best cups for beer
June 13, 2012 6:34 AM   Subscribe

Why does beer taste better in a glass cup than a plastic cup? Is it mental or does the plastic actually do something to make the beer not taste as good?
posted by CookieNose to Food & Drink (27 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I'd guess part of it is that you tend to drink out of plastic cups when you're at a kegger, and most kegs tend to be Natty Ice, or Beast, or Bud/Coors/Miller crap beer. When you drink out of a glass it's likely you're drinking better beer.

Though I'm sure someone else will come in talking about 'bouquet' and 'aroma' and the shape of the glass affecting these things.
posted by Grither at 6:38 AM on June 13, 2012

My assumption would be that the beer glass keeps it cold longer than it does in a plastic cup, and warm beer is pretty much universally loathed.

I've had good beer out of plastic cups, but they have to be the heavy, thick kind, not the thin one.
posted by corb at 6:46 AM on June 13, 2012

I think plastic has an odor that affects the enjoyment of the beer. 90% of your sense of taste comes through your nose and when you drink, your nose is right in there next to the cup.

I don't know what percentage goes to the nose but I remember being startled when I learned how much is attributed to sense of smell. I also have an unproven hypotheses that people who don't consider themselves foodies or get into food very much have a diminished sense of smell.
posted by amanda at 6:55 AM on June 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

I don't think it's subjective; I think there's a real difference, which also affects the taste of tea. But I don't know what causes it.
posted by anadem at 6:57 AM on June 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think it's something about the container touching the tongue. I'll poor beer from an aluminum can into a glass and it will taste fine but I had drinking it straight from the can.
posted by VTX at 6:58 AM on June 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

I once worked at a large international brewer. Regular taste trials were conducted whenever a new beer was coming to market, production was being moved from one place to another and so on. Those who took part on test panels where taught about the various flavours to look for and eliminated if they proved unable to discern them reliably after training - by which I mean to convey that the whole process was taken pretty seriously. For what it is worth all this testing used plastic glasses.
posted by rongorongo at 6:59 AM on June 13, 2012

I'm going to hazard a guess that the shape of the cup, and not the material is what is at play here. The flavor of the beer is in some part to to the aroma of the beer. If the beer is served in a glass that directs these aromas into the nose, the beer can be perceived to taste better.

That is why a Sam Adams pint glass is shaped the way it is. Sam Adams function over form

The typical plastic red Solo cups have a very wide mouth which is flared outward. This does not help in collecting the aroma of the beer.

I've been homebrewing my own beer for about a year now. The number of different varieties of hops is staggering. The amount and timing of when hops are added to the brewing process will impact the final bitterness/aroma/and taste of the beer.
posted by remthewanderer at 7:09 AM on June 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

I've had conversations with Mr. Arnicae about this: I would absolutely prefer to have a glass of B+ wine in a glass (particularly a nice glass) than a glass of A+ wine in a plastic cup. Plastic cup just ruins the experience for me in so many ways.
posted by arnicae at 7:10 AM on June 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Not sure the reason, but I prefer a glass over plastic or even from a glass bottle.

This is also true for Coca-Cola. Soda out of a glass bottle seems to taste much better than that out of a can or plastic.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 7:12 AM on June 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

We did a blind taste test of this once. We poured the same kind of beer into two glasses, put cut-up pieces of a plastic cup to soak in one glass for a while, and removed the plastic just before the tasting. Most (out of a half dozen or so people) couldn't tell any difference at all; two claimed to, but disagreed about which glass was better. SCIENCE!

It'd be difficult or impossible to blind-test the odor or the direct taste of the cup while you drink, per amanda and VTX above -- but the beer itself is unchanged by its container.

I think it's a totally subjective quality-by-association thing (glass is classier than plastic, therefore the contents appear to be of higher quality as well). But that doesn't at all diminish the importance of the effect; "quality" itself is a mental, subjective value.
posted by ook at 7:13 AM on June 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

the beer itself is unchanged by its container.

That's not what your test shows. The beer could be affected by the shape of the container. Your test only shows, at most, that the beer doesn't absorb the taste of plastic when plastic is soaking in the beer and removed before tasting. But that's not the situation we're talking about. We're talking about drinking beer from a plastic cup, where the plastic is right by the taster's nose. The taster will directly smell the plastic, and smell affects taste.
posted by John Cohen at 7:24 AM on June 13, 2012 [8 favorites]

Oh, I totally think it's the smell of the cup. Plastic cups have a very strong odor, to me at least (admittedly, I have a nose like no other, which is mostly only a curse . . . ). There's no way that plastic odor wouldn't interfere with the taste of the beer. I think even people with less sensitive noses must be able to notice it, even if they can't quite tell what it is.
posted by HotToddy at 7:48 AM on June 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

IANAScientist, but I am a beer drinker.

I think there are two things happening here. First are the mental associations of which kinds of beers you drink from plastic cups, and which kinds of beers you drink from glass, the situations you encounter plastic or glass in, etc.

Second, there are proper glasses for different beers. It's not exact, but certain shapes are better for releasing particular aromas, or cultivating the right head, etc. This is all pretty clear. But if I were to hazard a wild, totally unscientific guess, I think that plastic and glass release their bubbles differently, that glass has a more subtle grip on the bubbles than plastic does, making for a better release on the palate. Or something like that.
posted by Capt. Renault at 8:00 AM on June 13, 2012

John Cohen, that's exactly what I said in the first half of the sentence you quoted. The beer, the liquid itself, is unchanged. The odor or direct taste of the cup, or the effect of the shape of the container, was not tested (because there isn't any way to blind test that.)
posted by ook at 8:04 AM on June 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: great answers! let's assume that i'm drinking a high quality beer (because even when i drink out of a crappy vessel i don't drink crappy beer. think local, small scale production craft beer) so it's something about the cup altering things for me.

rongorongo, it's very interesting to know that your brewery used plastic cups for testing. that certainly does point toward it just being about the full tactile/visual experience as opposed to a flavor modification.
posted by CookieNose at 8:09 AM on June 13, 2012's very interesting to know that your brewery used plastic cups for testing...

When I did a taste testing at Mister Beer, it was all plastic cups, for the mundane reason that a few dozen guys tasting a few beers each made it much easier to toss the plastic than washing god-knows-how-many glasses.
posted by Capt. Renault at 8:19 AM on June 13, 2012

Possibly it's just what you're used to? Most people drink most of their beer out of glass - stick it in a plastic and it taste odd. Stick it in a china tea mug (come on, we've all been there) and it also tastes odd.

In the example rongorongo gives, it doesn't matter what the container is made from, as long as it is the same one each time. It's the difference between the beers they're looking for

(I'd also like throw the ability of each substance, glass or plastic, to maintain the fizziness of the beer into the mix - always seems to go flatter quicker in a plastic)
posted by fatfrank at 8:26 AM on June 13, 2012

In Belgium, where I live, each beer is served in its own glass. All are different (though some are similar). Here is a shop with a really good selection. Keep clicking "voir plus de produits".

What I hear here all the time (and there is no doubt we're talking about the best place in the world for beer) is that it matters that the glass is cold (they'll rinse it in cold water every time before serving) and that the shape of the glass is important. Also, different beers are served at different temperatures. All of this is done to maintain fizziness while getting a lot of dense froth. In my experience, those both go quickly in plastic. Also, beer gets warm quicker.

You only ever get a plastic cup at places like concert venues - and then if you get it back to the bar, you get money for it. Or more beer. Only beers like Stella, Maes or Jupiler are sold at concerts, though. I think they'd rather not make business than sell a Rochefort or a Triple Carmelite in a plastic cup...

Cutting it short: in Belgium drinking beer in plastic is a no-no, only to be done when there really is no alternative and even then only with "ordinary beer", which they deem inferior anyway. I think they know what they're talking about.
posted by neblina_matinal at 8:33 AM on June 13, 2012 [3 favorites]

The plastic probably has a more porous and friction containing surface throughout the cup. I would guesstimate that this affects the carbonation is some way and therein the taste as well. Might explain the tendency to be extra foamy on pours as well.
posted by couchdive at 8:41 AM on June 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Neblina is forgetting the other major advantage of the "each brew gets its own glass" practice used in Belgium. At a noisy bar, you just have to get a server's attention and then hold up your glass and point to it. You get a nod and, in a minute or two, another beer.

posted by VTX at 8:49 AM on June 13, 2012

I think glass has much better tactile qualities: smooth, cool, firm but not brittle or rigid. it's pleasant to touch, in short; good to put your lips against. I think that might have something to do with it.

For what it's worth I think glass is better than pewter or china, too, though YMMV.
posted by Segundus at 8:59 AM on June 13, 2012

For fun, I judge homebrew competitions. I actually have taken the BJCP test, and I'm only the second of five levels, so I don't know it all by any means, but I do know quite a bit about interpreting taste in beer. If you're interested in learning A LOT about beer, they're a great resource.

The thing to remember about taste is that it's not a sense like vision, or hearing that is, it's not our brain interpreting stimulus of one specific variety. Taste is the interpretation of several kinds of inputs. It's worth noting that taste is entirely subjective. Nobody tastes things the same as anyone else. We're all more sensitive to some things then others. Heck, nobody tastes things the same from day to day. Also as you noted, expectations and mental biases can have have a huge impact. So let's look at the input end of things rather than the interpretation (we'll leave the visual aspect of things in the "interpretation" category, because it mainly serves to prime our expectations).

Mainly we're worried about the information we get from the nose and tongue as aroma and flavor. Go grab a plastic cup, stick your nose in it and smell. Chances are, you're probably picking up some of that when you drink beer from the cup (btw I'm assuming we're talking about those super cheap disposable cups everyone gets for parties and picnics, not little sample cups or bigger re-useable cups). How much depends on how strong the other signals you're picking up are. The lighter in flavor the beer, the more you're going to pick up. You'll also get used to it after awhile, as palette fatigue sets in (a good way to fight palette fatigue is to sniff your shirt it acts as the same sort of cleanser for your nose that water is for your mouth, it resets the baseline). Anyway, there's family of chemicals that yeast can sometimes produce called phenols. They range in flavor and aroma from banana and cloves to band-aid or plastic. Nobody ever gets the ones that smell like plastic cups on purpose.

There's a couple of other variables in the flavor department, they've been mentioned up thread, but are worth including anyways: temperature and glass shape. Cold temperatures tend to mute flavors, which is part of why lagers are (traditionally) served (in general) colder than ales. In lagers, clean flavor profiles are more highly prized (that cleanness is part of fermenting longer at lower temperatures) in ales, a certain amount of flavors from the yeast are unavoidable, so brewers like to show off their ability to wrangle the "good" flavors. Too warm isn't good either though because some flavors show up more at different temperatures so the balance of the beer goes to pot, and you'll start to notice some off flavors that were hidden before (because let's be honest, even Real Ale isn't served that warm, it's still cool. Anyway, thin plastic glasses do warm up quicker than their thicker glass counterparts. So, you are more likely to get the beer too warm. The glass shape effects lots and lots of things: from how quickly the beer warms up, to how well it holds the head (more on this later) to trapping aromas, to controlling how fast you can drink. Anyway, your plastic cup isn't that differently shaped than a pint glass so we don't really have to worry about it, just know that it does make a big difference.

Carbonation effects what people call mouth feel. This is sort of a catch all for a lot of things, basically it's how the liquid feels in your mouth. Since the cup can't effect things like finishing gravity (how much residual sugar is left after the fermentation), and I have no reason to believe that it effects astringency, we'll focus on what it does effect: Carbonation. It's hard to overstate how important carbonation is to how we taste beer. Take it away and pleasantly sweet beers can become syrupy and hoppy beers can become astringent. Other flavors get lost because the aroma is never lifted out from the beer. Add too much and it's equally bad. It's been my experience that beer tends to go flat faster in plastic cups (also glass cups that have been run through a dishwasher with that "jet-dry" stuff). I'm sure somebody could tell you why plastic has that effect, but it's not me. I can tell you however that those great biodegradable cups made from are the worst for killing head.

Anyway, to answer your question: Yes plastic cups effect the taste of the beer, and not just based on your expectations.

One final note, if you're really interested in learning about beer styles, history, tasting, and some of the science, I can't recommend Garret Oliver's great book, The Brewmaster's Table," enough. It's just great writing, and very complete.
posted by Gygesringtone at 9:44 AM on June 13, 2012 [7 favorites]

Yes. The cup will absolutely affect the flavor of the drink in it, and smell is the most likely vehicle for that effect.

A friend did a wine-glass taste-test for a group of us - a bottle of red, a bottle of white, and about 6 different-shaped wine glasses. It was absolutely astonishing how vile a wine could taste when put into the wrong glass. Especially the white wine could taste very sour or much much smoother in a more spherical or more straight-sided glass. It had to do with smelling the alcohol, smelling the fruitiness, etc. Way less effect when holding your nose, though at that point we were giggling too much to call it a scientific taste-test. Seriously, I would really encourage everybody to try this sometime - it's fascinating.

I haven't really done a comparable test with beer, but I know I've cracked open a bottle of something new and been kind of "eh" on it, then poured it into a pint glass and liked it much better. All opened up and smellable in the glass really does help. And I do remember bar coasters explaining the Sam Adams glass shape that remthewanderer linked.

Since all my experiments were about shape, I'm not sure why a plastic cup and a pint glass of approximately the same shape taste so different, but I can't bring myself to be surprised.
posted by aimedwander at 10:30 AM on June 13, 2012

Doesn't your tongue touch the edge of the cup? Plastic tastes nasty.

I know that coffee tastes different depending on whether I use a ceramic mug, steel travel mug, paper cup, or styrofoam cup.
posted by wenestvedt at 11:27 AM on June 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

A little post script here:

I think the reason it's o.k. to use plastic cups for tasting like in a home brew competition or for tasting sessions by brewery staff is that they to be smaller cups (so that your nose isn't sticking in the plastic), higher quality plastic, and the beer gets drank quickly and is in smaller pours, so temperature control and carbonation loss isn't an issue.
posted by Gygesringtone at 12:03 PM on June 13, 2012

There are plastic cups, and there are plastic cups. I won't drink anything out of a "Red Solo Cup" because it tastes like crayons to me, no matter what I'm drinking.

The 12 oz semi-transparent straight cups are generally okay and seem more neutral, with no identifiable aroma, but it seems like it's gone in two quaffs. I think these are made out of the same NSF food grade plastic as 4 oz portion cups, which are what I've had at tastings.

Our local switched to straight-sided clear acrylic cups (recyclable) with no rolled lip that hold 16 oz, and they seem to be okay. Beer bubbles look nice, doesn't overfoam on pouring, stays cold, pretty good experience.

I generally couldn't stand beer in cans until they started using the longneck shaped 16 oz aluminum bottles. It makes such a difference when you're not pressing a nasty pop-key against your nose, you won't believe it until you try it. Also, the beer stays freezing cold all the way down, even when the temperature is 90 and the humidity is 85%. Here's hoping someone beside the big three American Lagers will adopt them.
posted by halfbuckaroo at 2:03 PM on June 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

The surface for most plastics intended for humans to consume things out of readily promote nucleation, or the degassing of carbonation from beer. A test to try is to get a good pint glass that's never been stacked with another pint glass in it and your aforementioned plastic. Pour the same amount of beer in both and see which one looses, retains, or gains head. Or if you want to see how horrible plastic is at this crinkle it a little bit and then put the beer in it. The head will freaking overflow with some beers.
posted by ZaneJ. at 1:40 AM on June 14, 2012 [3 favorites]

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