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Beer: Why is it served in such a variety of glasses?

Different types of beer merit varying shapes and

Different types of beer merit varying shapes and sizes of glasses. Credit: Libbey Glassware

Why do beer glasses come in so many different sizes and shapes?

Recently, I was sitting at the bar at True North in Huntington. I asked the bartender if I could have a small glass of wheat beer. Sorry but no, he said. The wheat beer was served in the tallest glass he had, a full 16 ounces. At that point, I noticed that in addition to the tall, narrow pint glass, the bar stocked a whole slew of different glasses — short, tall, fat, narrow, stemmed — and the bartender knew which brew went into each one.

As I drank half my pint of wheat beer I resolved to solve this mystery. I called Vincent Minutella, whose Black Sheep Ale House in Mineola offers more than 100 beers. “Generally,” he said, “the higher the alcohol level, the smaller the glass.” That made sense to me. But then it got more complicated.

Wheat beer, Minutella said, often has an impressive head, and a tall, narrow glass allows the quaffer to “look at the head retention, how long it lasts, assess the lacing” — beerspeak for the foam clinging to glass as the head dissipates.

Belgian beers are often served in tulip-shaped glasses that “concentrate the aroma,” and special glasses for India pale ale are gaining popularity. These IPA glasses also have a large capacity — 18 ounces — but their narrow base that flares out into a wider neck, he said (not without a hint of skepticism) “is scientifically designed to rejuvenate the head, keep it stable while balancing the taste and aroma.”

Another consideration is price. The more expensive the beer, the smaller the pour is likely to be — otherwise customers would be looking at $20 pints. Minutella said that a standard 59-liter keg of Budweiser costs about $60, but that a “gateway craft beer” such as Blue Point Pale Ale runs about $140. He has purchased 20-liter “sixtels” that cost $400. “I try not to charge more than a dollar an ounce,” he said. “With some of these higher-end beers, I should be charging $17 for a 10-ounce pour, but I’ll keep it at $9 or $10.”

How many types of glasses does a bar need? Minutella allowed that the costs could add up. “Counting the ones in storage, we probably have more than 20,” he said. “If you serve a lot of different beers, you’re looking at a minimum of a dozen.” Not only is the initial investment in stemware high, but “people like to steal them.”

One solution to stemware run amok, he said, was to use wineglasses. Big, bulbous Bordeaux glasses hold up to 20 ounces, but don’t look funny holding much less.