What holds it all when the beer starts to flow?
If form holds, Super Bowl weekend will be beery. Sales of beer traditionally surge about 15 percent nationally in the two weeks leading up to kickoff, and the television commercials for beers are often more entertaining than the action on the field.
As the nation's beer drinkers got ready to watch Sunday's contest between the Chicago Bears and Indianapolis Colts, I turned my attention to the vessels the imbibers are likely to be holding.
The history of beer vessels is a rich one, and among the most storied containers are the steins, European-made tankards with hinged lids and handles. There was a time, I learned by reading an excerpt from The Beer Stein Book by Gary Kirsner, when you could judge a man's status by his stein. If he sipped his beer from a metal mug - pewter or even silver - he was well-to-do. If his stein was made of wood or porous earthenware, he was probably proletarian.
The hinged metal lids were ordered atop steins in the 14th century as a way to keep flies, and the bubonic plague the bugs were thought to be carrying, out of the beer. They seemed to work and stayed on steins long after the plague had passed.
As technology got better, so did beer vessels, which were made of stoneware, porcelain and glass. Artists decorated steins to recount important historical and cultural events, and to denote the sipper's occupation. Tailors, carpenters, bakers and brewers, for instance, all had distinctive steins.
The glass mug strikes me as the modern-day equivalent of the venerable stein. Nowadays, professional football teams, universities, breweries and pubs put their logos on glass beer mugs.
As pub owners know, putting your name on a beer mug is both a benefit and a temptation. It gets the name of your establishment in public view, but it also increases the likelihood that your glassware will "walk" out the door.
Bill Oliver has had so many mugs sporting his Oliver's brewery logo disappear that he has stopped serving beer in the mugs at his two Wharf Rat taverns in Baltimore. Now he keeps the mugs stashed away, occasionally selling one to a loyal customer for about $5.
Volker Stewart, one of the owners of the Brewer's Art in Baltimore, said the chalicelike goblets used to serve the establishment's signature beer, Resurrection Ale, also tend to disappear. Replacements are ordered from Belgium, a country where brewers are sticklers about having a designated glass for each brand of beer.
In Europe, much of this commercial glassware is given to pub owners at reduced rates by the breweries and distributors - a practice that is mostly taboo in Maryland and other states.
The most widely used American beer glass is probably the "shaker pint," a straight-sided tumbler that originally was used to shake mixed drinks. Not everyone likes it. Garrett Oliver of Brooklyn Brewery takes shots at the glass in his book The Brewmaster's Table. "It doesn't hold a head well, nor does it concentrate the bold aromatics of American craft beers," he wrote. "But it won't ruin the beer."
The shaker pint wins many friends, however, because it's easy to store and fit into a dishwasher. Its accommodating nature makes it a popular vessel at Super Bowl parties. Eric Warner, head of Flying Dog LLC, which in July took over the Wild Goose Brewery in Frederick, told me that he will be sipping a Flying Dog Pale Ale from a shaker-pint glass as he watches the game in his Colorado home.
He is not alone. Wayne Mahaffey, proprietor of Mahaffey's Pub in Canton, regularly pulls out pilsener glasses to serve the zesty carbonated beers, goblets for abbey-style Belgian beers and tall weizen glasses for the wheat beers from Bavaria.
But this Sunday, the fancy foreign glassware will take a back seat to the functional shaker-pint glass, he said. Watching the Super Bowl while sipping a domestic beer is, Mahaffey said, an all-American experience.
Pint glass With its straight sides and tough body, it is a popular vessel for pale ales and porters. Critics say its wide mouth inhibits head retention and does not focus hop flavor. Defenders say a steady, gentle pour down the side of a tilted glass will deliver the ideal one finger of foam.
Pilsener glass It is tall with a slightly inverted cone shape that allows the head to rise ("like soft ice cream," says beer guru Michael Jackson) and lets you enjoy the "bead" or consistent rise of small bubbles.
Goblets They are ideal for big, malty beers. Drinking from one, you have the feeling you have found the Holy Grail.
Weizen glassIt is traditionally the tallest of the beer glasses, with a narrow top to catch yeasty aromas.
Mugs Glass descendants of venerable stoneware steins, mugs emblazoned with your favorite logo feel good in your hand and look good in your den.
Sources: "Ultimate Beer" by Michael Jackson, "The Brewmaster's Table" by Garrett Oliver and realbeer.com