Visit a college bar or pub and you'll probably see every beer, regardless of brand or style, poured into an identical glass. Go anywhere more up class and there's a more than fair chance that your beer will be poured into a very specific one.
How much of this is a marketing gimmick?
It's fair to think of it as all a marketing play. When you order a steak or pad thai, does each establishment offer you a signature plate or eating utensils they claim enhances the taste of their particular foods? What about other drinks like apple cider, orange juice, or a banana smoothie? Ever wonder why there aren't dedicated glasses for each?
There are some scientific studies that allegedly document a glass' shape does affect the development and retention of a beer's head. That's the foam you (hopefully) see at the top of your beer. In macrobrews, this foam can be artificially produced. In handcrafted brews, the foam, more commonly seen in ales over lagers because ales are top fermented, is there naturally. The foam collects what is known as a beer's volatiles. Volatiles contain things like hop oils, fruit esters, and spices, things which give a beer its aroma and essence. Theoretically, a different shape of glass can alter the way these volatiles are evaporated.
Any distiller of alcohol has always known this, which is why wine glasses are traditionally a different shape than a champagne glass, why cognac is sipped in a snifter, and why 40% ABV alcohols like tequila and vodka are served in shot glasses. The Germans have differentiated their various styles with different glasses for over a century, many which have inspired the way glasses look to this day.
If you want a look at the matter very broadly, there are just five categories of beer glasses: the mug, the pint, the pilsner, the stemmed, and the specialty, all of which can be further subdivided.
A mug is considered heavy and sturdy, great for big gulps and retaining temperature better. Mugs can be either tankards or krugs. Tankards have thick bottoms and straight sides. Krugs are curved at the bottom.
Pint glasses are the cheapest and also the most generic. There is the tapered and straight-sided American shaker; the Irish imperial curved in the middle; and the British nonic which is similar to the shaker except for a curved notch near the rim.
Pilsner glasses are taller and sleeker and supposed to enhance color. There are generally two subdivisions in this category. The wheat beer glass is curvy, the standard pilsner glass is taller and more slender.
Stemmed glasses look the most elegant and stylish and are designed to promote the head. The tulip stemmed glass is wide with curved sides; the chalice stemmed glass is heavier and has a wider base.
The last broad category is the specialty and novelty glass. Likely the most popular of the bunch is the bierstiefel, otherwise known as a beer boot. Yard glasses are ultra thin elongated glasses that usually must be attached to a yard ale stand so they don't fall over. Today, these are a lot more popular in plastic versions filled with cheap and artificial cocktails instead of beer.
Other glasses find their way into the mix. A champagne flute glass can also be used for beer. The long and narrow body are good for preserving and showing off highly carbonated beers and recommended for lambics, black beers, and weizenbocks. Cognac snifters are thought to be ideal for savoring the aroma of strong ales. What makes wine glasses useful for capturing bouquets also works for certain beers like Belgian ales. German stange or Tom Collins glasses can be used to enhance malt and hop flavors.
The problem, if you decide to take beer glasses seriously, is that there's just too much overlap. An oversized wine glass is recommended for Belgian ales, French biere de garde, and barleywine. A stremmed tulip glass is also recommended for the same. You can serve your pilsner in a stange or a pokal … or a becker, nonic, or tumbler.
The Germans have always been content using a glass designed around a general style. And most serious bars/pubs would have been content to do the same up until around the late 1990's. The worldwide boom in popularity of Belgian brews and the way new craft brewers have been inspired from the unusual variety of Belgian recipes (blondes, tripels, dubbels, lambics, fruit beers) changed all that. The Belgian have long designed glassware around a specific brand of beer, even a specific beer type within that brand. Some even design the glass before the brew is ever made.
New craft brewers were more than happy to adopt this trend. A trendy craft beer bar to look legit today has to invest in a lot of different glasses as the customers sipping the beers from this seemingly infinite number of exotic glassware wonder if this is just another marketing stunt to sell more beer paraphernalia.
Does it really make that much of a difference what glass you drink the beer out of?
Sam Adams, one of the grandfathers of the American craft beer boom, sells pricey glassware just like all the microbreweries following in its footsteps. A set of four lager glasses can cost from between US$30-45. Imagine if you were a bar owner and had to invest in this same type of glassware for every brewery whose beers you stocked.
Samuel Adams claims that their specially designed glasses enhance their beer in five different ways. A Canadian cervisaphile tested two bottles of the company's signature Boston Lager, one served in a standard conical glass and the other in one of the company's specialty lager glasses. His verdict? The specialty glass did help with the aroma and presentation but the tastes were practically identical. The specialty glass did not retain the temperature or head any better.
You could have figured this all out for yourself. Does a specialty Samsung LED display case enhance ownership of a Samsung phone? Absolutely. Does it make the phone better? Not really. Does having a specialty Les Paul guitar case make your Les Paul look cooler? Of course. But it doesn't make the guitar sound better.
For true beeraholics, having several different glass types to cover the variety of beers you're accustomed to drinking (stout, lager, IPA) could be a good investment, just like you'd buy several different jackets if you were used to hiking in a variety of different climates. Even conventional retailers (i.e. Crate and Barrel) sell a wide assortment of glasses nowadays, for ryes, stouts, blondes, and everything in between.
On TV and in film, cool protagonists order a beer and drink it right out of the bottle. If they got so caught up in the size of carbonation bubbles and the way the foam dissipated, they wouldn't be so cool anymore. Beer lovers would do themselves a favor and look cooler to boot if they spent more time collecting beers instead of the empty glasses which contain them.