Bottoms Up

Beer and wine in the Bay Area and beyond

Beer 101: First, Be Sure The Glass Is Clean

By William Brand
Tuesday, October 28th, 2008 at 10:16 am in Uncategorized.

What’s in a glass of beer?  Most of us care a lot. Is it a stout or an India Pale Ale, is it sweet or bitter? But after two days sitting  in on the very  famous University of California, Davis, week-long Intensive Brewing Science course, I learned that the first thing someone who loves good beer should consider  is the glass. Or rather, what’s on the glass.

Listen to Dr. Michael J. Lewis, Professor-emeritus of brewing science, one of the inspirations  for the American craft beer movement:

First, Lewis said, always drink beer from a glass, not from a bottle. “If you drink beer from a bottle, you are a a pig.

“A special part of  drinking beer is enjoying the aroma.  That’s quite hard to do drinking  out of a beer bottle _ you get a retro-nasal effect that spoils the aroma,’’ he said. “Drinking beer out of a glass is a habit I recommend everyone should cultivate.’’

However, one must consider the glass as well, Lewis says.

“We all appreciate the clarity and the carbonation that a brewer has worked hard to achieve. The beading  (down the side of the glass) is a lovely sight, as lovely as the beading in a glass of Champagne.

“Finally,  in a well-made beer, you have a proper head of foam. It’s an integral part of enjoying a glass of beer.’’
But, Lewis said, the foam often doesn’t last long. And that’s a not-so-subtle  clue that you’ve poured your beer into a dirty glass.

Foam is quite stable. If it disappears rapidly, there’s something on the glass that is reacting with foam and killing it, Lewis said.

If you’re in a pub and that happens, you should suggest they take that glass out and smash it, he said. “Make sure your glass is clean, so at least the beer has a chance,’’ Lewis said.

“Foam on beer is a bubble of gas that has escaped; it’s an emulsion of a gassy liquid.  Impurities,  (grease residues, soap traces, other invisible  compounds)  on the glass will de-stabilize  the foam.

Here’s what to do, according to Professor Lewis:
First, gather all the glasses you use for beer; look at them closely. If a glass is old and it etched with tiny scratches, toss it. All kinds of beer-killing  compounds can live there.

Lewis quoted a master brewer at Anheuser Busch, who walked into a tavern with him and, of course, ordered a Bud. “The beer comes and the foam evaporates _ varooom.

He called for the manager and asked what happened to the beer, Lewis said.  The manager replied that his beer was in front of him.

“Well,’’ the brewer replied, “this doesn’t look like beer. What happened to the foam? Do you realize how hard I worked to get foam in the glass?’’

Then, in true Germanic fashion (although the guy was an Austrian, Lewis said), he outline the way to care for beer glasses:

First, run an empty dishwasher  with soap through its cycles. Then take all the beer glasses, put them in the dishwasher and wash them twice with soap.

After that, never in the rest of your days, put your beer glasses in the same load with other dishes. And don’t use your beer glasses for anything except beer.

Here are a few more tips, from Professor Lewis and other experts:

Let glasses air dry; if droplets remain or if spots show, it usually means the glass still  isn’t clean. Wash it again.

Wash beer glasses in very hot water with a detergent, not soap.

In Belgium,  bartenders  immerse each beer glass quickly in cold, running water before  pouring beer into the glass.

Professor Lewis adds that brewers always demand clean beer glasses.  Once he visited a pub with Ken Grossman, co-founder of Sierra Nevada Brewing, Chico. “He ordered a round of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. The beer arrived in glasses with no foam.

“I thought  Ken was going to go through the roof. He said, `Look at this Michael. Where’s the foam?’’

It’s the same with brewers at the other end of the American beery spectrum. Lewis recalled

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  • Ivan

    I’m going to have to inspect my glasses now… But why would it matter if I use dishwasher detergent, rather than dishwasher soap?

  • Derrick

    I’m having a hard time believing this. The glass comes into a tiny surface area with the foam. Will just a few particulates or scratches on the edges of the head blow away all the foam? It is rather counter intuitive, and quite frankly, difficult to believe. (And actually, despite what Professor Lewis says, foam really isn’t necessariy stable. There’s a lot of factors that go into foam stability.)

    In addition, some brews I pour without this rather complicated process maintain a head rather nicely thank you. Others, like ahem, fizzy lagers like Budweiser, the foam comes and goes. Hard to believe that my dish washer is good enough for some beer, but not for fizzy lagers.

    I’d be interested in what bartenders, who make a living at this, would have to say.

  • James

    If I’m not mistaken Sam Adams new glass has engineered scratches at the bottom and uses them as a selling point. I wonder who is right? I am going to have to do some experimenting of my own.

  • Chipper Dave

    I’ve recently noticed that I have had problems getting certain beers in my cellar to foam. I normally put my beer glasses in the dishwasher with everything else along with regular powdered dishwashing detergent. I’m wondering if the dishwasher isn’t getting everything quite clean. I’ll have to try just washing only my beer glasses separately sometime to see if it makes a different.

  • William Brand

    Since I did the interview with Dr. Lewis, I’ve followed his advice. I hand wash all my beer glasses and air dry them. Only use liquid detergent and not much and I rinse them extensively, If beers are fresh, they always produce foam and lacework. Depends on the style.

    I’m fairly sure this is excessive. But usually I’m only dealing with a few glasses. I also now can easily spot dirty (rare) or improperly rinsed (common) glasses. The Belgians are right.

    About scratched glasses. They don’t spoil the taste of the beer, they just look shabby. Glass is cheap. Why keep old scratched glasses, unless they’re family heirlooms and if they are, keep ’em on a shelf, but don’t use them.

    The scratches at the bottom of Sam Adams glass are deliberate. I;ve written a lot about those glasses and people have posted lots of comments. Just do a search for Sam Adams glass on this blog

  • Derrick

    I guess here’s where I have the problem:

    “Foam on beer is a bubble of gas that has escaped; it’s an emulsion of a gassy liquid. Impurities, (grease residues, soap traces, other invisible compounds) on the glass will de-stabilize the foam.”

    There are plenty of counter examples of this.

    How about sea foam on the beach, sitting there in the most gritty, dirty environment thinkable, for long periods of time? How about a bubble bath, in a dirty bath tub? I’m not a fluid dynamicist, but just taking those examples strongly suggest it’s the consistancy of the fluid (a good Stout vs. a fizzy lager) and how it is poured (as any good bartender will tell you) strongly determine the foam content and duration, and not the boundary condtions (the surface of the glass).

    Often, scratches and imperfections are sources of nucleation of bubbles, a principle the Sam Adams glass seems to exploit.

  • William Brand

    Those are good explanations Derrick. About the scratched glasses. I’m guessing here, but I think that’s just a matter of presentation. A sparkling clean glass always looks better than one of those battered pub glasses. And I think the scratches would be overkill as far as nucleation is concerned. In Champagne glasses and in Sam Adams glasses, the scratches are at the bottom.
    Clean glasses? Well, soap kills foam and dulls the taste of beer. Try it sometime. Partially rinse a glass then pour some beer in and see what happens. The difference in the example I used in this post was profound. It was like drinking two different beers. One was sparkling and effervescent with the sharp bite of hops and a malty nose.
    The beer in the 10 oz. glass, was dull, no foam, had an off aroma and tasted odd. Like two different beers.
    It’s a busy restaurant and my guess is they yanked the 10 oz. glasses out of the washer too soon, because they needed them.
    The sopapillas we got were greasy. Told me (since I’ve been eating sopapillas since i was a kid and make them myself) that they were rushed and didn’t wait until the oli got hot enough to drop the sopapilla squares into the oil. Oil has to be really hot to make sopapillas non-greasy.
    Busy restaurant. too rushed. greasy sopapillas, soapy beer glasses.

  • Mario (Brewed For Thought)

    Take care of your glasses! It’s not hard. I have a baby bottle washer I use just for my beer glasses. I use a light detergent, very little, and hot water through the sprayer. It only takes a minute per glass.

    As for the price of glass, I swear by Cost Plus as a source of glassware. They have tulips, imperial pints, snifters, even sampler size glasses, all for less than $3 typically.

    There’s more to glassware than a clean, non-soapy glass, but that’s a completely different story. Visit The Trappist in Oakland to meet a bartender (or bartenders) who care for the glassware.

    Once you get in the routine, you’ll appreciate it. After a few weeks, your wife will stop using your beer glasses, shooting you dirty looks and rolling her eyes about your obsessive compulsive behavior regarding your precious beer glasses.

  • Drew

    Great post, William!

    I think something that also might be worth considering are the clear glass/anti waterspot/jet dry type of agents that are in most dishwasher detergent.

    Since these types of things are designed to have a “positive” effect on the appearance of your glassware after it comes out of the dishwasher, it makes sense to think that these things remain on the glassware and may have a negative affect on the head’s body, lacing, and retention.

  • Derrick

    I did the experiment last night. On the way home from work, I picked up a 22 once bottle of Sam Adams Boston Lager. Then, I took three wine glasses that were dish washer clean. In one, I poured a few drops of dish washing liquid, poured in some water, swirled it around and then poured it down the drain leaving a very thin soap film on the glass. I poured a few drops of red pepper soup from the fridge, and did the same thing to produce a very slight film of food residue on the glass. The last I left as is. I poured 4-5 onces of the Sam Adams into the in the center of each glass the same way so the pouring method wouldn’t influence the outcome.

    And the results were…..pretty significant. The clean glass had about a centimeter of foam, and the beer tasted like a good Sam Adams Lager. Very thin films of food and soap produced much smaller heads, the dissapeared quickly. I took a swag from the glass with the slight red pepper soup film, and noticed off flavors in the beer. To my utter shock, the soap film beer tasted, well, soapy. I was surprised how such a low level of impurity had such a pronounced result in the flavor.

    Interestingly enough, the foam clumped to the sides in these glassed, suggesting that is wasn’t the impurities killing off the foam. Impurities seem to stifle foam creation, rather than distabilizing foam floating on the beer.

    >your wife will stop using your beer glasses, shooting >you dirty looks and rolling her eyes about your >obsessive compulsive behavior regarding your precious >beer glasses.

    Well Mario, I tried marriage once. Needless to say, we had a lot more problems than eye rolling over beer glasses. I live my girlfriend now, who’s into wine, who told me that with sparkling wine, clean glasses are used so bubbles will form on the imperfection on the glass. Soap or food residue covers the micro cracks, jagged edges, and pitting inside the glass, and inhibits foam creation. That is what I think is going on here.

    At any rate, I’m going to make real sure my beer glasses are squeaky clean now.

  • Beer Distributor


    Thank you for a great article. I am going to print it out and have our sales team read and share with our customers. My grandfather and father were both brewers and I learned from an early age about “beer conditioned glassware.” Not enough of our customers follow the standards we share with them about temperature, proper pour, proper glassware, etc.

    It all comes down to money and people. Not enough good bartenders or service folks that are passionate about their jobs and they are missing the desire to be perfect. We have the same problem with our own employees so I can relate. Any employer in the Bay Area can share with you the difficulties in hiring passionate people, we are thankful to have many on our team that are. I always preach, “Anything worth doing, is worth doing right.”

    To stock the proper beer glasses (Pilsner glasses, stout glasses, Ale glasses, etc.) takes more money and room behind the bar so sadly many bar owners do not partake. If you find a pub that does, share with them that you notice and thank them. Thank the barkeep who pours the beer correctly as well, he/she will be glad you noticed.

    Re: The Samuel Adams Glasses with etches in the bottom. In the industry we call these “Nucleated Glasses” The new Budweiser Beer Glass has them as well. It creates a constant stream of bubbles floating to the top of the glass.

    Great article, thank you for writing about my favorite subject, beer. Not to brag, but at the end of every day I get to walk over to our repack section in our refrigerated warehouse and pour open a different beer every day to enjoy.

  • Neil

    The distaste is a result of minerals in the water binding to the cleaning agent creating an unseen film. Dish detergents are engineered to be clear, unlike the film on your shower. Clear or not, the film is still there. The cure is water with the minerals removed to stop the film. Softened water will reduce the chemicals used to clean enough for any firm to afford the expense of the system. The beer will taste much better and will the difference is readily seen in the glass.

  • William Brand

    Thanks Neil. So washing a glass with clear water is the ticket.

  • How to Get Six Pack Fast

    The style of writing is quite familiar to me. Have you written guest posts for other blogs?

  • Jim Coyle

    Why not plastic? Regulars in a bar I frequent order their beer in those pint(?) sized translucent cups instead of glass. Not too classy but the beer holds it’s head and tastes good. Of course, they’ve never been washed previously.

  • jbrookston

    Jim, plastic tends to leech flavors into the beer. Glass is generally preferable because it does not. Of course, there are times when there’s just no choice, but if you have one, always pick glass over plastic to hold your beer.