The Arguments For And Against The Shaker Pint Glass

The straight pint glass isn't evil, despite what some beer nerds may say.

In the December issue of Beer Advocate magazine the Alström Brothers, Jason and Todd, have made their predictions for the coming year in beer. Number four (of eleven) is this: “Despite all the Q4 2012 hate toward the American shaker pint, it'll survive another year as the preferred serving vessel for beer as they continue to be inexpensive, stackable and versatile.”

I'm pretty sure no one would argue with that because the shaker pint is just about the most ubiquitous pint glass, and the cheapest it's possible to produce. I have to say, though, that it's been thought of as infra-dig by beer connoisseurs for far longer than just the past three or four months. It's been the subject of numerous blog posts, articles and online conversation going back many a moon, and the Sam Adams Perfect Pint Glass, which Jim Koch devised partly as an improvement over the shaker pint, has been around for five years now.

I've made no secret of my love of beer glasses of all shapes and sizes. I take as much pleasure in drinking beer from a chalice as I do from a slender pilsner or hefeweizen glass, a curvy Guinness tulip, an old school fluted mug, a Belgian-style globe or a plain, straight-sided pint glass. I have a pair of Sam Adams Perfect Pints, and I must say that it's a seriously handsome glass, very pleasing to hold and I use it on an almost daily basis for all kinds of beers, even those for which I have the 'correct' (according to some) shape glass in my cupboard.

But I have far more shaker pints than any other shape and I have no problem using one at home or being served one at a bar, and since plenty of respected beer bars still use them they can't be all that bad, right? I usually don't care much for flippant or smart-arse remarks and ripostes but there's one that fits the situation perfectly – first world problem.

I know, I know. Everything's relative and if something's important to you it's worth standing up for. When it comes to the shape of my beer glass I guess I just draw my line of importance in a different place compared to those who demand the 'correct' glass. And more power to their elbow – if it wasn't for those who care deeply about things most other people feel are relatively insignificant and not worth bothering about there'd be no baseline, no standards, nothing to measure by. The discord arises when they start demanding that others dance to their tune and criticising those who don't, instead of keeping it within their own world. So let's take a look at some of the arguments for and against the straight pint glass.

1. Because it has no handle or stem you have to hold the glass itself and your body heat warms the beer.

I believe that to be an infinitesimally small factor. If it takes me, say, 20 minutes to savour a pint of beer, I reckon I hold the glass for less than 5% of the time it has ale in it, unless I'm in a particularly busy bar or pub with standing room only, meaning there's no table for me to put the glass on when I'm not sipping my beer. What's more, while normal body heat might be around 60°F higher than the usual serving temperature of most beers, your extremities (fingers, toes, earlobes) are a good few degrees colder. The ambient temperature of the bar probably warms the beer more than your fingers do.

It also assumes that the usual serving temperature of beer is the right one and the beer should be kept at that temperature at all costs: not so, with one or two exceptions such as lagers. Bars aim to keep and serve their keg beer at a degree or two either side of 38°F (3.3°C). Any lower than that and it's difficult to form a head; any higher and the beer starts to foam up and becomes difficult to pour, but for most ales (top-fermented beers such as pale ale, brown ale, stout, IPA etc) it's too cold to get the full flavour from the beer. Add another 10°F or so and you'll find a far more interesting liquid in your glass. That's why a lot of beer geeks will get a bottle out of the fridge ten or fifteen minutes before they want to drink it, so that beer can warm up. Cold diminishes flavour.

The fly in the ointment here is cask-conditioned beer. If you're drinking cask beer in a pub that keeps its firkins in a cellar your pint is already at optimum temperature when it comes out of the beer engine. I guess the only solution is to drink it quickly before it warms up. One other reason why British session beers are under 4% ABV, perhaps.

2. The tapering shape of the glass does nothing for head formation and actually helps the head to dissipate more quickly.

I can see the logic of this argument. If you've ever had to pour beer into a tulip glass (aka poco grande) and the beer in question is a bit lively you'll know that it takes a lot more skill than pouring beer into a shaker pint, and the reason is simple. If, halfway through the pour, the head is one finger deep and the glass gets wider towards the top, the head has room to spread out and it will get thinner (although a skilled bartender will be able to maintain the right amount of foam throughout the pour so that it finishes with a perfect head), but if the glass gets narrower the head has less room horizontally, and that volume of bubbles has to go somewhere so it expands vertically – it gets deeper. That throws off a lot of bartenders who are acclimatised to pouring into glasses that get wider towards the top because they're not used to the head suddenly accelerating towards the rim and overflowing as it gets squeezed into a narrower space.

However, I have to say that if you get a beer in a shaker pint and there's no head, or the head dissipates quickly, you have either:

*  a beer that hasn't been well designed and has poor head retention

*  a beer where poor head retention is a characteristic of the style

*  a beer poured by an inexperienced bartender

*  a beer from a keg that's too cold

*  a beer in a glass that's been chilled

*  a beer in glass that isn't beer clean

Beer clean?

If your bar is using a dishwashing machine to clean its glasses, especially if it's the same machine they use for the pots, pans, crockery and utensils, your glass won't be 'beer clean', a bona fide term used in bars. Oh sure, it'll be sanitised (hopefully) and it might be halfway rinsed, but there's likely to be soap residue or rinsing agent on it, and when was the last time the dishwasher changed the water in the machine?

A good craft beer bar will hand wash its glasses with the three-sink method. The first sink contains a suds-less glass cleaner and one or more rotating brushes which the bartender will use to clean off any physical detritus. The second sink contains water for rinsing off the cleaner. The glass goes in bottom first so that it fills with water (if it goes in upside down you might get an air pocket – no contact with the water and therefore no rinse) and comes out right way up. Bartenders call this 'heel in, heel out'. The third sink contains a sanitiser, and again it's heel in, heel out, then the glasses are left to drain and air-dry upside down and away from the washing area before being put back on the shelf.

Let's be honest though, while there are plenty of bars who employ the three-sink system, it's far more time-consuming than loading glasses into a rack and shoving them into a dishwasher. There are many other bars who just wouldn't be able to keep up when the punters are six-deep at the bar on a slamming Saturday night and the bar-back called in sick, so they have to use a machine. As long as they change the water often and only use it for cleaning the glasses it's a compromise I'm willing to accept, just as long as they don't put them in a pint chiller afterwards.

3. It's ugly and boring

While there may be concepts such as the golden ratio, which has long been believed to be aesthetically pleasing to human perception, beauty is most definitely in the eye of the beholder. I can appreciate the simplicity and the clean lines of the straight pint glass every bit as much as the voluptuous curves of a tulip glass, whether Guinness or Duvel, and the classic shape of a Westmalle chalice.

The shaker pint is so called because it's one half of a Boston shaker for mixing cocktails, and if you've ever had to order a case of them you'll know that the invoice will usually refer to them as a 16oz mixing glass. But I think it would be pretty cool, and more fitting, if the name came from the Shakers, whose plain, well-made and functional artifacts (especially the furniture) are now highly collectible, and are reproduced at prices way out of my range by very skilled cabinet makers. To my mind the shaker pint bears comparison to Shaker furniture in its simplicity, functionality and lack of adornment. Less is more.

As for it being boring, well I think whoever wrote that must have a very low threshold of tedium.

4. It cheats the consumer

This has nothing to do with the glass and everything to do with regulation. The standard shaker glass holds 16 fluid ounces – the same size as an American pint. A good bar will post its prices somewhere, perhaps on the menu or on a blackboard, including the serving size. If it says a beer is $5.00 a pint you should expect to get it in a 16oz glass and with no more than a finger of head, which comes to the rim of the glass. If it doesn't specify, you might get 16oz, or you might not. There are 'cheater' glasses that look like they hold 16oz but which have a thicker bottom and walls or might be slightly (but almost imperceptibly) smaller and only hold 14oz, but you're still paying the pint price. For shame!

In the US there's not much you can do about this other than let a manager know of your displeasure and/or vote with your feet and never go there again, but in the UK a pint glass (20 fluid ounces) must hold a pint by law, and if it doesn't there are people you can go to for redress.

Another factor here is that in most British pubs you, the drinker, go to the bar to order your beer and you carry it to your table. On the way there you might spill some. If you're smart you'll take a sip from it first, although you can't do that with your friends' pints if you're buying a round. In the US it's far more common for your beer to be brought to you by a server and even the most experienced waitress might spill an ounce or two, which is why a lot of bars won't fill the glass to the rim figuring that it's going to spill over the edge anyway and it just means a bigger carpet cleaning bill. A finger of head on top of the beer will prevent that.

5. The beer doesn't taste as good

Not so, strictly speaking, but there's a grain of truth to this one, and it goes back to head retention and clean glasses. The actual flavour of the beer is exactly the same whatever kind of (clean) glass you drink it from, but smell accounts for a large part of the experience, as I'm sure you'll know from not being able to taste anything when you have a streaming cold.

The head on a glass of beer is where a big part of the aroma lies, and it also prevents volatiles (chemical compounds that evaporate quickly) in the beer from disappearing into the atmosphere, thus diminishing the flavour, albeit very slightly. A beer clean glass will hold its head far longer than one which hasn't been so scrupulously cleaned, especially if the glass had previously held something with a measurable fat content such as milk, and even if anything that previously had fat on it, such as a plate, has been cleaned in the same machine as the glasses. That, of course, goes for all glasses, no matter what shape they are.

As a defender of the straight pint glass I know I'm up against some pretty big names – just about everyone who's anyone in the craft beer business, including the owners of one of the most respected breweries in the country, Russian River.

You'll notice though that they said “ a beer tasting." Quite so. If you're tasting beers you want a glass that lets you swirl the beer around to release its aroma, such as a tulip or a wine glass, and without spilling it as you swirl. A pint glass doesn't do the job so well: it's too big and the profile is the wrong shape. I've seen instances of people using a pint glass at a tasting, covering the top of the glass with their hands and then smelling the beer through a gap. Well, all you're going to smell there is your hands and whatever's been on them.

But for most of us, most of the time, the straight pint glass is perfectly adequate for our everyday beer enjoyment. When we drink a pint at the pub or bar we usually do so in an atmosphere of conviviality, not geekdom. When we're talking to friends, telling off-colour stories, questioning the referee's parentage, speculating on everything from the next election to the coming baseball season, we're generally not savouring every aspect of the beer and worrying if we're getting everything from it that we could be if only it was in a different glass. Life's too short.

The shaker pint is comfortable to hold, even for long periods when you're forced into to vertical drinking because all the seats are taken. It's cheap, which means that when the bartender drops one on the floor or you slip one inside your coat before you leave it costs the bar less than a dollar to replace it. A shaped glass (goblet, chalice, pilsner, globe), on the other hand, can cost up to five times that, even more if it's a brewery glass. Bars don't always get those for free, y'know, so DON'T STEAL THEM!

And it really doesn't ruin a pint of beer.

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