In Praise of Bottles
You know how a scene in a movie can stick in your head for years, long after you’ve forgotten what the film was even about? In the 1993 Australian film Once Were Warriors, there’s a scene in which the main characters, husband and wife, are having an argument while driving and pull off to a roadside bar in the middle of nowhere. The husband, a drunk and fuck-up, goes into the bar saying he needs a beer. After a time-lapse sequence of the wife stewing in the car, she finally goes in to find her husband sitting at a table with two mates he presumably just met, and on the table between them are nearly a dozen empty 750 ml (a little over 25 oz.) bottles of beer. Seven-hundred-and-fifty milliliters! Ever since I saw that movie, whenever I have the thought of having a beer, I chuckle to myself recalling that scene and how a “bottle of beer” can mean a wine bottle’s worth of beer. Because in my mind, having a beer is synonymous with drinking a bottle of beer.
From oyster forks to brandy snifters, there is always the right tool for the job when it comes to consuming food and beverages, and like anyone who is particular about what they consume, I am particular about the device that conveys it to my mouth. My tool of choice for beer is the bottle.
I went through a phase when I owned a nice tall pilsner glass that I worked pretty hard, and several British pint glasses were always on hand when I was home brewing, for which you need a glass to decant bottle-fermented brew in order to avoid the yeast sediment at the bottom. And, naturally, when you go to a pub and order a draught, a glass is the only option.
Is it heresy to say I prefer bottled beer over draught? I like the consistency of bottled beer and pubs are not consistent. Consider the variations from one bar to another, and how their taps are maintained (or not), and the glassware they force upon you. (Mason jars be damned!) Drinking out of a bottle is also about controlling the volume of the swig. And as with any controlled substance, you want to monitor your dosage.
As a visual artist and a fan of Giorgio Morandi’s still life paintings, I’ve always been keen on the shapes of beer bottles. It’s a comfort to me when a beer company has a signature bottle shape. I have a Pavlovian reaction of sorts that allows me to almost taste the beer when I see a familiar bottle. There’s a perfection of tradition in the Guinness 22 oz. bottle with the embossed signature and a shape made to be held in the hand. The elegant taper of Anchor Steam’s 12 oz. bottles is a cute shrinking-down of their vase-shaped 22 oz. bottles. Yet I also appreciate how form trumps function in Switchback’s “stubby” bottles, which are endearing, albeit a little awkward to actually drink. I like how the shape of a bottle of Geary’s Pale Ale lets you know you’re about to get a steady, Yankee-built brew with no unnecessary bells or whistles. In the days before microbreweries, I looked forward to the smooth brown of a Newcastle tempting me like a siren song through its clear bottle glass. And vile as they are, even the lowly, drink-to-get-wasted malt brews of Mickey’s and Colt 45 reflect an understanding of the importance of bottle shape when designing an efficient delivery system.
If you’ve purchased beer at a grocery store in the past year, you’ll know that my bottle-centric beer world is currently under threat from an industry-wide push for the lowly aluminum can. I’ll save my comments about that for a future column, but you can surely guess the gist of my opinion about the craft-beer can craze.
There’s another iconic cinematic bit that comes to mind, from the cult classic The Warriors. In the penultimate scene, the remaining bedraggled Warriors are walking beneath a Coney Island boardwalk. A car slowly pulls up and we hear from within a strange clinking sound, followed by a sing-song chant in a thick NYC accent, “Warriors, come out and plaaaay.” Cut to the interior of the car, where the psycho rival gang leader — the catalyst for the Warriors’ violent odyssey across Manhattan — has beer bottles on three of his fingers and is clinking them together. Try doing that with three cans!