I’ve worked in the beverage biz and other related fields (restaurants, journalism) for over forty years, now, and there is very little that I (as an off-center and endlessly curious type) haven’t tried in the way of figuring out what people want to drink/eat and why they want it. In that time, though I wasn’t counting, I know I’ve done well over 150 taste tests, ranging from new dishes I’ve invented to cocktail recipes to blind tastings of beverages of all types.
I have also been (and still am)…well, besieged is not an inaccurate term, by representatives of various accessory items, mainly in wine, wanting me to review and/or recommend all manner of gadgetry, from the ten million different widgets that aerate your wine to various growler and decanter inventions to things that allow you to drink it without opening the bottle. (Yeah, right.) But none have been more persistent, insistent, and resistant to either my lack of interest or lack of endorsement than the agents and distributor’s reps for the Austria-based glass manufacturer, Riedel.
Georg Riedel, the tenth-generation scion of the Riedel family to manage the family’s 250 year old glass business, is the man usually credited for coming up with the company’s most famous operating principle: that the nature of the grape varietal calls for a different shape for each glass and that the shape concentrates the aromas of each grape, individually, while directing the liquid to different parts of the palate that respond best to each varietal.
I’m NOT here to impugn the credibility of Riedel and don’t have the influence to do that, even if I were inclined. What I will do, however, is to note that, after better than two dozen tastings intended to determine the effect of the Riedel glasses, over the past 23 years, I simply cannot agree with their dogged insistence that every wine will taste better in a Riedel glass than in a lesser vessel. I will also note that Riedel glasses are exquisite pieces of drinkware and perform beautifully and I have no argument at all with some affluent someone who wants to buy “the best” choosing Riedel. My only complaints, in fact, are that these glasses (the really great ones, anyway) are prohibitively expensive for the average wine fan and that some of them, specifically the Sommelier Series, break if you look at them too hard. Both of those things can be said about a LOT of wine glasses, though, and Riedel is by no means the worst offender.
But I have now done this test of the Riedel glasses at least a dozen times on my own initiative and a few more than that with a Riedel rep on hand and the conclusion is inescapable: in total blind tastings – tasters actually blindfolded, in some cases – the Riedels were preferred…51% of the time.
FIFTY-ONE percent. In short, dead-even with the “lesser” glass against which they were pitted. Those other glasses ranged from the bargain-tier alternatives from Riedel’s own stable – their Spiegelau glasses of comparable design – to other high-end names in the wine glass biz to $4.99 specials grabbed off the shelf at Cost Plus. In each case, the same wine was poured into both glasses and the tasters were told nothing about either the glass or the wine. They were asked to say which wine tasted best. There were three flights in this test: a high-quality, critically-praised red priced at $40+, a mid-tier wine with good scores and a price tag around $20, and a wine which I knew had real problems, usually at a price point north of $25.
In the tastings against glasses that were actually cheap – none was over $10 apiece – the cheapo was actually preferred 46% of the time. The Spiegelaus rated dead-even with the pricier Riedels, an exact 50/50.
This drove the Riedel reps CRAZY. I have absolutely NO idea why my little wine shop in Woodinville seemed so important, when I was being hounded there, or why my opinion seemed to critical to Riedel’s plans for world domination, as I wasn’t even writing this blog when the vast majority of these visits took place. I do know that several of the reps requested that I not tell customers my conclusions, as they felt that the company’s reputation precluded having some logic-resistant weasel like me out there counter-pointing their mountains of scientific evidence. To those guys, I always made the same deal: if nobody asks my opinion, I won’t give it. If they do, I won’t lie.
So, how did my tastings skew so far from what Riedel claims is the true effect of their products? I have a theory and it applies not only to using Riedel glasses but to using the various sizes and shapes of beer glasses, shot and highball glasses and, in fact, ANY glass used as the vessel for consuming any liquid.
Human beings in general, and Americans specifically, are wildly suggestible creatures. Nobody likes to admit it because one of our prime national character traits (or so we all like to think) is this image of ourselves as the same sort of rugged individualists as our pioneer forefathers. We firmly believe that we “think for ourselves” and “follow our own path/heart/muse” and that nobody can or should tell us what to think/say/like/do. And if somebody did did, in fact, come to us and tell us we had to drink out of Riedel glasses, Riedel’s stock prices would plummet like Wiley Coyote bumbling off a cliff face, holding an anvil.
But we hear things. We as a society are suggestible by inference and peer pressure. It’s how we form habits in anything. For generations, young American wine newbies were told, usually by their parents, parents’ friends, a relative, a sommelier in some fancy restaurant, or by that ubiquitous Bohemian type at college, that French wine is the best in the world. (You remember that guy: the one all of us seem to encounter, who bummed around Europe, smoked black French cigarettes or a Meerschaum pipe, wore all black before Goth was cool and then dead, and is the first full-blown snob most of us ever encounter.) That belief of French supremacy has been remarkably persistent and many people believe it still, in the face of mounting evidence that great wine is being made almost everywhere, these days. We all “know” that Rolex makes the best watches, Mercedes makes the best cars, and Thomas Edison was our greatest American inventor, that Chilean wines are full of pesticides, that all pink wines are sweet, that lotsa hops make a great beer, and that Budweiser is “The King of Beers”…when almost none of those is the final truth, or even the whole story. We “heard it was true“, but most of us can’t even remember where we heard it or from whom. Riedel proclaims, loudly and very publicly, that any wine will taste significantly better when pouring from a Riedel. And they have the financial means to see to it that most of the wine-drinking world gets that message, repeatedly. What is an impressionable American wine drinker going to think? Especially when there have been enough wine professionals who have drunk that Kool Aid – out of a Riedel, of course, because everything tastes better from a Riedel.
I’ve recently encountered more and more discussion of why those tall, straight-sided, downward-tapering pub pint glasses – the near-universal Shaker Pint – should be immediately and ruthlessly stomped out of existence; why they’re the “wrong glass” from which to drink beer. Just last week, the owner of one of the most prominent beer sites in the country, a man for whom I have a LOT of respect and regard, came out and said that, “While people are completely justified in hating the pint glass as a tasting glass…” And a post from last year at a site called inthecapital.streetwise.com, by a guy whose list of articles shows about 100 posts on a broad range of topics but only four even remotely about beer, wrote a post entitled, “Why The Wrong Glass Will Make For a Terrible Beer Experience“. There is some article, somewhere, just about daily, now, in which someone takes a shot at drinking beer out of anything but “the proper glass”. When the beer sites begin peddling this stuff, it’s clear that the infection couldn’t even be stopped by an emergency edict from the CDC.
This is all startlingly recent. Until just about a year ago, most of the discussion of beer glasses centered around the various types that have been traditionally used in Europe to serve certain types of beers. It was a Euro thing and, in the US, we were liable to encounter all sorts of glassware when we wandered into a brewery or alehouse. None of this wisdom was a secret. BeerAdvocate and RateBeer both offer comprehensive glassware info for almost every beer listed on their sites. It wasn’t that the idea wasn’t Out There, it just wasn’t anything that most people gave a damn about. At last year’s remarkable Festival of Dark Arts, held in February at Fort George Brewing in Astoria, Oregon, attendees were given a clear glass coffee mug with which to taste the stunning array of 60+ Stouts…and nobody got upset. One of our best Washington breweries, Gig Harbor’s 7 Seas, uses the glasses shaped to look like topless beer cans. At one brewery in rural Washington, we were served in actual Mason jars. At the Deschutes Portland Pub, I was given schooners served in what is, in effect, a Tom Collins glass. (Traditionally, an alternative German Pilsner glass or “Stange”) I found it distinctive and elegant and I detected nary a raised hackle among the 300 people in the room. I’ve seen tasting samples served in jelly glasses, shot glasses, test tubes, plastic sample cups, bar measures, highball glasses, and even red Solo cups and large plastic thimbles printed with the saying, “Just a thimbleful!” And not a complaint anywhere.
To some extent, our presumptions about a thing like a beer glass or a wine aerator or a shot glass are self-fullfilling prophecies. A friend asks a waiter in a restaurant, “Do you serve your wines in Riedels?“, and looks crestfallen when the waiter says, “Non, monsieur“. (Mainly because almost no restaurant wants to put a $40 stem out onto a table full of people who are laughing and shooting foodie pix for Instagram and gesturing expansively) You see that exchange and it sticks in your head: “Aha…Riedel!“, and a Preconception is Born. If you believe that the glass you’re going to drink out of will make your beer, wine, whiskey, or kombucha taste better, it probably will. I did a very revealing tasting, one morning in 2006, with a suburban soccer Mom who was in my shop, buying some wine for her daughter’s wedding. She walked by a rack of Riedel glasses, glanced at the price tag, and gasped audibly, “Can this be right? THIRTY-EIGHT dollars for a wine glass?” I replied that, sadly, it can and she caught my tone of voice. “Does it really make the wines taste any better?”
I suggested she try it. I poured one of the reds she was considering into the Riedel and a generic $9 glass I sold in four-packs. She tasted each one, sat for a moment, and said, “There must be something wrong with me. They taste exactly the same.” No, I assured her, the blame does not lie with you but with a wine culture in which having that $38 glass is the difference between a legit lover of wine and…well, a soccer mom or dad who just dabbles. And yet, that’s most people’s reaction when they don’t like that $125 bottle of Cote Rotie or they can’t tell the difference between wine served in a $38 Riedel balloon and five buck goblet off the rack at Cost Plus or they don’t get the difference between drinking a Berliner Weisse out of a Shaker pint instead of the “proper” chalice: “There must be something wrong with me.” Trust me on this: it is NOT you. It’s the fetishes and presumptions of others, codified.
We’re now having this same attitude pop up within the craft beer world – which has always before been this wonderful, egalitarian, low-pretense place where anyone could taste out of any old glass and nobody smirked behind their hands. Now, it’s becoming an Issue, for one primary reason: Craft Beer is Hot, now. It’s the new young person’s obsession, as wine had been for nearly two decades before.
Last year, for the first time ever, craft beer became the beverage of choice with young women, from age 21 – 35, surpassing wine by a fat hair and trending upward. Thousands – hell, maybe even millions – of young drinkers drifted in from their nascent wine obsessions and simply dragged their fetishes and status symbols along with them. They had been, for years, accustomed to the idea that, to be Cool, one must have the Right Car and the Right flat-screen and the Right Smartphone and the Right nightspot and wear the Right clothes and have the Right glasses for their friends when they come to visit and they pour the 95-point Mollydooker Cab. Translated into craft beer that’s now the couple of bottles of Pliny they drove to Idaho to snag. They looked around in the relatively uncomplicated, unstuffy world of craft beer and wailed, “But…how will I be Cool, now?” and then worked it out with their buddies, one of whom had read, somewhere, that a tulip was the “proper” glass from which to drink “better” beers. Multiply that one, lone, confused craft newbie by the explosive growth of the craft beer market and you get…some guy in DC telling us that drinking beer out of the “wrong” glass will give us a terrible experience.
In the interest of transparency, I drink out of a tulip most of the time. I use them because the stem serves the same very practical purpose as the stem on a glass of white wine: it keeps my fevered hands from prematurely heating up the beer. Cupping a glass in your hand or holding a Shaker pint transfers your body heat to the liquid in the glass. It’s no big deal with red wine, as that’s served at room temperature – wrongly, I might add; “room temp” was originally defined as the mean temperature in drafty European houses, which was usually eight degrees below our comfy American 72 – but for beer, which most of us drink at least cool, it’s a genuine problem. Holding the stem allows the beer or wine to retain its cool longer. But I am not under the slightest impression that the tulip shape is some mystical confluence of the Forces of The Universe that magically improves the flavor of my beer. It tastes EXACTLY the same consumed out of a Shaker pint, a tulip, or Deschutes’ Tom “Beer Geek” Collins glass.
If you never believe another word you read here, listen up: What will give you a “terrible experience” in drinking beer, wine, or booze is…bad beer, wine or booze. No glass ever invented is going to improve a nasty, badly-made, insipid, dull, watery, out-of-balance beer or wine or tequila. And a truly great beverage is still going to be great if you drink it out of a chalice, a tulip, a Shaker pint, a beer-can glass, a Mason jar, a test tube, a Boy Scout canteen, a pickle jar, or a blender bowl. Some may well be less fun to drink from but, as long as they’re clean, they’re not going to diminish the flavor of the stuff at all.
There’s a very technical, scientific term for the sort of person who predicates their enjoyment of anything on what vessel it comes in, how their friends will see them, and how they perceive that vessel vis a vis its Cool Factor. This person is called an “Idiot“. Drink from whatever container makes you happy but don’t get all evangelical about it and don’t, for the love of God, EVER put another human being down for their choices or try to dictate their preferences. When you do that, you instantly become that Idiot mentioned above…and you open your choices up to the same scrutiny and the same accusations from anyone who thinks differently.