Ben Nimmo investigates Belgian beer through its glasses, the strangest of which is that curious “Kwak chalice”. Handle with care…
At first glance, it seems like a chemistry experiment gone wrong: a 25-centimetre glass tube with a flared top and bulbous bottom, clasped in a wooden clamp and oozing coffee- coloured foam.
But this is no B-movie toxin, brewed by a mad scientist with a booming laugh and a lightning rod to pour death into the air of New York: it is the “Kwak chalice” – arguably Belgium’s most famous beer glass.
History of the Kwak glass
“In Napoleon’s time, Pauwel Kwak was a brewer and the owner of the De Hoorn inn (near Brussels). Mail coaches stopped there every day, but at that time coachmen were not allowed to leave their coach and horses,” the beer’s current brewer, Bosteels, explains.
“As a result, the inventive innkeeper had a special Kwak glass blown that could be hung on the coach. In this way, the coachman had his Kwak beer safely at hand,” the Bosteels website adds.
The Kwak glass remains to this day one of the most distinctive drinking vessels in Belgium. Served to the client complete with monogrammed wooden stand, it is a familiar sight in Belgian bars, and a popular purchase for homeward-bound tourists.
But in a country whose passion for brewing beer is matched only by its passion for giving each brew a unique drinking vessel, Kwak’s chalice is no more than the froth on a very deep reservoir.
According to tourist guides to Belgium, the country boasts some 1,000 different types of beer. The great majority have individual glasses, with the rarer types much coveted by connoisseurs.
“Wow, what a collector’s opportunity! I picked up a Chimay goblet from 1930 for 20.50 dollars!” a US-based collector raved in a typical comment posted on a fan site for Belgian beer.
Different glasses for different beers
Naturally, not every beer has its own unique shape of glass. Most come in a limited range of forms, with straight-sided lager glasses, broad, thick-legged goblets, and tulip glasses like a squashed brandy balloon all given individuality by their engraved logos.
Explanations for such variety vary, with enthusiasts saying that the shape of the glass and the consequent channelling of bubbles have a major effect on the drinking experience.
“Using the wrong type of glass for some products will reduce the quality of the experience due to inappropriate head formation, poor aroma release, or by failing to accentuate a particular beer’s sparkling/cloudy nature,” the beer website ratebeer.com wrote.
Sceptics, however, claim that it is all a marketing trick. Such glasses certainly feature regularly on weekend flea-markets, drawn up in gleaming ranks between old gramophones and oriental carpets.
But some drink containers are so distinctive that the top experts are able to identify them at a hundred paces across a smoky bar.
One such vessel is the massive tumbler used by the Hoegaarden brewery. One of the best-selling Belgian beers worldwide, Hoegaarden comes in a thick-sided, sharp-ribbed glass which is so heavy that lady drinkers are sometimes advised to hold it two-handed.
Ratebeer describes the glass as “graceless,” but its sheer size and clearly-marked name make it hard to miss even in the darkest bar.
But the prize for the most distinctive glass – if not taken by Kwak – could well go to the Haacht brewery’s Charles V beer. It comes in an earthenware mug with four handles and, inevitably, a story.
According to Haacht’s website, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (1500-58) was offered a mug of beer by a peasant woman who held it out to him by the handle, forcing him to grab it round the middle.
Charles therefore ordered a servant to send her a two-handled mug. The next time he visited the peasant, however, she held the mug out by both handles, forcing him to grab it round the middle once again.
When next Charles visited, “the landlady offered him the mug holding two handles – but with the third one facing her. It was only when he ordered a four-handled mug that the problem was solved,” the Haacht website concludes.
Whether this version is more accurate than the unofficial one that the cup is four-handled so that not even drunken customers can miss it, Belgian beer and its glasses remain a national icon and a tourist treasure-trove. Who would not drink to that?