It’s safe to say that becoming a glassblower as skilled as Matthew Cummings doesn’t just happen overnight. Funny because he wasn’t supposed to be one.
“I wanted to be an architect,” explains Matthew Cummings of his early days in college. “That’s why I started with a dual degree in art and math. And then, in my junior year, I had to start taking electives on the art side of my major. There was only painting, drawing, glassblowing, and ceramics, and I had absolutely no interest in taking ceramics. So I didn’t choose to take glassblowing, I chose not to take ceramics.”
Many of us have had similar experiences. We’ve all taken classes in college for an easy “A,” or to get out of taking a much more difficult class, or simply to fill up our schedule to maintain the ruse of being a “full-time student.” But rarely do such experiences turn out to be so serendipitous when it comes to a career… and one might say, even a calling.
“First semester, like the first day, I was blown away, I was infatuated,” says Cummings. “I was not even done with the semester when I changed my major. I had no idea if it was even possible to have a career as a glass artist, but I knew that was what I wanted to do, and that was immediate.”
Learning to work with glass as an artistic medium is quite literally trial by fire. Before glass can be blown and molded with a glassblowing pipe, it has to be heated into its liquid, molten form. “You have to love fire to even approach glassblowing,” says Cummings. “The first thing you do is learn how to gather molten glass out of the furnace. They open the furnace door that exposes the port hole, and you have 2,000 degree heat blasting at your face, and you have a metal rod, and they expect you to go in with the rod and and collect the molten glass.”
“So you’ve got to love heat,” continues Cummings. “It takes a certain kind of person to not immediately throw down the metal rod and walk away. There’s something about having an inner pyromaniac, it’s almost like an artistic sport.”
Over the years, Cummings has gone from student, to apprentice, to gallery artist, to the owner and proprietor of the Pretentious Beer Glass Company in Knoxville, Tennessee. And yes, that’s exactly what it sounds like: A company that makes expensive, hyper-specific, hand-made beer glasses. The idea came to Cummings after drinking his share of beers from more standard, less-inspiring pint glasses. Cummings, having spent untold hours working with glass, realized there had to be a better way.
“When you talk about really getting into refined craft — at the far end of a really refined craft — the artist’s bodies and their body language really starts to become affected by the material. After you’ve worked with that material for thousands and thousands of hours, it changes you. For me, as soon as I go into the glassblowing studio, man, my posture changes.”
And the proof is in the glass. Cummings brings a fine mix of art and practicality to his hand-made beer glasses — each as beautiful as they are useful — with designs that specifically enhance the beer drinking experience. Sure, it would be easy to dismiss these glasses as a “hipster fad,” or (as their name would suggest) “pretentious,” but it’s obvious that they are created with a fundamental understanding of how beer drinkers interact with beer.
“That’s one of the more fun aspects of the process,” says Cummings, of designing specific glassware for specific beers. “With the design work and the artwork, I’m very left brain and right brain, and there’s a lot of development before execution. I don’t do a lot of improvisation like you would when making non-functional art. Instead [making a beer glass is] very intentional and research heavy. I’ll spend a lot of time researching and then I’ll just go nuts in a sketchbook and do 30 drawings and just narrow it down from there.”
It might sound like overkill, but Cummings’ process is one of fine craftsmanship. When we talk about good beer, we talk about the process in which the beer is made. We talk about the tasting notes, the mouthfeel, and even the foamy head. We describe beer in specifics because it’s the specifics that makes craft beer great. And that’s why Cummings’ works so tirelessly to dream up the perfect beer glass, because beer tastes better in the right glass.
“I put together a panel of people whose opinions I respect, and who are articulate, and who understand craft beer in general” reveals Cummings. “It’s a diverse group that I like to use. One is a bartender at Sutrees who also does beer judging on the side, then there’s [a local] distiller, a few brewers from around Knoxville and a few friends who are just beer enthusiasts. And then we sit down and rate the glasses in four categories: aroma, taste, aesthetic, and, ergonomics.”
One of the most impressive glasses made by Cummings is his Aromatic Beer Glass, which is designed specifically to highlight any aromatic beer with a high ABV, such as Belgiums and Barleywines. The design includes a glass mountain on the inside center of the glass, which helps create a higher surface tension on the surface of beer once beer has been poured into the glass.
“A lot of time there are happy accidents,” explains Cummings. “[Discovering] the increase in surface tension was definitely a happy accident. I was trying to figure out a way to make a really interesting and unique beer glass and I was thinking about Belgian beers and the Swiss Alps, and I was thinking of a way to represent that. The mountain [I designed] is such an abstract mountain, and it doesn’t really represent any mountain. And now I live in Knoxville, so sometimes I just tell people it’s the Smoky Mountains. Ha, ha, so yeah, it’s was a happy accident.”
When you’ve worked as hard as Cummings has to cultivate your art, you deserve a few happy accidents.