It’s been a trend over the past three to five years to brew and serve espresso into glassware. Glassware not intended for espresso usage. From brandy snifters, to “libbey glasses” to mason jars. From espresso to macchiatos, from americanos to cappuccinos and lattes. It’s a bad trend, one based on trying to present espresso differently, though many will argue they think it improves espresso. In my opinion, and in some actual testing I’ve done, it does not. In fact, it’s a detriment for several reasons. I’ll cover those detriments towards the end of this article.
We’ve already devised a near perfect drinking vessel for hot beverages. It’s called porcelain. Nearly as good, though heavier to do the same job, is ceramic. But I’ll focus on porcelain.
Porcelain imparts zero taste difference to a beverage. Zero. That’s science. Based on the glaze and firing applied at sun-surface high temperatures. Some people may want to claim porcelain imparts a taste, but seriously, that’s in their head, and not reality.
It’s thermal qualities help to retain heat in a beverage better than anything else commonly used that is not insulated or double-walled. You don’t burn your hands on porcelain when handling a hot beverage in its first few minutes, be it via holding the entire cup, or holding what the vast majority of porcelain cups feature: a handle. Porcelain, when made well, is durable, strong, dishwasher proof, and can be shaped into a wide variety of silhouettes.
But this wasn’t good enough for some. Some wanted to be different. Enter what is a commonality in the hipster trend — repurposing something else, something old, something different — for use with coffee and espresso. Whether it’s practical or not. Enter glassware — barware, really — for use with espresso.
The trend started in earnest in places like Portland and Seattle about four or five years ago, and as a photographer, I have to admit it looks good — seeing the visuals of espresso in glassware photographs well. It’s something I’ve done myself with espresso dating back to 1998; photographing a shot of espresso in a shotglass or other tiny glass vessel, to show the structure and layer of the drink.
This is why illy, for example, introduced their limited edition “illy nude espresso cups” in 2003, a cup shaped exactly like their illy porcelain espresso cups and saucers, but made out of glass crystal. It was nice and thick, and designed for espresso, complete with a handle and matching saucer. (sidenote: illy screwed up when they introduced their second generation illy crystal nude cup when they made it much thinner than the original; espresso purists didn’t like the fast heat dissipation; the cup took years to sell out its limited edition run)
But I’m not talking about glassware designed for espresso or cappuccino use. I’m talking about taking a brandy snifter and brewing into that. Or worse, a mason jar.
While hipsters may want to “own” this trend, it actually dates further back, and was even more ridiculous in the past. I have a set of videos by 2003 WBC champion, Australian Paul Bassett, who did a 1 series, 13 episode show called “Living Coffee” for Australian TV in 2005. An excellent series overall with one really goofy part. Over an arc of 4 episodes, Bassett was working with other coffee experts to create a coffee blend that would match up and pair against one of Australia’s better red wines. That’s not the goofy part, it was an interesting exercise in taste experiences, and the art of the blend. The goofy part? In the last episode, when Bassett and Co. had their blend and were ready to do the tasting, he pulled shots from a consumer machine into a long stemmed wine glass. All at a weird, uncomfortable angle.
Claimed it was for the aromatics. Ended up nearly chilling the espresso shots with all that exposed glass surface sucking away the beverage’s heat at a high rate. As far as visual aesthetics, the espresso looked pretty bad when swirled in the big wine glass.
Glass doesn’t insulate at all; it sucks heat away from a beverage at a pretty high rate. When you're dealing with volumes as low as 30ml, that’s disaster for a beverage like espresso which is meant to be imbibed hot. For larger beverages, like cappuccino or an americano, it means your (usually) handleless bar glass gets far too hot to handle, very quickly. Where’s that heat coming from? Oh yeah, it’s stealing it from the beverage, and radiating it out into the world through the glass. When I drink espesso and espressso based drinks, I expect them to be hot, not tepid.
I also feel hot, viscous liquids like espresso and americanos taste different from glass than they do from porcelain. I base this “feel” on several tests I’ve conducted, both blind and visually.
First test I did: I brewed nearly identical shots of espresso, one into a whiskey snifter, one into cold porcelain (to mimic the heat loss the whiskey snifter would have). I then transferred both shots into secondary cups (always identical though, to aid in blind taste testing). To be fair, I would transfer them into illy crystal nudes some times, and into porcelain cups other times. I’d taste both, and see if there was any taste difference. I’ve done this test myself, and I’ve enlisted others to help so I could do the taste truly blind. In every single instance, I prefer the taste from the porcelain brewed beverage, even when my secondary vessel was the first generation illy crystal nude cups and their decent heat retention ability.
Second test I did was something I remembered from my youth. When I was a kid, I’d ask my Mum for water, and at times she’d give it to me in a porcelain cup or mug, because that’s the way she prefered to drink water; she said it tasted different and preferred it from a porcelain mug. I was used to how water tasted from glass, and wanted it that way. Harkening back to that, I simply poured filtered water into a porcelain cup, and into a glass. Then I drank. The same water tastes subtly different in each vessel. Is it better or worse? No, it’s just different. But porcelain kept the water cooler, longer.
I’ve never liked any trend that “repurposes for the sake of repurposing”. Especially when that repurposing does a worse job than the things specifically designed for that task. It just smacks of hipster elitism, being different for the sake of difference. It’s the dog and pony show demanding you look at them, because, hey, they’re different.
If glassware is specifically designed for coffee and espresso, and takes into account rapid heat loss and has methods to minimize that, and has a handle, that’s one thing. Using a brandy snifter to brew espresso into and serve? Libbey glasses for your cappuccinos that get blazing hot within a few seconds? That’s just poseur shit. If you want to sniff aromatics, brew your espresso into a 6 or 8oz cappuccino cup. Get your nose all up there, deep into the bowl and sniff away.
As for me? Well if your cafe normally serves espresso in brandy snifters and americanos in libbey glasses, please don’t mind if I choose not to order, or if I give you a porcelain cup to brew mine into. I’ve thought about this a lot to make that call.