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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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.)
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.)
  3. 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.

Julia Burke

Julia Burke

Julia Burke is a Chicago-based wine professional and freelance writer with an interest in social justice. She has been known to drink Grenache with PB&J. Follow her on Twitter or on Google+ or check out her website at Stellenbauchery.

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18 Comments

  1. October 19, 2015 at 12:03 pm —

    The most common claim I’ve heard about why stemmed glasses are important for wine is that having a stem to hold the glass reduces heat transfer from your hand to the wine, which would impact the taste. Is there any truth to that?

  2. October 19, 2015 at 1:07 pm —

    I hear that a lot, and honestly it would surprise me if the body’s 98 degrees or so could transfer heat to a wine faster than just exposurr to room temperature in the time it takes to drink a glass. But it’s worth an experiment! I have stemless and stemmed glasses at home so I’ll try it and report back.

    • October 23, 2015 at 9:20 am —

      Cool, I’m curious to hear what you find out! It doesn’t seem totally crazy to me — you’re right that the body isn’t necessarily that much warmer than the room air, but the human hand has a much higher heat capacity and conductivity than air does, so it could transfer heat much more effectively to the glass. But on the other hand, wine, being mostly water, also has a really high heat capacity, so should be able to resist the change in temperature well. I bet you’re right that it doesn’t actually matter much. I’m generally a real nurser when it comes to wine, and even for me the wine doesn’t usually seem like it’s warmed significantly by the time I finish a glass. But I also don’t have a very educated palate.

      • October 23, 2015 at 11:18 pm —

        Re: Stemmed vs unstemmed and wine temperature.

        I always found this a bit specious, as unless you are clutching your glass for the duration it’s unlikely to make a difference. And if you are clutching your glass, and you care about the temperature of your wine, *put your glass down!* Problem solved.

  3. October 19, 2015 at 3:53 pm —

    Soda does taste different if drunk out of a glass than a plastic or cardboard cup. There’s something about it being colder in a glass.

    A ceramic coffee mug is best for coffee, and tea, as it keeps the beverage hot for longer than a thin-walled porcelain cup or the waxes cardboard cups used for coffee to go.

  4. October 19, 2015 at 5:01 pm —

    My wife and I own one set of wine glasses for any wine we drink. Having the stem (even if it’s not the right kind of wine glass) at least makes us feel like we aren’t barbarians, but we’re both too practical to get different stemware for each type of wine.

    Good article, interesting read.

  5. October 19, 2015 at 5:16 pm —

    I was watching America’s Test Kitchen a while back and I think they concluded that for sparkling wine, a narrow flute is better than a wider glass because it restricts the loss of carbon dioxide bubbles, keeping it fizzier for longer. I like to drink gueuze and kriek out of tall flutes as well because they feel lighter and more delicate on the tongue.

    Another point I just thought of…. a couple weeks back on the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe, they were talking about iconicity in human language. I wonder if the same principle applies – “big” flavors get big, deep glassware and more delicate flavors get small, narrow glassware.

    • October 19, 2015 at 5:18 pm —

      Though to clarify my last comment, it makes total sense why a wider wine glass would be good for a full fledged tasting of sparkling wine because of the tasting and aroma.

  6. October 19, 2015 at 9:14 pm —

    Ah! Now I know the name for a punt! Those things are obnoxious as hell when trying to reuse bottles for home brewing – I just toss out bottles with a punt instead of even trying to get my bottling wand to work properly with them.

    I would love to have a good collection of glassware someday (we have some, but it’s not excessive) in large part because it symbolizes hospitality and being refined and stuff like that. But it’s good to know I’m not missing out on a ton of my experience with beer by drinking most things from a pint glass.

  7. October 19, 2015 at 9:20 pm —

    I used to have an absolute OCD horror of guests using glassware for the “wrong” beverage, with milk in a beer glass being the gravest offense. I did seem to find that high-proof booze was too overpowering in glasses that narrowed at the top, possibly because of vapor collecting. And champagne may not not taste any different out of jelly jar than a flute, but it seemed to me it smelled much better in a tall, narrow glass.

  8. October 20, 2015 at 8:23 am —

    I use Dixie cups for all my wine swilling because nothing goes better with a good muscatel then an Elmo joke.

    • October 20, 2015 at 4:05 pm —

      I do have a set of stemware. The biggest advantage is that the cup itself is so small.

      I also have some shot glasses, which are even smaller.

  9. October 20, 2015 at 4:04 pm —

    I never even heard there was allegedly some special benefit to particular stemware wrt: the taste of wine. But I could see the importance of appearance.

  10. October 23, 2015 at 4:04 am —

    Based on personal experience the etching in beer glasses makes a difference. There is a well-known beer glass in Australia called “Headmaster” that’s main feature is the etching on the bottom of the glass. The Spiegelau IPA glass also has etching on the bottom.

    Like you said, the carbonation level of the beer is determined earlier on (force carbonation levels for most beers, priming levels in bottled conditioned beer), but etching will increase the phase change to gas, so it will be fizzier, but not fizzy as long.

  11. November 3, 2015 at 11:40 pm —

    Well done Kris, I’m also from Australia and was thinking the exact same thing as you as I was reading the article!

    The reason for having etching in the bottom of a beer glass is to bring the carbon dioxide (or other gas, depending on the beer) out of solution at a quicker rate than it would without the etching, in order to retain a better head on the beer.

    The reasons for wanting a better head on the beer are twofold: firstly it presents better and gives the impression of a good quality beer with good carbonation, rather than a flat beer when there is no head; and second because when you drink a beer with a good head on it, just like drinking a coffee with nice milk foam on top, it gives a nicer, richer mouth-feel.

    It is such a shame that more pubs don’t catch onto this concept. The glasses are only slightly more expensive than a standard glass and the beer always looks better with a nice head all the way to the last mouth full.

    • November 5, 2015 at 8:55 am —

      Wow, never heard of this thing about etching in the bottom of the glass. Do you have any links to an explanation of the chemistry behind it? I couldn’t find any in my research.

      I agree that beer on draft should have a quality head for both taste and appearance purposes! Drives me nuts when there’s none; it’s hard to lift the beer without spilling, it doesn’t taste as good, and it makes me wonder if there’s residual sanitizer in the glass.

      • November 5, 2015 at 9:29 am —

        They are called nucleated glasses (the etching provides nucleation points for the bubbles, same thing that Mentos does for Diet Coke though not as rapidly) and they are the new thing in beer delivery technology.

        OK, that last part was a bit facetious but I found more about it by Googling nucleated beer glasses. It’s interesting, at least if you want to follow the advice of someone who calls himself Mike Meth.

        • November 5, 2015 at 8:36 pm —

          I think the main brand name is Headkeeper although there are several, and as noted above the technical term for them is nucleated glasses. Nucleation sites help to “kick off” the process of state change between solids, liquids and gasses. They help gasses come out of solution (i.e. nice head on your beer) and dissolved ions to come out of solution (i.e. making crystals from super-saturated solution). It is also why your chemistry teacher told you to put boiling chips in your glass beaker in chem class, because it gives the dissolved air a starting point to help it come out of solution, otherwise there would be no bubbles for a while until suddenly you’d get one or two very big bubbles and water coming out everywhere. This doesn’t happen in your average pots and pans because there are plenty of flaws in the surface that provide nucleation points.

          Here is a link to how and why nucleation points in general work:

          https://www.quora.com/What-are-nucleation-sites-and-how-do-they-work

          The other interesting point is that not all beers are carbonated 100% with CO2, some include gasses like nitrogen because it creates smaller, finer bubbles (Guiness does this). However the nucleation sites work just the same regardless of the gasses involved.

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