A lot has been mentioned on the shape of beer glassware the past many years, much of it I think has been misrepresented and largely misunderstood (that’s a whole other story that I have touched on here). Beyond the shape of the glass I believe there is a more important issue to discuss – the proper handling of beer glassware. We might not know it, but we’ve all seen glasses full of beer that are certainly clean by Health Department standards, but definitely not “beer clean” (or “beer ready” for those on the MBAA side of things). These glasses show themselves clear as day – with bubbles that form and gather on the inside wall of the glass, caused by oils, soap residue, or dust that form little nucleation points inside the glass. Worse still, we have all seen glasses with lipstick on them – quite possibly the most atrocious thing one can see on a premium beer. In this brief piece I’ll highlight the causes of these issues and your best remedy as a beer-loving individual.
The ‘beer clean’ glass is important for several reasons. First, it promotes great head retention. Second, it is visually appealing – which we seem to undervalue as beer drinkers for some reason – we love the aroma and taste of beer, but somehow have become apathetic when it comes to its overall appearance. Finally, it maintains proper levels of carbonation in your beer. As we seek to elevate the status of beer beyond a fizzy yellow liquid, we ought to look at more than just the beer – we need to be concerned with the choice of glassware (at least a little) and we need to focus on the stunning beauty a well-poured beer should display.
What can I say, lipstick happens. As a bartender I have let glasses with lipstick (or lip gloss) pass to the customer. When I see it, even if the glass is half full, I discard the beer and set the glass aside for a proper cleaning. To be blunt, it is the duty of the bartender to make sure every glass is clean of someone else’s lips – and I can make excuses for why it happens occasionally, but bottom line is no matter the ‘why’ it is simply unacceptable. If you’re in the business of serving beer, it should be a top priority to make sure lipstick smeared glasses never make their way to the consumer. We have two easy ways to filter these glasses out – when unloading glassware from the racks to the shelves, and before pouring beer into the glass. During the unload stage, just lift the glasses up to the light and look for lips, if you have a lip smear just set aside and deal with it as time allows.
As passionate beer geeks I have seen many of you say what I have been guilty of saying myself, as a consumer – that the alcohol will kill anything harmful and that all is well with the beer. While that part may be accurate, we overlook one important item – it’s gross! We hear a lot of talk about “elevating beer” – well, this is where is starts. No passionate and self-respecting wine enthusiast would accept a world-class glass of wine smeared with someone else’s lips, and neither should we. Speak up, let the bar keeps know and demand that the beer you paid a premium for is worthy of a clean glass.
Perhaps the most common offender in the beer-clean glass discussion is the scuff marks inside a shaker glass that has been stacked. Stacking glassware where the exterior of one glass touches the interior of another glass is a common practice – it saves space and most often is never thought about twice. We ought to think about it. The scar marks inside the pint glass create small (or large) nucleation points that create bubbles on the wall – we’ve all seen it. While mostly fine, these little carbonation creators can also make a beer go flat quicker than we might like (granted, most of us seem to have no issue putting down a pint in short order). Perhaps that isn’t the important part. What is important, again, is the stated desire to ‘elevate beer’. If a restaurant or bar is charging $6, $7 or $8 dollars for a premium beer, it should look appealing – sexy, in fact! Presentation is huge in the way we look at food and drink – and sloppy bubbles on the glass looks just like that, sloppy. If you’re paying under $5 for a glass of beer, I assume you have fewer expectations. We all know, however, that the $5 pint of craft beer is growing more and more rare.
The solution here is quite simple – don’t stack your glasses in a way that scars the interior of your glass. If you need to stack glassware, try to do it in a way that doesn’t impact the inside of the glass.
Bars the world over polish their glassware with a dedicated towel. In the wine world it is an important way to remove water marks, making the glass appear pristine. In the beer world, this is a practice that should be avoided, or at least modified. Using a towel to polish the inside of the glass will no doubt leave dust inside the glass, even if you don’t see it with your naked eye. This dust becomes apparent when you add beer, this is when you see bubbles form in nice, uniform patterns that tend to go up at a 45-degree angle. As a rule, and this is important for anything you serve, the inside of the glass belongs to your customer and the outside of the glass belongs to you – once the glassware is clean, you should never have reason to touch the inside of it… not with your hand, not with a towel. I’d generally add to this rule that the bottom exterior of the glass belongs to the barkeep. Yes, it is a good and necessary practice to polish the exterior of your glassware, removing finger prints and smudges, but just be sure to leave the inside of the glass alone. It should be obvious, but if you find debris on the interior of a glass that has already been washed, remove the debris and re-wash the glass.
This isn’t a practice I see a lot these days, but some folks out there still like to dry glassware with a towel. I suppose that’s all fine and good at a home setting, but not behind the bar. Let your glasses air dry, sure to have a drying rack or mat beneath the glass to allow for air flow. For starters, the towel you use to dry glassware is likely dirty and has no place on anyone’s glass. Secondly, much like the polishing practice listed above, you really just introduce dust to the interior of the glass.
Dedicated Beer Glass
This is one area I am hesitant to speak on, because much of it has to do with space and necessity, but if you’re selling premium beer for a premium price, you need to have dedicated glassware. As mentioned above, some bars treat their spirits and wine glasses different than we want our beer glasses treated. I know of a few places that use the same glassware for high-end wines and beer – which would be fine if they didn’t insist on polishing every piece of glassware inside and out. If you’ve made the investment to carry world-class beer, it at least deserves dedicated glassware that is beer clean/beer ready.
In general, the Health Department standards for glassware washing will ensure that the glass you drink from in free from contaminants and things that may make you ill – rest assured, the glass is likely cleaner than it needs to be. That said, there is a difference between a clean glass and a ‘beer clean’ glass, and as the number of craft beer bars grows, so too does the need for this education.
If you’re a home bar drinker, getting your glasses beer clean may prove to be more challenging. I’d start by recommending that you use dedicated beer glassware – don’t use your beer glasses for coffee, or juice, or whatever. Next, I would recommend not hand-washing with dish soap – dish soap is terribly difficult to rinse out and will limit the beer’s ability to form a proper crown. I know friends that use straight hot water, and the brilliant beer mind that is Stan Hieronymus has a few recommendations of his own (baking soda, for instance). The biggest thing at home is to be sure everything you use to clean the glass is dedicated to glassware – that means towels, brushes, whatever – if it’s used to clean your beer glass, it’s only used to clean your beer glass.