It happened at an unfamiliar bar where I had a meeting.
The place had a couple of interesting tap beers, so I ordered one. But when the bartender reached for a pint glass, I said, “Whoa! Do you have any other sizes?”
Didn’t feel like a pint of beer, but, as it turned out, like so many places these days, this place served beer only in pints.
“When,” I asked the bartender, “did the 16-ounce pint glass become the personal beer delivery system of America?”
“I don’t know,” she said, mentally adding, I could tell, “what you are talking about.”
Just being above the legal drinking age herself, she was too young to remember a happier time when bars served tap beer in a variety of glasses – 10- and 12-ounce mugs, schooners (also known as goblets, chalices and, only in Milwaukee, bumbas), 7- to 12-ounce pilsner and faux pilsner glasses, and, my personal favorite, the 6-ounce barrel glass.
It got me thinking about where the 16-ounce pint originated.
The British have their pints, but they are 20-ounce Imperial pints and come either in the attractive dimpled mug or the statuesque Nonic, which features a bulge about a third of the way down that makes it easy to hold on to in a crowded pub.
So how did this ugly, utilitarian chunk of glass become so popular? More importantly, where did it come from? Who started serving beer in these sawed-off bastard sons of the elegant British pint?
Turns out is was a Seattle restaurateur by the name of Mick McHugh.
“I didn’t think anybody would care or remember,” said the owner of FX McRory’s Steak Chop & Oyster House in downtown Seattle.
McHugh said it all began in 1975 when he and his then partner, Tim Firnstahl, opened a place called Jake O’Shaughnessy’s Saloon & Eatery next to the Seattle Center.
“We built on our back bar the largest collection of individual spirits in the world,” McHugh said. “It was rightly noted in the Guinness Book of World Records a few years later.”
They also prided themselves on a fine selection of draft beers, and Jake’s became the first place north of San Francisco to serve Guinness. McHugh wanted the appropriate vessels to serve the black nectar.
“I asked our Guinness salesman, what do they say in Ireland when they want a Guinness? He said, ‘Give me a jar’.”
The Guinness rep then explained that a jar is a pint.
“I loved the jargon, pardon my pun,” McHugh said.
But he thought a 20-ounce pint would be a tough sell.
"It would be too pricey, especially when you’re trying to get people to try Guinness or Harp for the first time,” he said. “I thought 16 ounces would be a better marketing idea.”
He paged through glassware catalogs and could not find an appropriate jar. The closest thing was a 16-ounce Mason jar.
“Some restaurants were drinking our of Mason jars, but I didn’t think that was good enough for Guinness,” he said.
Then he saw what he recognized as a 16-ounce bartender’s mixing glass – also known as a shaker – in a catalog from Libbey, the Toledo, Ohio-based glassware company.
“That’s what we would use to stir our Manhattans and martinis in, then strain them out,” McHugh said.
He called his Libbey rep and ordered 10 cases of the 16-ounce shaker. The rep was shocked and wondered if McHugh’s staff was breaking that many mixing glasses because the company usually sold one to a bar every few years. McHugh shocked the rep again when he said he intended to serve beer in the mixing glass.
Turned out the factory didn’t even have 10 cases, but the rep managed to go to distributors around the country and delivered 10 cases to Jake’s for the Feb. 1, 1975, opening.”We did little table tents that said, ‘Order a jar of Guinness,’” McHugh said. “People were fascinated with the term.”
It wasn’t long before the 16-ounce mixing glass started showing up in other Seattle establishments.
“After about a year or so, we started seeing them in other bars, then in airports,” he said. “Then we saw Miller doing all their advertising with a jar, and Miller was the first to call them pounders (based on the British ditty, a pint equals a pound the world ’round). They went from being the slowest-selling Libbey glass to probably the biggest-selling glass Libbey makes. Everybody uses them now.”
The first microbrewer to both use and brand the shaker pint was Redhook Brewery in Seattle. Founder Paul Shipman had taken note of the Shaker pints at McHugh’s restaurant.
“Paul’s a good friend,” McHugh said. “We poured the first pint of Redhook in one of those when he went to market.”
“When Redhook rolled out on Aug. 12, 1982, there were no other micros in the market,” Shipman said. “When Mick decided to use the shaker, it became the staple glass in Seattle and then everywhere. I remember the glass company marveling at how sales of the glass skyrocketed.”
Shipman added that he is a fan of the English 20-ounce pint, which prompted me to contact a few other beer experts around the country to get their take on glassware.
JULIE BRADFORD, editor, All About Beer magazine (www.allaboutbeer.com): “We have a beer bar here in Durham (N.C.), a multi-tap where they really go to the effort of having the right glass. It does take an awful lot more work, but it elevates the whole experience. It makes the point to the drinker that the server takes the beer seriously.
“I really like the stemmed glassware, the sort you would use for barley wine. It lets it open up. You’re drinking a small amount. It sets a different tone. This is a long ways from the frosty mug. It tells the drinker there’s an occasion. I think the right glass underscores that sense of occasion.”
DANIEL BRADFORD, publisher, All About Beer Magazine: “I really enjoy the Imperial pint because I’m quite a stout fan. The Nonic Imperial pint, not the dimpled mug.
“For the Belgians, I love the tulip shape because they concentrate the aroma and give you a large amount of space to warm the beer up. You’re holding it like you hold a cabernet bulb glass.
“I loathe frosted glasses and mugs of any shape whatsoever. It actually drops the temperature and adds a little water because the ice melts. The glass should be presenting the beer, not messing with it. I’ll send them back.”
CHARLIE PAPAZIAN, homebrewing guru and president of the Brewers Association (wwwbeetown.org): I must have 50 of these ‘pint’ glasses at home. While the logos of various breweries are fun, I most often do not drink out of them because I prefer elegant handled mugs, long, slender pilsner glasses or even unique straight-up, thinner-walled alt glasses.
“For those beers that are aromatic, I reach for a stemmed brandy-type beer glass. Great glasses bring out more of the character of the beer. Most of my visiting friends go for the interesting logo’d shaker pints.”
LEW BRYSON, Pennsylvania-based drinks writer and author of several East coast brewery books (lewbryson.com): “I actually like American pints. They stack well, they’re simple, they don’t break that easily, and they’re cheap. But they’re not well-sized for any standard bottle size – and they’re for sure not a pint. They’re clunky and not as attractive as most other beer glasses. They’re a clunky compromise.
“My favorite? The willibecker, which is a BEAUTIFUL compromise between the Nonic pint, the pilsner, the shaker pint, and even a little weissbier – thin glass, the reverse curve to force the head up (the beer push-up bra), tall and slender and just the right size for a hand like mine. I love ’em in half- and third-liter sizes.”
MICHAEL ROPER, Hopleaf Bar, 548 N. Clark St., Chicago (www.hopleaf.com): “We have about 80 different beer glasses, mostly for the Belgian beers. The Belgians are very obsessed with the correct glass for the correct beer. Each glass, reputedly, at least, accents some particular quality of the beer that they want to be prominent. It’s a big part of the identity of these products.
“The 16-ounce mixing glass, as it is sold, is an uncommonly sturdy glass. It is definitely something that the standardized glass washing machines are set up for. It’s something that can be often dropped and not broken. The lip does not chip. We use it for the pale ales, lagers and stouts and things that are British style. It’s boring and not very stylish, but it’s also very workmanlike.
“The most important thing I say, and it’s on my menu, no matter what glass you choose to pour your beer, at least choose to drink it out of a glass. Why drink beer out of a glass? There is a reason. The beer isn’t finished until it’s poured into a glass. That opens it up, exposes it to oxygen and releases the flavors, from the hops, not so much for the taste but he smell. So when you drink beer out of the bottle you cut your nose out of the experience completely.”