Not all beer glasses are created equal, or at least that’s what the folks at Spiegelau, Sierra Nevada and Dogfish Head have proclaimed with the recent release of a style-specific IPA glass. The collaborative project between the two breweries and German glass-maker has been in the works for quite some time and has finally made it out into the world to (hopefully) enhance our appreciation of lupulin-heavy beers like IPA.
I first got wind of this project last summer while co-hosting a glassware seminar with Matt Rutkowski, Vice President of Spiegelau USA, at the Savor the Central Coast event in Santa Margarita. We tasted four different Firestone Walker beers in the four glasses of the Spiegelau Beer Connoisseur Set, along with each in a standard shaker pint glass, which is the most common beer glass in the United States.
Rutkowski told me that he had been working with teams from Sierra and Dogfish to fine-tune the perfect glass for IPA. They felt that as IPA was quickly becoming one of the most popular styles of beer in the U.S., it deserved a glass designed to accentuate its signature hoppy characteristics. My interest was definitely piqued, but he said the release was months away.
Coming away from that seminar, I learned a few important things about glassware that even this self-proclaimed glassware geek hadn’t considered. For one, the material matters; lower-quality glass is brittle and breaks easily. To compensate, the glass needs to be thick, with a rounded lip to maintain durability. More glass equals more thermal mass, which causes your beer to warm up unless the glass has been chilled. This warming effect also causes your beer to go flat faster, due to the fact that the solubility of carbon dioxide in beer decreases as temperature increases.
A thicker glass lip also dumps the beer into your mouth, versus the more accurate palate delivery that a thin, cut lip on a higher-quality glass promotes. More glass just gets in the way when it comes down to it. Spiegelau and other similar higher-quality glasses are made of much stronger, blown crystal glass, which allows very thin walls while retaining superior durability. They source their silica from a German quarry near the factory that also provides materials for the fiber optics and medical industries.
Because of this, when you pour a beer into one of their glasses, very little heat gets transferred. As an added bonus, I have been using their glasses 90% of the time when drinking at home for the last eight months, and have yet to break one, while several other glasses have met an early grave in my sink during that time. Knock over a product from Spiegelau and they are more likely to bounce than shatter.
My other big take-away was that most branded glassware is just brewery marketing and often made of low-quality glass that doesn’t do anything particularly good for the beer. The shaker pint is the epitome of this – cheap advertising meant to help sell beer to people who hopefully don’t know any better. In my previous column on glassware, I celebrated the diversity of glasses around the world for different beer styles, but when it comes down to it, many of them are about branding and appearance over substantive benefit to the beer drinking experience. Even many fancy Belgian chalices are basically thick glass bowls that do more to evoke monastic imagery than to enhance the beer in any way.
How much does any of this affect your personal beer drinking experience? That’s really something you have to see for yourself. I decided to test the new IPA glass, which is currently available from Sierra Nevada and Dogfish Head, and will be shortly directly from Spiegelau. Since I had already compared Spiegelau glasses side-by-side with shakers before, I knew it wouldn’t be much of a competition, but we decided to include one anyway as a base-line for the common IPA drinking experience. Then, we added the Spiegelau tulip glass as the third contender, to test the IPA glass next to a glass of equal quality that is also designed to enhance aromatic beers. For our test beer, I chose to go with Pale 31, a dry-hopped West Coast pale ale. I wanted a beer that I am intimately familiar with and could guarantee a good sample. Pale 31 is also on the more delicate side as far as hop character, so any flaw in a glass’ ability to accentuate hop aroma would be noticed.
All three clean glasses were filled at the same time from three bottles out of a six-pack, and the tasting session commenced.
On the appearance front, the shaker retained a moderate head for several minutes and then left a ring of foam. The tulip initially offered a smallish head with visible carbonation trails, but had trouble sustaining the head after a few minutes. The IPA glass poured the biggest head which stayed around the longest. More bubble trails were visible as well, likely due to the nucleation point on the bottom of the glass. Upon drinking, the ridges at the base of the glass agitated the beer, also contributing to sustained foam. I had heard others comment on the unorthodox appearance of the IPA glass, but I actually found it rather charming with a full pour in it. The tulip is a classic look but I have to give the edge to the IPA glass here, with the shaker a distant third.
The aroma was what it all came down to for me, and the IPA glass delivered in spades. I knew from past experience that the shaker would do poorly, and there were no surprises; it was vague and weak compared with the other two, and even started to show a papery, oxidized quality after a few minutes while the others did not. The tulip delivered a soft, round hop aroma with more emphasis on juicy fruit and flowers. The IPA glass delivered an edgier citrus and fruity aroma, with a good deal more intensity. It really was like sticking your nose into an “olfactory cannon” – to borrow a phrase from Dogfish Head’s Sam Calagione. The bottom ridges of the glass came into play, automatically kicking out more aroma with each sip, an effect the tulip showed only with aggressive swirling. While both the IPA glass and the tulip presented the aroma nicely, I was surprised at how much more I preferred the IPA glass.
The flavor/mouthfeel differences between the glasses were most apparent in carbonation levels and delivery onto the palate. The shaker glass warmed faster than the other two as the heat from the thicker glass infused into the beer. This caused a faster carbonation loss, even when compared to the etched IPA glass. I would speculate that the somewhat narrower surface area of the IPA glass helped in this department, balancing the effect of the etching. It was roughly equal to the tulip in this respect. Palate delivery with the IPA glass was somewhat like a pilsner glass in that it was directed more to the center of your tongue, while the tulip was more to the front. The IPA glass just felt like you get a slightly more balanced flavor, conducive to quaffing instead of sipping. The tulip glass made me want to take smaller sips, but that might just be because I’m used to drinking bigger beers out of tulips. I’d pretty much lost all interest in the shaker at this point but I will say that the delivery was less controlled and didn’t do much for the flavor.
Overall, I think I have a new go-to glass for pale ales and IPAs. The aroma delivery is just as good, if not better, than a tulip, while the feel is more like a taller pint/pils glass, which is the perfect combination for me. I know that people will continue to judge it for its unique looks, but I wouldn’t rush to judgement without trying it for yourself. In the land of the IPA, this glass just might be king.