Saturday, 21 September 2013

Drink To Me Only With Thine Eyes

Most beer drinkers will know that the visual aspect of a glass of beer plays an important role in the appreciation and enjoyment of the final product; most sensible beer drinkers that is! Of course there are those who prefer to “neck” their beer straight out of the bottle, trendies on the one hand and out and out plebs on the other. With the visual side of things missing, beer consumed in this fashion just doesn’t taste as good. This applies to even the lowest forms of brewing; the likes of American Budweiser, Fosters, Carling etc., as even with these lacklustre brands, the brewers will have gone to great lengths to ensure the consumer ends up with an attractive looking, crystal clear product in the glass. Why then swig the stuff out of a bottle?

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!

7 comments:

Ed said...

A pewter tankard is my current drinking vessel of choice. Can't say I've noticed any metallic taste. Maybe they've improved them.

Paul Bailey said...

I think they must have improved them, Ed. Mine's over 40 years old, and as yesterday's test proved, it imparted a definite metallic taste to the beer.

Cooking Lager said...

A plastic bucket is my current drinking vessel of choice. 99p from B&Q. Reduces trips to the fridge.

Bryan the BeerViking said...

I've both pewter and silver tankards somewhere, when I've a moment I'll do a comparison - perhaps alongside my drinking horn. (-:

RedNev said...

There is a difference between branded glasses which are just ordinary glasses with the name of a beer printed on them, and the shaped, branded glasses that are supposed to enhance the flavour, as with Belgian beers. I'm not one of those who are irritated by being given beer in the wrong glass, even if the glass says 'John Smith's Smooth', usually an excuse for a friendly joke at my expense.

I prefer what we used to call a straight glass (so called, even though they were never straight), and always asked for one in pubs that used handled dimple tankard glasss. Even the unloved nonic was preferable

We certainly do drink with our eyes, despite what some real ale bores say, and that is natural because 10,000s of years ago, our ancestors' survival could depend on it. I also take the view that at nearly £3 a pint, I expect what I buy to look enticing.

Paul Bailey said...

Nev, you must be lucky to still find beer at under £3 a pint! In this part of the country the £3 barrier was breached a long time ago, and in some pubs it is fast approaching the £4 mark. All the more reason then to expect one's beer to not only look enticing, but to be in tip-top form as well.

Going back to the straight versus handled glass debate; I much prefer a straight glass and always used to ask for one, rather than a handled dimple tankard one back in the days when I started drinking. Handled glasses were very popular forty odd years ago, especially in local Whitbread pubs for some strange reason. We used to refer to them as "jugs", and after virtually disappearing, they seem to be making a bit of a comeback down here. I'm not sure why, but it's probably just another example of the cyclic nature of many things, particularly the rather fickle world of fashion.

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