Beer Pints Are Just Too Big

Paul Blow
Samuel Adams Boston Lager Glass

When we use the cliché pint-sized, we're generally talking about something very small. So why is it that the pint glass, as the most common American vessel for beer, is—among its other faults—entirely too large?

Now, many arguments can be made for pints, most of them based on tradition and universality. Certainly, I would never deny an Irishman his pint of Guinness. Also, one could point out that our 16-ounce pint is one of the smaller of the traditional measures for beer. German beer halls in Munich sell by the liter and half-liter. English pints, called Imperial, are 20 ounces, even larger than ours. And one of those giant beakers that can't even stand up on their own, a yard of ale is roughly 2.5 Imperial pints or almost 1.5 liters.

In this context, our beers are almost dainty, though in my mind, not dainty enough. I'd rather take as my model the German stange, the cylindrical glass used in Cologne for their famous Kölsch beer. These glasses, if not necessarily the shape I'd want for all beer, generally hold a volume of beer that strikes me as typically the right amount: between 6.5 and 12 ounces.

So what's wrong with our clunky American pint? First of all, I'd argue that sipping off a lip that's 1/8 inch thick makes for an awkward mouthful. The beer rolls over the lip of the glass in a wave and falls not so much on the tongue, as around it, filling up the sides of your mouth before you truly get a chance to taste it. Crystal wineglass makers like Riedel figured out long ago that a well-conceived narrow lip can deliver the liquid with precision onto the part of the tongue most appropriate to receive it. Even the Boston Beer Company, maker of Sam Adams, acknowledged this point when a few years ago they designed their better beer glass (pictured above), noting that their vessel's "outward turned lip places beer at [the] front of [the] palate to maximize [the] enjoyment of sweetness from the malt."

The second problem is the volume. Sixteen ounces is just too much for many of today's beers. If you're drinking at a moderate pace, by the time you've gotten to the last third of the beer it may be warm or going flat. Conversely, if the pint glass is chilled—a particular pet peeve of cicerone Sayre Piotrkowski—it will overly chill the beer, and suppress its aromatics.

Strong, Hoppy Beers Are Not Good for Pints
The pint measure, both English and American, was originally used for beers of much lower alcoholic strength. The difference between 20 ounces of 4 percent ABV beer versus 8 percent—as many craft brews are today—is huge. In Belgium, a land of fairly strong beers, a pint (pintje) is but 250 milliliters (about 8.5 ounces), according to Lonely Planet.

And alcohol level is not the only issue. For me, the intensity of so many of today's pale ales, IPAs, and double IPAs (like, say, Lagunitas's Hop Stoopid, a beer I like) makes them too powerfully flavored to drink in quantity. Give me six ounces of these beers, and I'd be happy.

Piotrkowski also notes that smaller glasses make for more interesting food-pairing vessels. "If you want to do beers with different courses, you've got to have a smaller glass, so that you can try more things. Heck, if you just want to try multiple beers at a session, you might want smaller glasses," he says.

In Seattle, where I spent some time growing up, many bars offered a schooner, a smaller measure. Last year, Britain mandated a greater variety of glass sizes, including the schooner. Here's hoping that smaller glasses catch on in the States, too.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.