Calling time on the pint glass
2nd February 2012: The Guardian Word of mouth blog.
The pint glass is an outdated relic and beer drinkers have been subjected to it for too long. It's time to put it out to pasture, says Ben McFarlan. The Guardian.
Fancy a pint? No, not really. Just look at it, it's not very fancy-able is it? Not in its most common form at least. With its bulbous podgy neck and swollen fairground fighter lips, it has all the allure of a derelict lift shaft.
But, say its supporters, the pint glass is a British imbibing classic, an imperial symbol of defiance that says "back off" to Brussels and its metric meddling. It's true that drinking pints is what we've been doing since the late 19th century; prior to that, the more common way of drinking beer was in a larger "quart" or a "pot" whose measurement was nearer two pints (and from where, it has been argued, the admonitory "mind your Ps & Qs" phrase originates).
By the late 19th century, pub-goers were drinking out of pint sized pewter tankards and pink (yes, pink) china pots with a strap handgrip. George Orwell was a big fan of the china beer pot – and bemoaned their demise in his famous Moon Under Water essay of 1946. By the 1890s, pint glasses were becoming increasingly popular too – their transparency allowing landlords to pour half-pints without argument.
Thick of glass, slightly sloping and held at the base, this primary pint glass was usurped in the 1920s by a ten-sided alternative complete with handle and from which dark beers such as porter and mild were drunk.
After the second world war, and as lighter looking, copper-coloured bitters became more popular, beer drinkers began reaching for dimpled mugs. Belying their glass grenade guise, dimpled mugs didn't break as easily and combined with the ale's lighter appearance, added a touch of kaleidoscopic charisma.
Alas, any aesthetic ale-drinking allure was forsaken in the 1960s when the "nonik" glass, with its swelling beneath the rim, was introduced. Designed for the landlord rather than the drinker, the (no nick) glass didn't chip like its predecessors, was cheap, sturdy, stacked well and was easy to clean. The problem is it demoralises the drinking experience. Regardless of what Michael Caine claims in Get Carter a straight "thin glass" is an archaic imbibing instrument, a moribund weapon of mass consumption that shows little love for the liquid inside.
Beer brands have tried to make the pint sexier using nucleation, embossing and logos while in America, the Boston Beer Company recruited a team of world-renowned sensory experts to develop the ultimate pint glass for drinking Samuel Adams Boston Lager.
In an attempt to add a measure of retro-reverence, upmarket venues such as Hix and the Booking Office Bar in St Pancras Station have brought back the pewter tankard, and an increasing number of pubs have revived the dimpled "handle".
Design aside, you've got to question the capacity. The pint is too much. These colossal containers made sense back when Britain was a manufacturing power and when sweaty browed folk could quaff large quantities of liquid (often around 3-4% ABV) after a hard day hitting stuff, building things and generally working up a mighty thirst. But they're outdated in a nation where more people work in marketing and PR than manufacturing, where the majority of construction lies in building the hopes of deluded reality TV contestants or mountains of debt. Why don't we drink smaller measures?
The pint really is an absurd amount of liquid when you think about it. That the only other drink sold in pints is milk says it all. Lovingly crafted beer shouldn't be classified as a commodity like semi-skimmed – it's a quality artisan product deserving of reverence equal to wine and spirits.
Decanting expensive single malt or, say, a 1992 bordeaux into a pint glass would be considered sacrilege, so why would you do it with beer? Whisky and wine drinkers never say "it's nice but I couldn't drink a pint of it," and nor should beer drinkers. There is, of course, more alcohol in wine and whisky and there's no doubting that you can drink beer in larger measures. But, on the whole, beer is a lot stronger than it used to be and, besides, it's not about quantity, it's about quality.
With volume sales of beer declining over the last 20 years, brewers are instead looking to raise value. Much like in Belgium, where nearly every beer boasts its own bespoke glass, beer needs to be treated with the reverence it deserves.
The government took a step in the right direction earlier this year when it legalised the ⅔ pint measure. Up until then, pubs could only serve beer in a ⅓ pint, ½ pint or a pint. The move was part of the coalition's "nudge" approach to improving the health of the nation, and while the majority of bars have yet to embrace the modest measure for fear of selling less beer, the idea is catching on in an increasing number of specialist craft beer venues.
Drinking a British beer in a ⅔ pint glass may befuddle traditional beer drinkers, but I've tried it and not only does the beer taste better in my opinion but, even more remarkable, the world kept turning too. There is an array of alternative options to enhance the elbow-bending experience. Realising that the shape, size and other attributes of a glass can affect our perception of not just wine but beer too, swanky glass manufacturers such as Dartington Crystal have developed particularly voluptuous vessels for different beer styles.
But which glass suits which type of beer? A glass that enhances the aroma is essential. The sensory experience is largely about the nose. Not enough drinkers smell their beer and, in doing so, miss all the sensual hop scents.
A light, aromatic ale or lager needs something that gently funnels the delicate nose into yours and allows the floral elements to be enjoyed. A more open-topped glass, such as a whisky tumbler, is ideal for big barley wines and highly hopped export IPA. This allows the aroma molecules to dissipate and present a more balanced bouquet (yes, that's right, I wrote "bouquet" in a beer blogpost. How do you like them apples?). To use a glass that tapers in would overwhelm one's hooter.
Wine glasses work really well with beer. Stemmed glasses designed for white wine, or even champagne flutes, are ideal for light and spritzy beers such as pilsner, kölsch and wheat beers. The temperature of the beer rises slowly in thin glass while the stem means your hand won't warm it up either. Bigger red wine goblets, meanwhile, bring out the best in dark, malt-driven fuller-bodied beers like porter, stout and scotch ales - their bulbous shape allows you to cradle the beer, warm up the beer and swirl the aromas awake.
So there you are. Pub-goers, it's time to put the pint out to pasture.