Late afternoon light streamed through huge storefront windows of the otherwise dimly lit Hopleaf Bar, bouncing from dozens of multicolored tap heads lined up like international trophies along the bar. At the back of the Belgian-inspired establishment, the glow reflects softly from the bartender’s clear, round glasses as he pulls a glass from the steaming dishwasher.
He goes by the name Mighty Slim but his beer knowledge is anything but slight. He’s been pouring microbrews behind this bar long before the craft brew concept skyrocketed to popularity in the last decade.
With more people swapping cheap cans of American lager for more complex microbrews, breweries, bars and liquor stores are capitalizing from glassware as a way to market and complement various beers.
Beer mugs still sell, but now so do tulips, Pilsner glasses and goblets.
He’s learned to differentiate over the years but with new breweries opening every day, it’s now a little harder to keep up. With more than 3,000 breweries now operating in the U.S., more than any other time since the 1870s, American beer drinkers have more variety than ever, and they want it in a proper glass
“There’s so much going on,” he said, his curly white beard cascading to his flannel collar. “It’s sometimes hard to keep a finger on all of the pulses.”
Brewers design or suggest the size, shape and weight of a glass depending on the flavors, effervescence, aroma, color, desired temperature and alcohol by volume (ABV) of a particular beer. Stems concentrate body heat from the holder, wide rims release aroma and tall glasses keep a beer bubbling.
A squat, footed tulip glass, for example, is used to pour a smaller serving of a hoppy, highly alcoholic IPA. The general design also provides a short stem to avoid heating the beer with warm hands.
“Gone are the days of “lawnmower beer’ or ‘t-shirt beer,’” DePaul professor Michael Lynch, who teaches a hospitality class on alcoholic beverages, said. “Beer has gotten to be as sophisticated, interesting and intriguing as wine.”
According to Hopleaf’s owner, Michael Roper, a bright red Kriek Lambic looks best in a narrow tall fluted glass that allows plenty of light to pass through, complementing the color. Other beers, like the Belgian strong pale ale Duvel, are very frothy and need to be tamed. They are often served in a “hurricane” style goblet that tapers in and then out to avoid overflow every time the glass is tipped.
Across town, Pat Brophy, buyer for Binny’s Beverage Depot, watched specially designed glasses “grow up with beer” during the early 2000s. Brophy, a home-brewer and lover of all things beer, has seen increased sales in craft beer and glasswares during his six years at the business.
Fascinated by the sudden popularity of craft beers, he believes the shift in taste sprung from the economic downturn in the early 2000s.
“Part of it, I think, is just people being wiser about how they spend their dollars,” Brophy said. “People are demanding more flavor and more complexity in all things in life.”
Part of that complexity is creative presentation. Just like a restaurant wouldn’t serve a gourmet meal on a paper plate, brewers and consumers are demanding glassware to elevate the beer drinking experience.
“Craft beer kind of took from clues from the wine industry and people looking for a quality, polished presentation,” Brophy said.
He’s seen more glassware producers dissect the drinking experience “at a microscopic level,” mirroring the language and concepts of fine wine tasting. How a beer flows over the rim of a glass to reach a targeted part of the tongue and the physics involved in creating a perfect pour are a main consideration.
The slow start of craft brewing gave glass manufacturers time to prepare for these specialized designs. Sierra Nevada and Sam Adams emerged in the early ’80s and continued to grow through a huge wave of mediocre, unsuccessful brewers in the ’90s but until the early 2000s, many emerging microbreweries fell flat.
“At the turn of the century, we got it,” Brophy said. “It just clicked.”
Goose Island and other brewers now suggest specific glass styles on their packaging and produce unique, branded glassware to accompany a variety of brews. Many restaurants and bars take care to use the correct glass, attract a growing population impressed by the details.
He stresses always drinking from a glass, never a bottle or can, and says the beer is not finished until it is poured with a frothy head and exposed to air.
Alexia Besbekos has been coming to the bar for a few years, not long enough to consider herself a hardcore regular but long enough that she knows Slim and the weekly specials.
She sips an Allagash White from a pint glass and says she rarely orders beers with a unique glass, but owns a tulip glass when she enjoys beer at home.
“A thinner glass improves the taste of some beers,” she said. “They seem to have a more crisp flavor.”
Many beer aficionados speak of the industry being in a growth bubble ready to burst, but Brophy can rather see it “slowly deflating” as competitive market consolidates.
“It’s going to be a battlefield,” he said, “(until) each neighborhood has their brewery and they have enough for their neighborhood.”
Besbekos had her choice of neighborhood bars with many boasting an array of craft beers, but she returned to her cozy, yet sophisticated go-to. If a beer war is brewing, she has put her money on this local watering hole, carefully selected glass in hand.