Do You Need Fancy Stemware?
Have you ever eaten yogurt with a fork? Ever had cereal from a coffee mug? Coffee from a mason jar? Have you, like me, made nachos in a saucepan because you didn’t have a baking sheet?
Then you know that a food or beverage vessel is, for the most part, aesthetic.
Wine stemware vendors like Riedel and Spiegelau stand to make a lot of money off the idea that you need a specific wine glass for every different type of wine. Same goes for beer glasses; fancy beer bars and shops are often stocked to the ceiling with goblets, tulip glasses, weizen glasses, snifters, and even boots for your tailored drinking pleasure; if nothing else, a fancy glass helps justify the $12 price tag for a ten-ounce pour of Abt 12.
Now’s probably a good time to mention that I write all this from a kitchen that has three full shelves devoted to stemware. So what’s the point?
What Stemware Does
- It makes your drink look cool. Stemware is pretty, and designed to show off its contents, which is why stemware trends have changed along with the beverages they contain throughout history. The appearance factor is a benefit for you, the consumer (badass boss that you are), and for bars and restaurants since it contributes to ambiance.
- It also allows you to see any faults in your drink; while that’s rare in these days of filtration, it does happen.* (Before pasteurization, filtration, electric lighting, and other joys of modern science, drinks were served in tankards rather than glassware so you wouldn’t have to see any of the debris that would almost certainly be lingering at the bottom.)
- It helps identify your beverage. Just as wine bottles vary depending on style—riesling bottles tend to have narrow, thin shoulders, and pinot noir bottles tend to have a massive “punt”**—stemware types signify what you’re drinking. If you see a snifter of beer coming your way, it’s likely to be high-alcohol and pricey, because that’s the vessel of choice for imperial stouts, Belgian quads, and barleywines. If you see a boot, you’d better hope it’s a light lager.
- Stemware influences function. Pint glasses with a bulge—Nonik or “no nick” glasses—are popular in restaurants, where easy handling, stacking, and cleaning are a priority. Good stemware also affects how you drink. The snifter, which originated in the height of cognac’s popularity, encourages swirling and slow sipping—which is why it’s a good choice for a complex, high-gravity, rare brew. A pint glass fits in your hand nicely for sessioned gulping.
- It promotes the aeration of your drink by maximizing surface area (as with the bowl of a wine glass) and then, in theory, concentrates that aerated aroma in the direction of your nose with a smaller rim. More on this below.
What Stemware Doesn’t Do
- Show so much difference in taste between one product and another that the average person should worry about it. A 2000 study published in the Journal of Sensory Studies gave non-expert subjects the same wine in four different glasses: a crystal goblet, a cheap wine glass, a Riedel chardonnay glass (wider bowl; shorter) and a Riedel Bordeaux glass (taller and more narrow). Blindfolds and chin rests ensured that subjects couldn’t feel the glass differences (and that they looked as ridiculous as possible while tasting). Differences were subtle: wine in the Bordeaux glass was deemed less intense, and people who liked red wine (unsurprisingly) rated the red wines more favorably.
- Sorry, Carlsberg, but it’s not actually possible for your glassware to increase the carbonation of a beer. That’s determined during secondary fermentation or force carbonation, well before the beer hits the glass. However, etching will cause bubbles to form around your brewery logo for a nice highlighting effect. (Sans etching, bubbles coming from the sides and bottom of your glass indicate a dirty glass, which ruins lacing and proper head retention. So clean your glasses, kids.)
- Reflect so much of a beverage’s unique personality that it makes sense to have specific stemware for every drink. This is a great way to sell things, though (I’m looking at you, Sam Adams Boston Lager); in the Victorian era, the popularity of specific stemware sets—champagne flutes, wine glasses, and brandy snifters—began to arise with the desire for displays of wealth and status in individual homes.
So why care about stemware? Well, the aeration thing is important. The reason people swirl their glasses when at a wine or beer tasting is that oxygen exposure releases aromas. And if one glass allows a different rate of aeration from another, a careful taster will notice. In my wine study group, we’ve had disputes over flavors where one taster thinks a wine is super high-alcohol and another thinks it’s actually quite restrained; when they swap glasses, the mystery is solved. I was thrown way off at my WSET exam when a wine we’d been served before was presented for the blind tasting—in a different glass. What had previously been a super-floral, tropical-fruit-salad Albariño had become a meek little wallflower, and I marked it as a poor example of the style rather than the “textbook” wine I’d noted earlier in the week.
Is the average person going to notice these differences? Probably only if you try them side by side. In my wine classes I love to pour sparkling in the traditional flute, which was designed to show off bubbles and not much else, and in a regular wine glass. People are always amazed at how much more they can smell when they use the regular glass with its wider rim and larger bowl; flutes are great for cheers-ing but terrible for swirling.
But if you’re just hanging out at home with a glass of wine, it’s probably not going to taste noticeably better or worse than usual if you put it in a tumbler rather than a wine glass. And since so much of stemware’s effect is circumstantial, I’ll say what I always say: life is short, so drink it how you like it.
*I found a piece of bread in my pint of beer at a dive bar once. I’m not sure what was more troubling: the fact that the bar didn’t serve food, or that while I was waiting for a re-pour, the man next to me noted my red coat and suggested that the bread crust was placed in my beer by “the Wolf.”
**The space in the base of the wine bottle. You can fit your whole fist in there sometimes. Jokes are made.