due for release in the fall. The launch of the second product is on tap for sometime next year.

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