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Belgium has a glassware fetish

As usual, it’s about marketing.
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Kwak’s coachman’s glass in its wooden stand. Photo by The Beer Dabbler Store

When Anheuser-Busch InBev bought Bosteels last week, it not only bought a Belgian family brewery with seven generations and 225 years of pedigree, but also a highly accomplished peddler of amusing glassware—a major part of the brewery’s worth.

Distinctive glassware matters to Belgian brewers and is one of their more amusing contributions to the international beer scene. InBev now can boast two of Belgium’s most iconic glasses: Tripel Karmeliet’s voluptuous, high-stemmed tulip and, more famously, Kwak’s coachman’s glass in its wooden stand. Each is an eye-catching piece of gimmickry that stands out on the shelf behind the bar—and that’s the glassware’s main purpose.

As for the beers within them, well, you’ll have to decide for yourself. Kwak has its fans, though I can’t imagine any of them drinking one daily at home from that awkward (if historically interesting) yard glass. And for me, Tripel Karmeliet is an occasional childlike pleasure; its lush texture and honeyed-citrus taste remind me of orange Creamsicles delivered by the ice cream man.

Some might find that being owned by the planet’s largest brewery consolidator adds a disagreeable taste to Bosteels beer. It will take more time before we learn whether AB InBev’s efficiencies affect the character of what’s in those funny glasses. After all, people still drink Hoegaarden from that great chunky tumbler built for guzzling. And people still drink Goose Island. And so on.

If you enjoy Belgian beer, you tend to enjoy the glasses, too. Discerning drinkers know to separate appreciation for a glass from that of its contents. It’s like the Super Bowl: Sometimes the game itself is shit, but that doesn’t stop us from enjoying the commercials.

Interestingly, another decision by AB InBev is raising some hackles in Belgium—and again, it’s about the glassware. AB InBev said last month that Stella Artois would henceforth be served in an ostensibly classier stemmed chalice, rather than the thin, elegant, ribbed tumbler favored by many Belgian pils drinkers. The chalice is Stella’s designated glass everywhere that InBev exports it, always as an upmarket product. But in Belgium, the beer, its price and its glass have remained more democratic—until now.

A ribbed tumbler favored by many Belgian pils drinkers. Photo by Joe Stange

A ribbed tumbler favored by many Belgian pils drinkers. Photo by Joe Stange

It might be an exaggeration to say that Belgians are protesting, but there is at least one Facebook group dedicated to the cause. Its name: “We want the ridged Stella glass to remain.” As I write this, it has 1,612 likes. (And I just gave it the 1,613th.) I’ll be open about my bias: The ribbed tumbler and low price of the Belgian pils are its two most endearing features. Like serving a fast-food burger on fine porcelain, putting on airs just destroys cheap lager’s workaday charm. Stella Artois never was especially good, in the grand scheme, but it can be useful.

According to the company, however, the stemmed glass provides “a superior tasting experience. The footed glass design keeps beer fresher, longer, and its shape promotes the formation of a nice head of foam.” Annoyingly, there is a certain logic to it. If you’re holding that thick stem, then you’re not warming the glass with your hands. And a glass that curves inward at the top does seem to help preserve foam.

On the other hand, It’s my professional opinion that a fresh glass of Belgian pils is never meant to last long. It’s meant for drinking—a quick, cool comfort—and doesn’t stand up well to prolonged admiration (unlike Czech svetly, for example).

Yet AB InBev has more pressing concerns. As it faces shrinking volume in Belgium and here and there, it might as well try to make up for it with higher margins. A more expensive beer requires a more expensive glass.

Here is another likely reason for the change: The old ribbed tumbler, while pleasant to hold, doesn’t stand out on the shelf. In Belgium, a flamboyant glass might or might not accentuate the flavors and aromas, and it might or might not signal to you whether the beer ought to be sipped or swirled or gulped. But there is one thing that a special glass does, as any honest Belgian brewer will tell you: It helps to push all of the other brewers’ glasses off the shelf. There is only so much space, after all.

This raises another issue, and it’s a challenging one for smaller, independent brewers: Belgian bars and restaurants expect to get all those glasses for free. Breweries must provide new ones regularly, since many glasses break and others seem to walk away on their own. This is no problem if you’re as big as Bosteels or Duvel or AB InBev. But this is a major expense if you’re trying to establish a foothold in the local market. 

Now, here is a useful tourist tip: If you’re drinking in a Belgian bar, and you like the glass and want to take it home, there is no need to steal. Just ask the proprietors if you can buy it. They will either (a) politely decline, (b) sell it for cheap or, more likely, (c) slyly look both ways and then say, “Go on, keep it.” Why? Because it cost them nothing.

Obviously, there are flaws in the system, and they are disproportionately expensive for smaller brewers. Hence, Achouffe co-founder Chris Bauweraerts has often explained why, in the early 1980s, they chose La Chouffe’s own bulbous, short-stemmed tulip: It was the cheapest one they could find.

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