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Why Beer Deserves Better Glasses—and Which Ones Make It Taste Best

How to make a brewmaster happy? Treat his beer like the fine wine that it is.

When legendary brewmaster Garrett Oliver showed up for a party last month at Maialino, Danny Meyer's fancy Roman Trattoria in New York, he bore a case of Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout to pair with dessert. The waiters dutifully started to pour the beer into classic dimpled mugs—you know, the kind any bartender would serve you a Guinness in. Oliver's face fell. He sees people abusing his beer all the time, treating it more like soda pop than a handcrafted beverage. Politely, he asked them to use white wine glasses instead. "I'm not kidding," he said as if he's used to hearing chuckles at such a request. "If I had only one glass in my house, it would be a large white wine glass."

Oliver has been Brooklyn Brewery's brewmaster since 1996, so he's had some time to think about the topic. "Over the years I've hosted more than 900 beer dinners in 15 countries around the world," he explains, "and at the vast majority of them we've used white wine glasses, which work well for tasting almost anything, from spirits to beer or sake." So what about all those logoed pint glasses we see at great beer bars? "Good beer glasses are great, too," he said, "I especially like the ones Riedel makes through their Spiegelau line." Just not the dimpled ones. Here's why: The refraction of light masks the way the beer really looks, the thick rim makes the beer slide down the palate too quickly compared to thinner rims, and swirling is made more difficult in a big heavy mug.

According to Oliver, beer offers even more diversity than wine and deserves more culinary credit. "Beer has a wider range of flavors than wine—and I'm a wine geek!" As he sees it, beer brewing is more like cooking than it is like winemaking.

As if to prove the point, he recently teamed up with Lior Lev Sercarz, the chef-owner of La Boîte in New York, to brew a beer named Cuvée La Boîte. "Lior added espelette peppers, fresh kaffir lime leaves, crystalized honey, citrus peel and saffron—it was amazing" says Oliver. "Beer can taste like anything from coffee to bananas. This gives well-brewed craft beers the edge with a great range of cuisines."

In another recent collaboration, with Red Hook Winery in Brooklyn, Oliver mixed the lees (residual yeasts left over from fermentation) from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes with a Belgian style Strong Ale to create Cuvée de la Crochet Rouge, a rose-colored beer that tastes like a fine, aged, slightly oxidized Champagne. When I remarked on the similarity, Oliver reminded me that it was brewers who taught the Cistercian monks how to make Champagne.

Hardcore drinkers will appreciate the science and real-world logistics behind the glasses. The rim of a glass and its thickness sends your liquid of choice to a specific part of your palate, which affects its overall taste as it spreads from that initial point of contact with your tongue (what pro tasters call the attack). Fine glassmakers strive for superthin rims. The problem is that restaurants and bars are reticent to use them because they break so easily.

It may sound crazy but I've actually tasted through dozens of glasses with both experts in the field—Georg Riedel (10th generation wine glass maker) and Maximilian Riedel (11th generation)—to see how it works. Each time, amidst dozens of fine crystal glasses, there was always the equivalent of that dimpled beer mug—a clunky, thick-rimmed stem glass akin to Grandma's Waterford. And its thickness and blunt rim sent the wines to the tip of my tongue—where sweetness is registered—rendering everything overly sweet and out of balance.

If there's one lesson I've taken away it's that thin is in, even if you're drinking beer.

—Follow Anthony Giglio on Twitter at @WineWiseGuy.

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Image courtesy of respective personality.
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