The Visual Power of Beer

Unfiltered by | Jul 2009 | Issue #30

Illustration by Chi-Yun Lau

From Munich to Milwaukee, when you see heads turn over a shapely, elegant glass of Hefeweizen, you’ve just witnessed the true beer experience. While taste and smell capture a lot of attention, the sense of sight is too often cast aside as a mere afterthought when it comes to beer. From striking hues to gravity-defying heads, the visual elements of beer bring immeasurable joy to the drinking experience.

We’re keen on efficiency here in the US, ruthless in our pursuit of it, often to the detriment of remarking on the value of details encountered along the way. Perhaps nothing in the beer world symbolizes this ethos better than the so-called “shaker pint.” With its utilitarian design and absence of flair or character, the shaker-pint glass screams efficiency. Once derided by Garrett Oliver as a mere “jam jar,” the shaker pint has flourished and become a mainstay in American pubs, not for its ability to improve the products contained within its lackluster glass walls, but because it stacks evenly on bar shelves. Pouring milk and sugary sodas into these beer glasses, as well as the inevitable stacking scuffs, results in instant death to your favorite beer’s head.

So tedious is the shaker pint’s design that breweries have taken to slapping all manners of logos across them. The shaker’s uninspired design, combined with the emblem army, discourage brewers from actively considering how their beers look to the customer. If the ubiquitous, poorly treated glass is designed to kill your beer’s head or obscure its appearance, then why bother spending time ensuring the sufficient protein formation necessary to well-sustained foam? If the customer cannot see foam lacing and does not expect much in the looks department, why work for improvements? The shaker pint has bred a culture of apathetic indifference in American brewers to the cause of good-looking pints.

The situation is so advanced that most American drinkers consider a frothy head to be a complaint-worthy problem. Bartenders across the country dare to get lambasted by serving their customers with any semblance of foam. And that is somewhat understandable, if entirely lamentable. While technically capable of holding 16 ounces of liquid, shaker pints in reality are often “cheater pints,” distinguished by their heavy, thick glass bottoms, barely able to handle 14 ounces. When advertised as a pint, bars manage to cheat customers an ounce or two at a time—big money over the course of a couple hundred or thousand kegs a year.

In Belgium, beer presentation is nearly considered an art form. Function and form be damned if a Brussels server takes a few extra minutes to find your beer, choose the matching glassware, present the beer to you, and slowly and methodically pour it, stopping just short of the finish to allow you to decide if and when to pour the last precious few ounces into your glass. Belgian beer glasses either can handle three-quarters of the bottle’s contents, requiring you to stop short and give it a second pour, or offer several extra inches of room, so that the head has sufficient room to expand. And the Belgians achieve all of this without cheating you out of the advertised amount you ordered. These same bars also manage to carry several dozen, if not hundreds, of individual brands, each with their own specially designed glassware. Storage problems? Never heard of them.

While it would be great if everyday American bars followed the path blazed by the Belgians, we needn’t run before learning to walk. Bars should select a half dozen different glass styles, each with the qualities necessary to present their beers in the best lights, thus encouraging sales with the corresponding head-turns and matching the expectations of their customers for honest pints, tulips and snifters. And breweries should help by discontinuing the production of the shaker pint and redoubling efforts toward promoting pretty pints. Only when these groups get together will the full beer experience be enjoyed in America.