The Kenneth Pint Glass

Disegno #20 (2018)

Image courtesy of Camden Town Brewery.

I am a drinker, which I mean with the same level of dedication that someone else might apply to being a smoker.

It’s worth being upfront about that. A recent paper published in The Lancet medical journal found that the safe upper limit for weekly alcohol consumption is roughly five pints of beer, with any intake above this level raising the risk of stroke, aneurysm, heart failure and death. Each pint beyond this upper limit shortens life expectancy by half an hour, which is roughly the amount of time I would take to drink a pint, thereby making the whole affair something of an eye-for-an-eye-type arrangement. Anyway, I drink regardless – usually with moderation, but sometimes to excess. Because of this week’s intake, for instance, I will die an hour and a half early. That’s sufficient time to have watched Rob Reiner’s coming-of-age drama Stand by Me. We’re not even at the week’s end, so I can only speculate as to future losses. Half a pint more and Sleepless in Seattle will also be off the table. So there’s no denying that I’m a drinker.

Because I live in the UK, much of my intake of alcohol has been in the form of pints of lager. So I’m a lager drinker, although you mustn’t take that as an endorsement. I have drunk jenever and jabukovača; Poire Williams and cachaça; Baijiu, applejack, ouzo and shōchū; tiswin and kasiri; grappa, arak and Mamajuana. I have drunk wine. All of these I have enjoyed more than lager. But I live in the UK so, well, lager. It’s drunk by the pint because that’s the size it comes in, as with milk or blood.

An imperial pint is 568ml, and the human stomach has a rough volume of one litre. A little under two pints, then, will force your stomach to distend to contain its milkman’s delivery of bottom-fermented malted barley. Nobody ever seems to suggest that this means a pint is too large a measure, or that if a drinker lost the same amount of blood as they consumed lager, they would probably die. Like I mentioned, pints are too treasured to ever really be questioned.

And I do treasure them, so just imagine my delight when Disegno invited me – by which I suppose I mean I invited myself – to review a new pint glass created for Camden Town Brewery by industrial designer Sir Kenneth Grange. Part of the thrill of such an assignment is its symbolism. The pint glass is emblematic of British national identity, while Grange is a designer whose work has played a significant role in shaping cultural perceptions of Britain. Over the course of a career begun in 1956, Grange has designed widely for the country’s public and private realm, producing ubiquitous creations such as the Intercity 125 trains (1976), the Venner parking meter (1958) and the London TX1 black cab (1997), as well as a raft of domestic staples like Kenwood mixers, Anglepoise lamps and Wilkinson razors. Grange is a designer whose output has pervaded and defined postwar Britain. A pint glass is a thematically consistent and welcome addition to his corpus.

More than this, there is a specific pleasure in a designer of Grange’s temperament taking on the project. His creation is less conscientiously styled or dogmatic than many of his contemporaries’ and his public persona is pleasingly grounded – albeit streaked through with a certain mischievousness. While Grange’s reflections on design are serious and thoughtful, they are often delivered with the air of an after-dinner raconteur. There is a YouTube video, for instance, in which Grange introduces himself with the line, “The name is Grange; Kenneth Grange”, before going on to praise the design world as stocked with decent people, with nary a “scallywag” in sight. When asked by The Guardian in 2011 to assess the design of five-bladed razors, Grange’s response was delicious and a bit naughty: “Three of the fuckers don’t do anything.” Kenneth Grange, I suspect, has the right attitude to design a pint glass.

When I drink, I rarely experience any overriding sense of volume. This is likely down to gluttony, but it might also be because of the nature of the glasses used in bars and pubs. Excluding a raft of increasingly dildonic craft-beer outliers, there are three main variations of the pint glass: a) the conical, which is straight and resembles an amber papier-mâché beak; b) the tulip, which curves out from a narrow base into a wide brim in a fashion Wikipedia deems “continental”; and c) the nonic, a conical vessel whose lines are interrupted by a spare-tire bulge that prevents the glasses from sticking when stacked or chipping when loaded in a dishwasher. Truth be told, there isn’t a great deal of difference between the three. They’re all rounded and innocuous. The glasses are comfortable to hold because they’re smooth, but this smoothness also elides the distinction between hand and glass. They are so visually and tactilely easy that they become non-presences, extending your body’s capabilities like a beer prosthesis or your own private hand-bladder. They’re devoid of any identity other than lager vector.

None of these glasses makes a significant difference to the taste of a beer either. One reason for this is that their basic proportions are similar, particularly around the brim. Of the distinct sections of a glass, it’s the brim that has the greatest effect on the way you drink and, as a result, the taste of the beer. A narrow brim encourages you to sip, directing the beer to the sides and front of the mouth where taste buds registering sweetness are situated. A wider brim is geared towards glugging (viz. lager loutery), during which the drink slips directly to the back of the mouth where bitterness is detected. It’s quite hard to game this system. When I sip from a wide-brimmed glass, my lips are King Canute trying to hold back the tide; when I glug from a narrow-brimmed vessel, fizz goes up my nose and into my sinuses, prompting a sensation of drowning followed by lager sneezing.

Grange’s glass, the Kenneth, is no gestalt shift to this existing order. Whereas Camden Hells previously used a branded conical glass, the Kenneth’s basic form is that of a straight Pilsner flute (imagine a taller, lither Germanic cousin of the frumpy conical), with decagonal facets on its lower half that are borrowed from the steins traditionally used for Munich Helles lager. These facets provide texture when the glass is held, as well as creating amber distortion patterns when light passes through the liquid. Two thirds of the way up, they smooth out to allow a traditional rounded brim. “At the end of the day, [the brim] has got to suit somebody’s lips,” explains Grange in a promotional video, “and [the faceted base] has got to suit somebody’s hands.” The line is delivered with sufficient aplomb and confidence to brook no further comment.

As research for this article, I invited a group of four friends to try the Kenneth and mark it out of 10. One gave it a six; one gave it a seven; one refused to grade it, declaring the idea of reviewing a pint glass stupid; and one said that although they liked the glass, they preferred wine, so would switch back now if that was OK. Once the two illegitimate reviews had been stricken from the records, I arrived at an average grade of 6.5. This may sound underwhelming, but is actually high praise indeed if you consider the market a new pint design enters.

In 1946, George Orwell penned his seminal essay ‘The Moon Under Water’ for the Evening Standard, in which he sets out his vision for the “ideal of what a pub should be”. It’s a charming essay, albeit filled with bizarrely resolved opinions on issues that really don’t matter, such as the writer’s insistence that beer tastes best when drunk from “pleasant strawberry-pink china”, and his disdain for the “mistake of serving a pint of beer in a handleless glass”.

Yet, this kind of partisanship provides the backdrop to the launch of any new pint glass. Drinkers are full of partialities and preferences, most of which are irrational. I have seen glasses sent back for not having handles; for failing to properly define the head; for seeming foreign; for looking squat; for looking camp; for ungainliness; for not being matched to a specific beer; for bulging weirdly; for not bulging weirdly enough; for causing excessive fizz; and because someone saw another glass that looked “more my style”. The glass designs that tend to survive and propagate are not necessarily the best, or those with the fiercest advocates, but those whose innocuousness renders them hard to object to: a survival not so much of the fittest, as of the finest.

A similar, albeit more positive, framing of this idea is found in Jasper Morrison and Naoto Fukasawa’s 2006 Super Normal manifesto, although this document also speaks of the manner in which its titular objects “outperform their counterparts with ease when it comes to long-term everyday use”. In the case of a pint glass, however, I’m not sure function particularly comes into it. Most glasses are equally good at administering their prescribed dosage, and if they’re not, the nature of drinking means you soon cease to care anyway. What matters more in the case of alcohol is the sense of ritual ceremony surrounding the act of drinking, and ritual is an area dominated by things more ephemeral and irrational than those dreamt of within functionalism.

“It’s as good as I would like it to be, so on you go,” remarks Grange at the end of his promotional video for the Kenneth, and this seems the critical point. The Kenneth is good enough. It does not disgrace itself against the time-worn blandness of the tulip, nonic or conical, all of which have pursued a strategy of pleasing neutrality to which no criticism can stick. The Kenneth cuts more of a dash than some of its counterparts – “It’s a bit, tall, isn’t it?” asked one of the friends I invited to review it – but it does nothing so bold as to scare the horses, by which I mean drinkers, or provoke any kind of meaningful consternation or delight. The design arrives at a sweet spot: it is a perfectly pleasant, clearly resolved object that more than holds its own against its rivals, even if there seems little real reason to have bothered creating it in the first place. Which, in the realm of pint-glass design, is how it should be.

There is, however, one respect in which I believe the Kenneth is exemplary. Because of its facets, it never sits entirely happily in the hand. It’s not uncomfortable, but its angles make you continually shift your grip, flexing your fingers to feel its lines press into your palm. “It lacks that assurance that it’s entirely secure in your hand,” offered the friend who scored it a six. “It feels more like a glass you’d pick up lots of times from a table, but maybe standing for hours with it wouldn’t be so nice,” added the seven. In contrast to many other pint glasses, the Kenneth doesn’t quite melt into your hand or disappear. It feels like a distinct object and it impresses that physicality onto you. Basically, it digs into your palm a bit. Nicely, mind.

One corollary of this physicality – and let’s revert to the professional parlance here – is that you’re more aware of what you’re drinking, as well as the amount you’re drinking. Your drinks remain discrete, countable units, and because you’re putting their container down more regularly than you might a traditional glass, they don’t flow into one another quite as effortlessly as alcoholic drinks are wont to do. The Kenneth impresses its objecthood on you: a pint glass has heft and a pint glass has volume, and sometimes it’s good to be reminded of that volume. Using it, I found myself drinking less and feeling more conscious of when I was sated. Four pints did not become five. Three pints did not become four. Two pints did become three. But only because I was in the pub as a trained journalist and wanted to do my job properly.