It’s happened to all of us: in a cafe, you order an Orval, say. The waitress apologises, the last Orval glass is being used by someone else, does it matter if it’s in a different glass – a Chimay glass, for example?
Well, does it? Would you give up your Orval and switch to a Chimay as at least you can have the proper glass? Or would you go for the Orval anyway, not really caring if they bring it in a pint pot, a Toby jug or a 33cl antique vase?
For many people, the latter answer would be heresy. Belgian beers are made for the glasses they’re served in, which are made specially for the beers they contain, and no other. But is that even remotely logical? Surely if one design aspect was good for retention of a good head, they’d all be using it. Likewise, things like concentrating aromas, allowing aromas to spread, enabling good carbonation… aren’t those all factors that all beers would like to take advantage of? So why, if the benefits are desirable to all, are the glasses all different?
And why, for that matter, is every beer served in exactly the same glass at beer festivals? When you visit a brewery, as we do from time to time, they don’t bring out a different glass for every beer. Everything comes in the same glass.
"That’s a particularly British or American, or an Irish, way of looking at things," I was told when I raised this issue in casual conversation. The emphasis (some might say fetish) in Belgium on particular glasses for each beer has two important reasons.
Number one: it’s a marketing strategy, and not just for those who sell glasses to tourists who will never have occasion to use them again. When you walk into a bar where someone is drinking out of an iconic Duvel glass, Duvel Moortgat wants you to spot the glass from across the room, and let the power of suggestion do its work. The same goes for many other recognisable brands: Chimay and Orval, Tripel Karmeliet, Rodenbach or the arty glasses of Brasserie de la Senne.
But just as importantly, there’s the mythology. So many Belgian beers are keen to trace their lineage back generations, to show their roots in a tradition that rhymes with quality and trust. You see it on the labels, in the typography, in the advertising. And you see it in the glasses, which say local, artisanal, not industrial, special.
The two things – standing out from the crowd in a country with so many beers on offer, and pressing home the message about the beer’s particularity – are served by offering custom glasses. Like the practice of giving out little biscuits when you buy a cup of coffee, it’s slightly odd, and it’s unique to Belgium. It’s just the way things are done.