Friday, 12 October 2012

Why so many branded beer glasses? Here's why...

Afternoon! We’re just snuggling up to the weekend again, and you know what that means: it’s time for this week’s post. I’m pushing the boundaries of absurdity again this week, as I unveil a post that I’ve been working on for ages. Finally it’s ready, or at least as ready as it’s ever going to be, and it proves that I’ve been thinking far too much about why there are so many branded beer glasses out there these days.

Thanks for stopping by. If you can be bothered to read the post, that would be lovely, though I do hope you’ll take it in the spirit with which it is intended, and that perhaps you’ll come back next week to see what I’m going on about then. Leave me a message if you want, but most importantly, have a great weekend and enjoy yer booze.

When you go out for a beer these days, you might be noticing that with increasing frequency each beer is coming in its own ‘unique’ glass – one I had in Belgium came in a wooden tankard – now that was special. Run and tell that, Fosters. I don’t have a picture because that was well before I started this blog and before bottles and glasses became my surrogate family, but if you imagine a tankard made out of wood, you’ll get pretty close to what it looked like.

This trend for branded glasses has progressed to the point where you sometimes receive an apology with your beer if you don’t get it in the right one – as if it’s a status symbol, and you’re supposed to care. Let me tell you now; I don’t.

pretty generic
Don’t look at me like that. I’m not ordering the beer for the glass it comes in. Maybe if the glass was interesting enough I might – like the wooden tankard - but most of these glasses aren’t that distinct, and the ones that are are way too feminine, so any self-respecting heterosexual male would be reluctant to drink out of them. We’re not fighting a battle for metrosexuality here. It’s only beer, and I don’t believe branded glasses have much (if anything) to do with flavour; it’s really all about marketing and brand visibility, though it has to pretend that it’s not.

 “You drink with your eyes first,” says Guinness Brewmaster, Feargal Murray in this article. No-o-o-o… you only drink with your eyes first if you’re an idiot, and someone’s told you you’ll get drunk quicker if you pour vodka directly into your eyeball.
San Miguel

Becks Vier
‘You drink with your eyes first’ is just a platitude, and too often people hear a platitude and think that just because someone’s said it, and it sounds clever, that it’s the truth. Another one that Guinness espouses is, “good things come to those who wait”. What is it with Guinness?

Just to clarify on the first point, you look at the pint with your eyes first. You might then make a subconscious assumption as to how good it’s going to taste, but it’s only going to taste how it tastes, and that assumption is only based on the fact that you already like beer.

So does Leffe need to be served in that ridiculous (and feminine) pseudo-wine glass (pictured below)? The first time I received a Leffe in that, I had to drink it quickly in order to go back and get a pint that came in something more manly – instead of something that made it look like something more manly might come in me…

feminine Leffe glass
I’ve heard that the glass plays a part in making sure the [precious] liquid makes contact with the correct part of your tongue for tasting it – but that is assuming that different tastes (salty, sour, bitter, sweet and umami) map to different areas of the tongue, and according to Wikipedia, fount of all knowledge, they don’t; taste qualities are found on all areas of the tongue with some regions being more sensitive than others. Isn’t that whole idea a little patronising? Why can we not be trusted to shift the liquid to the ‘right’ parts of our tongues of our own volition?

If we need different shaped glasses to ensure we enjoy our beer properly, how come cutlery isn’t even more complicated than it already is? Why don’t we have a fork for making sure the chicken gets to the right part of our tongue? Then another fork for the cabbage, one for the potatoes and a straw for the gravy? Presumably someone realised the washing up would take five times as long.

While I’m on the subject, has anyone invented a fork that penne won’t fall off of? And what about the Chinese? They aren’t even bothered, are they? Their cutlery isn’t even anywhere near as complicated as ours; it’s just two sticks!

Nevertheless the different types of cutlery are devised for practical reasons – to make it easier to consume items, not to make sure you taste them properly.

Different shaped glasses can alter the experiencing of a drink to some extent, it can make the act of drinking more or less comfortable, the act of holding a drink more or less awkward, it can make your drink look more or less attractive (subjectively), or you could argue it has a psychological effect on how much you enjoy the drink, but for my money it tastes the same when it’s in your mouth - which is the important thing. Isn’t it? Or are all those things important? Psychology could potentially be quite important, but you could say that about anything. The important factor in a steak is the quality of the meat, and whether it’s cooked to your preference, not what plate it is served on. You could serve it on a naked lady and stick a sparkler in it (the steak, not the lady… unless you prefer it the other way around…), but would that make it taste any better?

There is a restaurant where you dine in complete darkness – the point being that you don’t make any preconceptions about what you are eating, or about the people you are dining with. That sounds like it would be an experience, but it doesn’t make the food at that restaurant any better than the food at any other restaurant. It just means you’ve been stimulated intellectually while you were there, and that you’ve enjoyed the food, free from preconceptions based on what it looks like. Presumably presentation isn’t an important consideration in the kitchen there.

It could all be brown slop, and you wouldn’t know (but what would be wrong with that? Gravy is brown slop and that’s lovely. And chocolate ice cream). If all restaurants served their food in complete darkness though, it wouldn’t be special. Similarly, if every beer has its own glass, that loses its appeal also, and you’re not even intellectually stimulating drinkers by serving their drinks in fancy glasses.

A bit of internet research turned up quite a bit of division and a good deal of unqualified opinion – it is the internet, after all, and everything I write is unqualified opinion anyway – that’s what the internet’s for; writing a bunch of crap, and then thinking that perhaps someone else in the world gives a shit, or is even going to read this far. [Are you still there?]

So I found some sites that said, “the glass makes no difference to the flavour of beer”, and nothing more. Thanks for that. However, here at Drink It How You Like It, I like to point you in the direction of genuinely useful sites (and there are a surprising amount of useful booze related ones), so you might like to pay a visit to this one. It has a lot to say about the benefits of using different types of glasses, and what beers suit each type. It maintains that the shape of the glass is far more than just marketing, and says that beer novices hold that view. I’d hardly call myself a beer novice, but I might seem like one to a beer snob

To be fair, the defence of variations in glassware smacks a bit of unquestioning enthusiasm for all things beer-related. There’s nothing wrong with enthusiasm, but you should be aware that not all things that are associated with beer need to be celebrated.

Now, a large part of Beer Advocate’s argument is that it makes the beer look nice. It does go on though to argue that scientifically the glass has an effect on head retention and that this is important because the head holds a number of volatiles - which is desirable because there’s all flavours and stuff in there. Nowhere does it imply that the glass ensures the beer comes into contact with the correct part of your tongue for tasting it – I’ve checked.

I’m prepared to accept that stuff about head retention and volatiles, though. For a while I’d been working on an investigation into the way a ‘perfect pint of Guinness’ is achieved by way of the two part pour. While everyone else seems to positively celebrate the two-part pour, I don’t like it because I get annoyed with having to stand at the bar for longer than is strictly necessary to get a pint – the liquid itself tastes the same either way. I’ll admit that a correctly poured pint of Guinness looks nice, but that’s not what I’m thinking when I order it. I’m ordering it for the taste, and then I’m disappointed that I forgot it took 119.53 seconds to pour it, and I wish I’d ordered something else. All beer looks nice anyway.

The thing is, the more research I did into the two part pour, the more I came to understand it. I still don’t like it, but the two part pour is at least a little bit about getting the balance of flavours right, as well as being about looking good. The head tastes different to the body of the pint, so you don’t want too much of one and not enough of the other. Therefore the two part pour helps facilitate the pouring of the pint in the correct proportions. It just happens that in marketing, it is beneficial to turn a negative into a positive.

What is the drawback with Guinness? It takes two minutes to pour a good one. Don’t dwell on that, celebrate it  - change ‘it takes two minutes to pour a good one’ into  something frighteningly specific like ‘it takes 119.53 seconds to pour the perfect pint of Guinness’ - because you can measure the time it takes to pour a pint in hundredths of seconds (have you ever seen a bar tender measure the time he spends pouring your pint? I haven’t. And I’m sure I’ve never had one that took exactly 119.53 seconds). Call it an art form, make it a selling point, celebrate it.

In lager the head is just froth at the top (and for my money, not pleasant to drink, though it is better to have some head than a flat looking pint with none at all), but you can drink the head of a Guinness like you can the rest of it.

The glass is also fairly important in pouring Guinness, since the harp marks where the first pour should end, and the shape (it is said) facilitates the ‘Guinness surge’, which is the rush of bubbles you see running down the glass, though from my research I don’t recall the chemical reaction that causes the surge being important in terms of flavour, it just looks cool. In fact, I had a can of John Smiths Extra Smooth the other night, in a pretty standard pint glass, and there were bubbles surging in that, regardless.

Conceivably, if it does take 119.53 seconds to pour a perfect pint of Guinness, why don’t they install a mechanism in the pumps that does the first pour for a specific amount of time, and then does the second pour for the exact right amount of time also, so that, in combination, it comes to 119.53 seconds?  Then you wouldn’t need a harp on the glass, there would be less scope for human error, and you would always be able to get a pint that was poured in the exact correct amount of time. Why? Presumably because it’s not that important.

Yes, you could say I’m being ridiculous, but no more ridiculous than the suggestion that a pint can be poured in 119.53 seconds.

Apart from your specialist Belgian beers, a lot of the beers you get coming in their own glasses are lagers like Carling and Fosters. Stella Artois comes in all kinds of glasses, and in fact there have been more than one type of Stella Artois branded glass (a selection is pictured here), so I don’t think you can tell me the glass has that much of an effect on that particular beverage, because if it did, there would only be one type of branded glass per drink – unless there are scientists at Stella Artois who keep finding better and better shaped glasses. I don’t think they put quite that much thought into it, do you?

If you’re that into beer that you want it in a specific glass… you probably shouldn’t be drinking Stella. Or Fosters. The breweries want you to think that they are trying to enhance your enjoyment of their product, when all they’re really doing is coming up with marketing gimmicks.

Yeah, I know, I’m being a bit cynical here. It a lot of cases it’s probably just a case of someone getting excited and saying, “hey, wouldn’t it be cool if our beer had its own glass?” It doesn’t mean we have to get all precious about it, though.

One of the points Beer Advocate makes is that in some cases, the glass is designed before the beer. Isn’t that getting things the wrong way round? That’s not even putting the cart before the horse, it’s putting the cart inside the apples. If the shape of the glass is so important, you should be tailoring it to your beer, not designing a cool glass and then trying to make a beer to go in it… Make the best beer, not the best beer that goes in the glass you’ve designed.

If you manufacture a beer though, and you want to mess about with this branded glass stuff, make sure you do something special. This is quite a good example. This (right) is a glass of Jeremiah Weed ginger ale that I bought Brenda a few months ago on a weekend away. And that's me in the background. It’s a jar with a handle. See? I like seeing things like that. Be creative. Make it special. Did that make it taste any better? No, but if you knew it was supposed to come in that glass and it didn’t, you might be disappointed.

Is there a conclusion to be drawn from all of this? Well; yes. If you accept that different types of glass suit different types of beer, then you can conclude that there only needs to be as many types of glass as there are types of beer (so you know, one type for stout, one for premium lager, one for wheat beer, etc…). Anything else is marketing. A pub need only keep the right kind of glasses, not a glass for every beer.

There’s a pub I’ve mentioned before, The New Oxford in Salford, where they do actually give you the right glass for every beer they serve. Now, I do appreciate the attention to detail that that requires. They have a shit-ton of obscure Belgian beers and real ales, and they pluck the right glass off the shelf with a degree of professional pride that is a pleasure to behold. It’s the fact though, that all these individual glasses have been produced that means they have to do it. It makes the experience more authentically Belgian, and it wouldn’t be the same if they just served the beers in generic beer glasses. No one would know though, if the individual glasses didn’t exist, so… when you get right down to it, does it enhance the experience of drinking beer, or does it needlessly complicate it?

I suppose this is where we are now, brought by decades of free market capitalism. We’re stuck with it. To remove all the different glasses would be to move towards a state of communist uniformism. We’d all be driving identical grey cars, wearing identical grey suits, and have more or less identical grey lives before you knew it. And we’d only need one type of beer. Ok, so most of us do have identical grey lives, but at least our cars come in different colours, suits in different fabrics, and there are tons of types of beer. In a world where the economy is founded on perpetual growth, but supported by finite resources, these are the kinds of things that are needed to keep people in work and the wheels of society turning.

So shall we just keep all the different glasses? Yeah, go on then.


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