THE BUDVAR GLASS
BRINGING THE ARTS OF BREWING AND GLASSMAKING TOGETHER.
The humble glass. It’s not really something we think about too much when ordering a beer. For all the time we might spend choosing what style of beer we fancy – the flavour, the hop level, the bitterness or the sweetness we’re after – not even the most serious of beer lovers props up the bar deliberating and discussing what glass they want that drink served in.
But it’s definitely time we did. Because when you’re talking quality beer, it turns out that what the beer goes in can have almost as much influence on the taste, texture and the drinking experience as what goes into the beer.
I’m sitting in a bar with beer writer and author of A Brief History of Lager, Mark Dredge; a man who knows only too well the importance glass can have on the subtleties of taste and flavour. “Every beer is different.” He says, over a pint. “Every beer wants to be presented differently, and different glasses can really help with that. They can enhance certain characteristics or dull certain characteristics.”
“The obvious comparison is wine. In the same way we wouldn’t accept red wine served in a Champagne glass because it would dull those essential aromas, notes and flavours, we shouldn’t expect a beer to taste the same in any glass either.”
Behind him, neatly lined up on shelves above the bar, is a veritable cross-section of glass varieties, showing the sheer range of shapes and sizes on offer to drinkers. As he explains, he gestures to a line of taller, thinner shaped pint glasses:
“When you have a German-style lager you kind of want it in a glass like that. The bubbles are going to come up, stream up to a nice head of foam on top and it’s going to enhance the bitterness of it. But that’s not really what you want with a Czech-style beer. With a great Czech lager like Budweiser Budvar, you want a big round-bellied glass where you can swirl the beer around, where it’s going to hold onto the thick foam, and enhance that subtle sweet-softness of the malt character.”
He turns, then picks up the glass on the table between us. “You want something like this.”
This is the reason we’re here: a look at the brand-new Budweiser Budvar glass. A work of art if ever there was one, and the first glassware to be introduced to bars and pubs across the world by the iconic South Bohemian brewery in years.
Wide, weighty, pleasingly tailored to fit the hand and with a rounded and fluted cut-glass detail to its lower half – as soon as it’s in your hands, you start to appreciate the time, detail and craft that has gone into its creation. It’s truly a thing to behold, and every bit worthy of holding the slow-matured and traditionally brewed lager that it’s been designed for: a beer that has only ever been made in the same place, in the same way, with the same four quality ingredients, for over 125 years.
So why does this new mug-style glass work so well for Budvar? “Well part of it is the tradition,” Mark says. “If you look at the old brewery photos, this is what they drank from. And that old, time-honoured design exists for a reason. It’s got thick glass to keep the lager colder for longer which is really important. The foam can grow up the sides of this glass when it’s poured, but then also cling to it on the way back down again. You see that foam throughout the drinking process and that’s a really big part of Czech drinking culture. The foam in the glass is seen as a mark of quality.”
“You’ve also got the handle which also means you don’t have to hold the glass, you don’t need to warm up the glass with your hands. This is practical for the server too. If you’re at a table with some friends, the handle lets the server bring over a few glasses at the same time and put them down. Again, it’s that practical element, but this design is also great for the drinker because it enhances the flavour and the character of the beer.”
“With Budweiser Budvar, you want a big round-bellied glass where you can swirl the beer around, where it’s going to hold onto the thick foam, and enhance that subtle sweet-softness of the malt.”
MARK DREDGE, BEER WRITER.
I hold the Budvar glass up to compare it to the shelves of glassware behind the bar. There are plenty of designs on display, but a few are clearly more concerned about a colourful brand logo in the drinker’s hand rather than enhancing their experience of the beer.
“That’s probably true,” says Mark. “Look, beer glasses have a functional purpose. That’s really important. They have to be practical, but they can also be beautiful. Some are just more beautiful than others.” And then he laughs. “Not all beer glasses are created equal.”
But to really understand why that’s so true with the new Budweiser Budvar glass, I need to head to the brewery’s homeland.
H ow long do you need to sit here for? I ask after ten minutes, backing away from a porthole of intense, heart-of-the-sun heat. Martin Janecký lays down a surgical looking metal implement and wipes sweat from his forehead with the back of his arm. “It’s been three hours today already, but sometimes it can be all day.”
We’re in a studio in downtown Prague, a vast vaulted space housed inside an old cloister, in front of the white-hot roar of an open glass furnace. Martin is one of the world’s most celebrated glass blowers; an artist who is both keeping this traditional art-form alive and propelling it forwards in to the future with his mixture of classic and modern pieces.
Since leaning his skills from his father, he has spent the best part of three decades perfecting his craft and exhibiting across the world. These days he specialises in sculptural and figurative work, but his studio houses a collection of pieces from across his career: a shelf of bespoke wine glasses here; a Day of the Dead glass skeleton there.
As I watch, Martin and his assistant pull a ball of molten glass in and out of the heat, shaping it quickly with a blow torch and tools until it begins to form an uncannily real-looking human hand. The combination of air, heat and speed make this a craft almost unlike any other.
Behind brewing, the art of glassmaking is perhaps the Czech Republic’s most famous export. Both enjoy a rich history and tradition here; both have been perfected over centuries and involve skills passed down through generations. While Czech glass-blowing is known through the work of artists like Martin, it is the production of Czech ‘crystal’ and highly decorative cut-glass for which the country is truly renowned around the globe.
For hundreds of years, the kingdom of Bohemia was the seat of Emperors, royalty and the nobility. During the Renaissance, it was discovered that the countryside’s raw materials yielded glass finer and more stable than that found around Venice, Italy – the big rival glassmaking region of the time. In the seventeenth century, Caspar Lehmann, gem cutter to Emperor Rudolf II, developed a method of engraving this Czech glass with copper and bronze wheels, birthing the decorative cut glass style that remains prized all over the world.
As the national brewery of the Czech Republic, proudly owned by the Czech people, the Budweiser Budvar glass needed to respect and celebrate this history too. The beer glass not only needed to be practical and beautiful, but it had to embody and tell the story of a nation. And when it came to finding the right person to tell that story, there was one obvious choice.
A MASTERCLASS IN GLASS: MEET RONY PLESL
I head across Prague to the new studio of Rony Plesl, artist, sculptor, designer, and one of the world’s foremost names in the art of glass. Inside its great front doors, Rony’s beautiful and newly remodeled space is buzzing with artists, collectors and luminaries, all gathered to celebrate the studio’s opening. Positioned around me, his work speaks for itself. I wander between geometric installation pieces resembling great cut and coloured crystals, and down dazzlingly beautiful rows of intricately cut vases, bowls and glasses. In one corner are what look like branches chopped from trees, except these are stunning, neon-coloured pieces glowing an otherworldly green; part of his recent exhibition at the V&A in London.
“Glass is a magic material.” Rony explains when I catch up with him. “It doesn’t have a fixed crystal structure. It is still in motion.” This is part of his forty-year fascination with it, and explains the sheer range in his work. For as well as an international reputation as an artist of monumental sculptures, Rony’s glassware and product design is equally visionary and award-winning. It meant he was the perfect partner to entrust with creating the new Budvar glass.
“I like working with companies with long histories.” He says. “And Budvar is one of them. Designing a glass for a historic brewery like Budvar is not only about the personality of the artist, but about capturing the history and story of the brewery too. That’s important to me.”
“I like working with companies with long histories. And Budvar is one of them.”
Finding a quiet corner, Rony hands me the Budvar glass. “When I designed this, my biggest inspiration came from looking back at the paintings of Josef Lada.”
For those not in the know, Lada was a modernist Czech artist of the early twentieth century and a favourite of Pablo Picasso. Lada’s subversive, caricature-style bar scenes captured the interior and decoration of the Czech pub at the time perfectly. “The forms and details in pictures of Josef Lada still feel very modern,” Rony continues. “But they have this obvious historical element too. In his pictures I could see the details of Czech beer glasses as they were a hundred years ago and I designed this shape for Budvar using this as inspiration.”
He traces the details he’s talking about with his fingers: the wide, open-mouth shape, the cut-glass fluting that runs up the sides. “Features like this are also a tribute to Czech cutting glass skills. This is a Czech glass and we have the best glass cutters in the world here. So, I hope when people drink with it they also get to see part of our Czech glass history too.”
Rony looks at his work, turning it in the light. “But I am really very proud to think of people in pubs all over the world drinking with this.” He says. “Because in this glass you have everything – history, modern design and the fantastic taste of beer.”
“IN THIS GLASS IS EVERYTHING. HISTORY, TRADITION AND THE FANTASTIC TASTE OF BEER.”
H e’s right of course. But no beer glass can be appreciated until it’s full. Fortunately, the best place to do that is two hours away: the Budweiser Budvar brewery in České Budějovice, South Bohemia, where every drop is still slow matured for months in its hallowed cellars.
Heading down the steps alongside Budvar’s beer sommelier, Aleš Dvořák, Rony’s glasses in our hands, we pass great chambers stacked with cold conditioning tanks. At one Aleš holds the Budvar glass up to a little copper tap and lets the fresh, unpasteurised beer flow in.
Watching on, I’m reminded of something Mark Dredge said: “If we go down to the cellar and we see this beer being drunk by the brewmaster, he’s drinking out of a glass like this. You get to see the beer, you get that foam, you can smell the beer properly, you can literally put your face inside that glass, and get all those subtle but elegant aromas.”
With the beer erupting like a golden storm in the glass, I immediately know what he means. And as the beer fills and settles, the cut glass detailing showcases its tantalising amber colour, and the thick white head of pure foam above.
I take a long drink and it’s incredible. And I get it. I understand. Together, this glass and this beer work with in synchronicity, bringing the ingredients of Budvar’s long brewing process to life and perfectly amplifying those characteristics that make this beer so special: the touch of hops in the aromatic foam and the fresh crispness balanced with that rich, malt lager body.
By bringing together these two world-famous Czech arts, brewing and glassmaking, Budvar has created that rare thing: a beer glass with a purpose, a beauty and a design that not only tells a story but honours tradition and elevates the experience of drinking the beer within it.
Beer lovers around the world, it’s time to take your glass seriously. And once you try, you’ll understand why.