How Glassware Became a Beer Geek Obsession

A new trend in craft beer has brewery-branded glasses traded with the fervor usually reserved for the beers themselves. Aaron Goldfarb on the emerging market for "glasswhales" and the culture that's fueling it.

At last month’s TalkBeer Charity Bottle Share in Edison, New Jersey, there were countless rare offerings, like Deschutes Jubel 2000, 3 Fonteinen Hommage, even a 1999 vintage of Rodenbach Alexander. A raffle offered prizes that included even more limited releases: “Uli’s blend” of Lambik Ohrwal and Cigar City’s “BeerZareGewd” Marshal Zhukov. Still, the most coveted item at the entire event may have been the glassware these beers were sipped from—otherwise known as “glasswhales” amongst craft beer’s most devoted ilk.

“When we called our glassware a ‘glasswhale,’ we did it more sarcastically, or in jest,” admits Os Cruz, one of the organizers of the event. Cruz’s friend Emily Ragle designed the handsome Harmony adorned with cartoon images of hearts, hops and other beer glasses—each Bottle Share attendee received one with their $100 entry fee. “We know they are going to be sought after, and since we ran a very small batch, the glasswhale term will be thrown around jokingly.”

Still, it was the first time I’d heard the word.

For much of time, American craft breweries’ branded glassware was pretty standard fare. These were bought-in-bulk shaker pints—stackable, sturdy and logoed, they were a quick way for microbreweries to make a little extra loot in their gift shops. Customers could grab one for around five bucks after a brewery tour, a nice memento of that time you dragged your girlfriend or boyfriend to some warehouse in a sketchy part of town. But something has happened in the last few years: Glassware has become just as desired, collected, traded and hoarded as the limited-release beer “whales” being drunk out of them.

My neighborhood brewery, Brooklyn’s acclaimed Other Half, releases several new beers every other Saturday morning, causing an outpouring of tri-state geeks to queue up for hours just to land some cans. It’s no coincidence that each release day they typically also throw a potential glasswhale into the mix, something that can tack another 12 dollars onto your bill. Befitting the longstanding Belgian tradition, these glasses are often designed and branded not just for the brewery, but for each new beer release (all the better for assuring one is always drinking from #properglassware). And these glasswhales are hardly the shaker pints of yore.

These are tulips and tekus, snifters and nonics, even repurposed wine glasses. An inveterate collector, I didn’t need much prodding to start accumulating them myself a couple years back. My first were balloons from Hill Farmstead and Willi Belchers from The Alchemist, bought on a Vermont road trip in 2011. In Baltimore that same year I grabbed a chalice from The Brewer’s Art. From Copenhagen, in the summer of 2012, I took home oversized wine glasses from Mikkeller and, from Brussels in winter 2013, lambic glasses from Cantillon. Kitchen space in Brooklyn is limited, yet my glassware collection now takes up three of our six available shelves, with even more tucked away in a buffet.

“I have seen some crazy stuff,” says Luke Schmuecker, co-founder of The Beer Exchange (BEX), one of the internet’s top resources for trading rare beer. “We are now seeing a lot of ‘glasswhales’ being traded.” Go through The Beer Exchange’s Facebook page and, amidst the beer swaps the company was actually built for, there are indeed geeks trading glass.

“Will either of these glasses get me the de Garde Bu cat glass? I need that glass!!” writes one BEX user, his accompanying photo displaying some fairly standard Lawson’s Finest and Trillium glasses. (“I doubt it,” writes another user in response to the offer, “(those) can both be bought online.”)

Beyond BEX, there are now entire glasswhale groups on Facebook, with GLASSWHALES counting nearly 2,000 members. Take a deep dive into these private groups, and you may soon see that aforementioned de Garde tulip selling for around $150. Or that certain Cantillon glasses are going for upwards of $500. I’ve seen my Hill Farmstead balloons sell for a cool $75 (and surely rising, as the brewery has reportedly quit selling stemware). But do collectors even drink from these vaunted vessels?

“I would probably be shot by beer bros for saying this, but I don’t care how much of a ‘whale’ the glass and the logo are—if it’s not a quality glass, I’m not going to use it,” Schmuecker tells me. Lacking in storage space at his Newport Beach home, he intentionally keeps his cabinets “brewery agnostic,” preferring to sip most everything from high-end, unbranded Zaltos. Still, Schmuecker wanted to find a playful way to capitalize on this emerging glasswhales culture.

Earlier this month, BEX released a limited edition Rastal teku. On it was a gold-printed, wrap-around image of Megaptera Novaeangliae—better known as the humpback whale. The $18 whale glasswhale sold out in just a few hours.