Diners at the Sovereign drink beer out of wineglasses. (Dixie D. Vereen/For The Washington Post)

How many times have you told someone, “Let me buy you a pint,” or asked your friends, “Want to grab a pint after work?” It’s not necessary to explain what you’re offering a pint of: Beer is one of the only substances on Earth whose common unit of measurement has become a shorthand for the very thing it measures.

The classic idea of barroom informality involves standing and talking to friends while leaning casually with one elbow on the bar and a pint glass in your hand. And that’s what you see at old-school places such as the Tune Inn, Whitlow’s on Wilson, Solly’s or any number of Irish pubs.

But where craft beer is the focus, the pint is under threat. In the area’s beer bars and beer-focused restaurants, it has become next to impossible to find anything served in a 16-ounce glass. Go into ChurchKey, the Sovereign, Pizzeria Paradiso, City Tap House and RFD, and the scene resembles that notorious Budweiser ad: Guys swirling craft beers in snifters, pinkies aloft, because there’s no way to hold the stem of a nine-ounce snifter without your pinkie automatically popping out.

Why are craft brews being served in snifters, tumblers, wineglasses and other smaller-than-a-pint glasses? Price-conscious drinkers may think they smell a rip-off, but the answer is much more complicated than that.

The conical, straight-sided pint glass, also known as a Boston shaker glass, was originally used to shake cocktails, not serve beer. But it has been a fixture in bars since the early 20th century, thanks to its utility: It’s easy to stack, hard to break and perfect for displaying beer or bar advertisements. Even into the 21st century, as knowledge about craft beer exploded, it remained the go-to glass.


But some beer professionals haven’t been so keen on it.

Three years ago, Pizzeria Paradiso got rid of its common pint glasses, choosing 12-ounce tumblers and tulips as the default glassware and nine-ounce snifters for the smallest servings. “Pint glasses aren’t an ideal vessel to enjoy craft beer,” says Josh Fernands, beer director for the restaurant’s three locations. “They’re not the best glasses for aroma or head retention.”

The flavors and aromas of beer all come down to chemistry. Reactions, a series from the American Chemical Society, takes a look at craft beer chemistry. (American Chemical Society)

He’s right on all counts, but many other 16-ounce glasses out there avoid those problems: German glassmaker Spiegelau has worked with Dogfish Head and Sierra Nevada to create 16-ounce glasses that noticeably enhance aromas and flavors. ChurchKey, which has also rejected the traditional pints, has more than a dozen different glasses, including English-style nonic pint glasses, which have a characteristic bulge in the neck.

The truth is, bars like smaller glasses because they create the illusion of lower-priced beer.

Whether you buy your beer at a bottle shop or in a bar, prices have been on an upward curve for years. Hops and barley are becoming more expensive as more than 4,200 breweries fight for a pool of raw materials. Throw in the costs of real estate and labor in the Washington market, and it’s not hard to see why $8 pints of craft beer have become common in bars here.

At Pizzeria Paradiso, at least a quarter of the beers sell for $5 and $6; the difference is they come in 12-ounce glasses. “Our goal at Pizzeria Paradiso has been to make craft beer more accessible, and that starts with the pricing,” says Fernands. Deciding to set beer prices by the ounce “allowed us to pick up more esoteric and expensive stuff, because we can put it in a smaller glass.”

Customers grumble about glass sizes, Fernands admits. But consider this: Paradiso recently sold New Belgium’s Citradelic IPA for $5 for a 12-ounce pour, or 41.7 cents an ounce. Compare that with the craft-focused Maddy’s Taproom, which sold the same beer for $6 per 14-ounce pour (42.9 cents an ounce), or the more plebeian darts bar the Black Rooster Pub, where Citradelic cost $7 per pint (43.8 cents an ounce).

There’s even the flexibility to go smaller: If a beer would potentially cost $10 for 12 ounces, Paradiso serves it for $7 or $8 for nine ounces. One digit on the chalkboard instead of two works wonders, Fernands says: “In the back of the house, you can see it move.”

Server James Warner, center, and server-bartender Kenneth Nguyen sample a lambic at ChurchKey before opening for service. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
‘A little easier to swallow’

It’s also no secret that craft beer has been bulking up, with imperial stouts and double IPAs clogging “Best Beers in the World” lists and subsequently becoming much-wanted drafts in bars. But when beers climb to 9 or 10 percent alcohol by volume, far more than the standard Bud or Miller Lite, it gives bar employees pause.

City Tap House downtown uses 14-ounce glasses for most beers, 10 ounces for special or limited beers and a traditional 20-ounce imperial pint for cask-conditioned ales. But when a cask of Heavy Seas Siren Noire imperial stout came in, bartenders served it in 10-ounce pours. “I don’t feel comfortable putting a 9½ percent beer in a 20-ounce glass,” says beer manager Dave Donaldson. “I don’t think that’s responsible.”

He has cause for concern: In most states as well as the District, “dram shop” laws allow an establishment to be held liable for damages if a bartender over-serves a customer who later injures or kills someone.

And then there’s the simple matter of looks. Jerry Moore, the food service glassware product manager at Libbey, which supplies glassware to restaurants across the country, has seen most growth in 12-to-14-ounce glasses, particularly Belgian-style footed ones. Serving draft beer in smaller, fancier glasses “enhances the presentation, closer to a winelike level of service,” he says. “If you put a [$10] IPA in a stemmed glass, it’s a little easier to swallow.” If people are paying more for a special beer, Moore says, they don’t want to see it in the same pint glass that a sports bar dumps Miller Lite into.

Bartender Ben Brown at Meridian Pint, where about half of the beers are poured into classic pint glasses. ( Lexey Swall/For The Washington Post)
‘A good, robust pour’

The pint glass — with pinkie firmly planted, along with all the other fingers — does still have its supporters. “About half” of the beers at the District’s Meridian Pint, Brookland Pint and Smoke & Barrel are poured into one, says beer director Jace Gonnerman. After all, “pint” is in the name of two of the company’s establishments. “People feel like they’re getting a good, robust pour,” he says, whether it’s an IPA, a double IPA or a Vienna lager. “We’ve always liked the feel of a 16-ounce pint in your hand.”

But he agrees that some beers are just too expensive to justify the larger pour: “When you get into $9 or $10 pints, there are people who’d like to pay a little less and get a little less beer.”

Travel up and down the East Coast, and you’ll see the issue of size playing out in beer bars from Richmond to New York, but that’s not happening everywhere in America.

In his travels around the country, Boulevard Brewing ambassador brewer Jeremy Danner has seen bars turning away from the pint, but back home in Kansas City, most bars still use them for Pilseners, IPAs and wheat beers. Why the discrepancy? Trends take longer to reach the Midwest, he admits in an email, adding, “I think folks in the Midwest expect/appreciate fairness in pricing/portions, so bars are hesitant to reduce pour sizes.”

On the West Coast, things may be moving in the opposite direction. As on the East Coast, “the shaker pint is now rapidly losing favor with breweries and good-beer pubs,” says Portland, Ore.-based beer writer Jeff Alworth, author of “The Beer Bible,” in an email. But the difference is in what’s replacing it: The glassware is getting larger, not smaller.