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The thing to drink: the beer glass and the beer experience.

In the beginning, there was beer. It was cold and it was draft and it was served in a chilled, straight-sided pint glass and it was ... well, if not exactly good by the standards of today's aficionado, at least predictable. And there was peace in the land.

Then came the beer revolution and with it all manner of unusual beers in flavors and styles and strengths never seen before. And while these new beers were still mostly cold draft served in a chilled, straight-sided pint glass, change was in the air. More bottled brands were appearing and creating demand for themselves, many arriving with their own specialized glassware and even instructions on how to keep and pour them. Further, the draft beer market was likewise heating up, and where it was once sufficient to boast a couple of taps, draft lines were now coming in groups of ten or twenty.

By the mid-nineties, while it might not have been readily apparent in precisely which direction the beer market was headed, one thing had become abundantly clear: beer was no longer "just beer." "Cold" and "wet" were not sufficient any more, at least to a growing number of beer drinkers, and so-called brand loyalty, long a central tenet of the beer biz, was fast becoming an arcane relic of a time gone by.

Call it the dawn of the "Beer Experience."

Today, that same "Beer Experience" concept plays a pivotal role in the premium beer market. It's what people expect, consciously or not, when they walk into places like the south's Flying Saucer chain, Philadelphia's Monk's Cafe, Lucky Baldwin's in Los Angeles or my own beerbistro in Toronto, and it's starting to play a part, too, in many non-beer specialty bars and restaurants. The "Beer Experience" can be delivered in many different guises, from exposure to new beers or beer styles to the flourish of tableside service to the (often unexpected) pairing of a specific brew with a particular dish, but at its heart is one simple element: Make beer drinking different.

If all this sounds a bit strange, think back for a minute to the way Americans drank wine only a few decades ago. Then, any wine that wasn't sweet was considered the height of sophistication, and if you really wanted to impress the table, you'd order a bottle of something red, preferably red and French. Factors that we now take for granted, such as the pairing of wine with food, simply weren't factors at all.

We've come a long way from then to today's wine dinners, super-sommeliers and twenty-choices-by-the-glass wine lists, and now we've embarked on a journey down a similar sort of road with beer. Which is not to say that the major, mass-market labels are about to disappear any time soon--we still see jug wine in the stores, don't we?--but that a new level is being created in beer culture.

Selection is obviously a key component in this evolution, both in draft and bottled beer, but presentation plays an important role, as well. Server understanding of the beer's flavor and aroma, the ability to provide background on the brewery or style, and even knowing how to correctly pour the ale or lager are vital to proper presentation of a super-premium domestic or imported craft brew. And that's not even mentioning the glass in which the beer is served.

(Once more, if concerns about beer glassware seem curious, think to the example of wine. Today's Reidel crystal is certainly miles from yesterday's fifty cent stems, just as the Belgian, German and Dutch examples are pulling beer glasses forward from the reliable but hardly pleasing to the eye 'shaker' pint glass.)

For certain beer styles, the proper glass is not just a matter of aesthetics; it is vital to the taste and appearance of the beer. Take German wheat beers, for example. These light-bodied, fruity-spicy ales, variously known as weissbiers, weizens or hefeweizens, are normally bottle-fermented and highly effervescent. (Non-bottle-fermented examples, which are filtered and pour with none of the cloudiness of a beer bottled with live yeast, are generally identified as kristall or kristallklar.) Pour one, yeast and all, into a straight-sided pint and you will find yourself with a glass of half foam and half beer. Employ the gently sloping, vase-shaped weizen glass of tradition, however, and it becomes elementary to pour an elegant, and culturally correct, two fingers of snow-white head.

Even specific beers, such as the legendary strong golden ale, Duvel, may demand their own glassware. In Duvel's case, a twelve ounce bottle is poured into a glass which resembles a cross between a snifter and a tulip, and has the capacity to hold almost twice the beer's volume. Again, the reason for the glass is the bottle-fermentation of the beer, except in this case, instead of suppressing the foam, the Duvel glass's role is to allow the foam to bloom and thus release the ale's naturally pent-up carbon dioxide.

Of course, in Belgium, the beer glass is raised to an art form, with not just Duvel but each and every individual brand getting its own, distinctive vessel. (Some Belgian cafes have been known to take the matter so seriously that they have refused to serve a certain beer if they didn't have the proper glass available!) More and more, however, breweries in other lands, and even here in the United States, have been following the Belgian lead.

The good news in all of this is that most beer importers and a good number of craft breweries are willing to provide glassware for their beers, conscious as they are of how presentation can affect sales. And when you see the orders for a specific beer mushroom as customer after customer plays "me, too" once they see it served for the first time in its proper, branded glass, you will equally appreciate the power of the beer glass. Add in a little server knowledge and understanding and you'll be well on your way to providing a true "Beer Experience."

Stephen Beaumont has written five books on beer and is a leader in beer education for service industry professionals. His most recent venture is a partnership in the Toronto restaurant beerbistro, one of North America's only restaurants devoted to beer cuisine.
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Title Annotation:CURRENTS
Author:Beaumont, Stephen
Date:Oct 1, 2005
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