Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
How the entire U.S. came to drink out of a vessel never meant for human lips.
When Sam Fitz was a teenager, there was only one way to drink draft beer, and that was the 16-ounce shaker glass: The sturdy, straight-sided, stackable vessel you see at restaurants and bars, serving suds and sodas alike.
He didn't mind that the shaker's flat planes often resulted in a palm-warmed beer. He didn't notice that its lack of a bowl prevented the drink's aromas from proper release. “The end result was to get drunk,” says Fitz. Why consider those sorts of formalities?
These days, Fitz sees beer through different colored goggles, and sips it from curvier glasses. He's now beer director at Washington D.C.'s Pizza Paradiso, a local chain regularly voted king of D.C. craft beer destinations, and is credited as having brought high-brow brew culture to the city. Fitz juggles the costs and tastes of 16 draft beers, 250 bottles, and 14 cans, poured into five kinds of vessels: A 9-ounce snifter, a 12-ounce tumbler, a 12-ounce tulip, a 16-ounce German-style mug, and a 20-ounce glass for Heifeweisens.
Under Fitz's watch, there's not a shaker glass in sight. The glass he once hardly noticed in the race towards sloshdom he now detests. "Shaker pints were never meant for draft," Fitz says. "They're the worst thing that ever happened to beer."
It's not just at Pizza Paradiso. In more and more bars across the country, the little-recognized shaker is slipping out the back door. Among beer devotees, the end of the glass that defined a century in suds can't come soon enough.
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Let's start at the beginning. A shaker glass was, and is, the 16-ounce glass half of a Boston cocktail shaker. They've been stocked behind bars for mixing drinks since the early 20th century, long before their takeover of American draft, as if waiting in the wings.
Enter the post-War years, a time when American beer entered a long, steady decline. Prohibition had forced the vast majority of small breweries out of business, leaving mostly larger brands like Schlitz, Anheuser-Busch, and Coors in operation. If you wanted a draft beer, this meant you were kind of drinking yellow, flavorless stuff—and in large quantities, since it had such low alcohol content.
Garrett Oliver, brewmaster at The Brooklyn Brewery and author of the Oxford Companion to Beer, surmises that this dearth of quality beer (though with plenty of mass-market brew to go round) was the shaker glass's opportunity to rise. Why bother with a fancy glass when you're drinking nothing special? "Complaining that your glass wasn't good enough for your beer would have been like complaining your paper plate wasn't good enough for Wonder Bread," he says.
In terms of sheer utility, the shaker glass was exceptional. It was cheap, durable, steady, and stacked easily. A server needed to worry less about splashing or spilling than with a dainty flute, or about smashing that fancier glass on the way back to the bar. For managers, using the shaker for draft beer meant you needed fewer kinds of glasses in your bar, saving money and precious shelf space.
The highly functional cup rose to prominence, replacing the smaller glasses and mugs previously common in the States—which, by the way, weren't even necessarily 16 ounces. To find a "pint" in pre-war America, you'd generally have to seek out a traditional British pub. Shakers did much to standardize our sense of how much beer should come in a glass (more on that later).
So millions of Americans wrapped their hands around shaker glasses, to drink millions of pints of mass-market beer, more than any other kind of alcohol, for the duration of the century. (The 20th century, that is; Americans drank an astonishing amount of hard liquor in the late 1800s.)
The glass remained ubiquitous through the 1980s, when the number of breweries in the U.S. hit bottom. Beer conglomerates were at their peak. As CityLab’s John Metcalfe has reported, in 1983, only 80 breweries were in operation.
Out of darkness came light. Beginning in the late 1970s, homebrewing knowledge spread, and turned little by little into a smattering of microbreweries. Small producers were inspired by Belgian brewers, who churned out a sud-scape of saisons and stouts, dubbels and tripels, whites and wheats, ambers and blondes. Each came with their own gorgeous glass: chalices, flutes, goblets, tulips, strange wooden stands, and hexagonal cups. Pilgrimages to Belgium, beer-nerd heaven, were made, mixing into the American brew scene a diversity of styles long forgotten.
By the late 1980s, American craft brewers began to soar, and basically never stopped. This past June, the number of operating U.S. breweries hit an astonishing 3,040, with nearly 2,000 in the works. The craft beer market saw 20 percent growth last year, with $14.3 billion in sales.
If you've sniffed out a drink in the last five years or so, you've seen the difference the craft explosion has made. Bars are serving more brews with a greater variety of flavor, alcohol content, and historical lineage. As they do, the shaker glass is becoming less of the go-to vessel.
"If a bar is serving an Abbey-style with 11 percent alcohol content, that’s not something you want to drink out of a big pint glass," says Oliver. "It's a traditional beer, and should have the right glass."
That glass is a tulip, Oliver explained, in which the beer's complex flavors and aromas can escape, and where a nice head of foam can form. The shaker glass, detractors point out, functionally negates both of those things from happening, with its wide mouth and straight edges. Fancier glasses do more to promote the beer's aesthetic qualities.
Moving shaker pints aside is also good for cost control at craft-oriented establishments. A full 16 ounces of, say, artisanal Stillwater Table Beer might cost $10 or $11, rather than $8 in a 12 ounce tumbler. That's how much Fitz charges at Pizza Paradiso.
"We try to keep our prices accessible," he says. "I have to gauge what people are actually willing to spend." And, of course, what the profit margin is. When five gallons of Allagash costs $153, it might be more profitable to dole out 12 ounce glasses rather than 16.
Although highbrow glassware is more expensive, less sturdy, and takes up more space, it's also increasingly what people look for when they order beer at a bar—and not just the outposts of artisanal suds.
Scott Auslander, owner of Ventnor Sports Cafe in Washington, D.C., remembers a time when draft beer was the "cheap stuff." "When we opened 10 years ago, people wanted bottles," he says. "We had two drafts and maybe six bottles. Now people want the glass, so I've got six drafts and 35 bottles."
Last year, he cleared some space on the shaker glass shelf for a set of goblets. "We're still pouring probably 90 percent in shaker pints," he says. "We're a sports bar. But now that we've got the crafts and imports, people expect something else."
* * *
Shaker glasses are still a mainstay in most bars and restaurants, topping the bestseller lists on glassware sites. For many folks in the service industry, their utility is a hard argument for their continued use. That frustrates some beer industry boosters, for whom the shaker is much more than a glass. It's a curse.
Take Dr. Michael Lewis, professor emeritus of brewing science at U.C. Davis and a leading beer advocate. In a paper he presented at the 2013 Master Brewers Association of the Americas World Brewing Congress (that's a thing), he argues for a return to the "majestic pint," i.e., not a shaker pint, which he writes "fails in every dimension to promote and support the product."
"The same glass is used throughout the bar and restaurant trade to serve water, soda, iced tea, and milk," he continues. "This assures beer of similar low-level commodity status instead of the premium status it deserves."
Oliver, Fitz, and other insiders made the same point. The shaker glass seems to fill lovers of fine beer with something of an inferiority complex: As long as people drink draft from a glass never intended for human lips, how will they ever see beer as more than mildly intoxicating Wonder Bread?
Oliver compares the way Americans perceive beer to how they perceive its competitor, wine. "Talk to any wine retailer: What he sells is 90 percent bulk wine," he says. "Bag in box and a jug with a finger loop. Beer has the same kind of market distribution: 10 percent craft beer and imports, and 90 percent industrial. Yellow fizzy flavorless stuff. But when we think of wine, we think of the top 10 percent. And when we think about beer, we think about the 90."
Changing glassware, he hopes, will change perceptions. He thinks bars will probably transition to using the nonic pint, which stacks easily like the shaker, but offers a narrower mouth (for foam retention) and bulging sides to grasp (keeps beer cooler).
Could the nonic be Professor Lewis's "majestic pint"? He argues specifically in support of tulip-shaped glasses, but perhaps he'd see any pint-sized vessel as an improvement.
Still, arguing for a more proper pint tradition is tricky in the U.S. Unlike the U.K., where having a pint is a legally protected social institution, Americans have never had a drinking culture that revolves around that precise measure of beer. We've done flutelike glasses, German-style mugs, and of course, 12-ounce bottles, but we've never made much of a tradition out of pints, per se.
Except, that is, for the shaker glass. However misbegotten, it was the American pint.
Special thanks to cocktail historian David Wondrich for his knowledge and insight on this story.