The Belgians have long realised the importance of matching beers with the correct size and shape of glass, although they have gone a stage further by offering branded beer glasses. Running a bar in Belgium must be a nightmare in respect of the different types of glasses one needs to stock, but I have to say the correct glass for each individual type and brand of beer does add something to the drinking experience. Branded glasses are nothing new in the UK either, even though the majority are chosen from the most popular styles of pint glasses, with the appropriate brewer’s logo, or brand name shoved on them. I have some interesting examples at home; some dating back to the 1950’s, or perhaps even earlier, which show that brewers have been promoting their wares in this fashion, for a long time.
The importance of good glassware to the enjoyment of good beer, was brought home to me back in the summer, during my visit to Franconia, primarily because in many places there was an absence of glassware altogether! In this region of Germany, ceramic, stoneware mugs, known as “Steinkrugs” are the order of the day, particularly in the more rural spots. Stoneware mugs have the advantage of helping the beer to remain cool over a longer period of time than would be the case with glass vessels. Many of them are branded, normally with the brewer’s name or logo fired onto them. I can appreciate the reason for their popularity, having experienced on my past two visits temperatures in the mid 30’s, but I do strongly feel that however functional and traditional they might appear, they detract from the enjoyment and appreciation of the beer, especially as the beers of this region are among some of the finest in the world.
Every time I have had a Franconian, or indeed other beer, served in this fashion, I can’t help wondering what the colour of the beer is. I’ve tried waiting for the foam to subside and then trying to peer down through the beer, but the off-white-greyish colour of the stoneware prevents all attempts at trying to guess what the true colour of the contents of my mug, actually is. I have actually discovered that some of the beers at least are lighter in colour than they seem, proving that taste is no indication of colour. I know this because I brought a number of bottles home with me, having enjoyed their draught counterparts whilst over there. I still remain curious as to the colour of a lot of these beers, and next time I visit the region I’m tempted to take a small glass mug with me, so I can decant a small amount and see for myself!
Of course totally opaque drinking vessels are not exclusive to Franconia. Tankards fashioned out of pewter were once common place in English pubs, and a few decades ago seemed to be experiencing something of a revival. I remember receiving from my parents, neither of whom are drinkers, a pewter pot, for my 18th birthday in what was probably some kind of “right of passage”, something that seemed the right thing to do when their eldest, and only, son turned eighteen. When I proudly presented it at the local pub, the landlord warned against polishing it, and told me the pewter would take a while to “condition”. By this he meant it would need to develop a protective “oxide” coating, before it could be drunk out of. Of course I couldn’t wait for this to happen and insisted on being served a pint in it straight away. It was then I noticed the characteristic “pewter taint”, a slightly metallic aftertaste associated with this alloy. Modern pewter is lead free and, so it is claimed, does not taint the drink which is kept in it.
I disagree, as although I have been through phases of using my pewter tankard, mainly at home, I still find a metallic tang present; even after all these years! Pewter, like stoneware, does keep the beer cool for longer, although I am not sure quite how long this effect would last in the hot temperatures found in Central Europe during the summer months. Pewter, being a metal, is a far better conductor of heat than ceramic, and would undoubtedly heat up much quicker than the latter, thereby negating any initial advantages it may have.
Leaving matters of taint and rate of heat transfer aside for a moment, I can think of few, if any, reasons for wanting to drink out of a pewter pot (ok, if you knock a pewter tankard over, or drop it on the floor, it won’t break). Pewter has none of the advantages of stoneware, but all the disadvantages; the biggest one for me being not being able to see what I am drinking. Pewter also has associations with middle-aged Morris-Dancers (tankards hanging from clips on their belts), or the worst sorts of bearded beer-bores and scoopers! Having said that, I’m still tempted to give my old tankard another go, solely out of curiosity and in the privacy of my own home! I want to see whether years of standing empty in the cupboard has done anything to diminish that unpleasant metallic taste, or whether the beer still ends up tasting like metal polish!
To sum up, like it or not, we all drink with our eyes – “bottle neckers” and ultra-conservative Franconians aside, meaning that glass is not only the best, but also the obvious choice for the proper appreciation and enjoyment of good beer.
Footnote: I retrieved my pewter tankard, dusted it down and gave it a thoroughly good wash and rinse. That was this afternoon, and this evening I poured half a bottle of Brakspears Bitter into it, and poured the rest of the bottle into my usual drinking glass.
Verdict: still a definite metallic taste, and nose, lurking in the background when the beer is drunk from the pewter pot. Untainted, and exactly how the brewer intended the beer to taste, when drunk from a glass. Sad to say, but my old pewter tankard will be relegated to the back of the cupboard again!