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Size Matters

How do we know this is really a full pint?

Earlier this week I read a little news item on the Guardian website (here) about the British government relaxing serving beer measure rules to permit publicans to offer “schooner” size glasses, alongside the traditional (and until now mandatory) half pint and pint servings (1/3 of a pint was also allowed). Not a big deal, and one that most across the pond seem to support (such as Pete Brown on his blog). It should have slid quietly in and out of my consciousness.

But it didn’t. I have found myself ruminating on this mundane development 1/3 of a planet away. It wasn’t the asinine “cutting red tape” spin from the Tory Minister that did it. It was that they can have a conversation about serving size at all. Because we can’t do that here.

Let me explain what I mean before you leave me for a YouTube clip of someone playing beer pong.

In England, serving sizes are explicitly defined. A pint is 568 ml. A half-pint is exactly half that. The new schooner is being defined as 2/3 of a pint, or 380 ml. Beer must be served in those gradations. In every pub in England a pint is a pint is a pint. And now a schooner is a schooner is a schooner (but don’t try saying that after three or four schooners).

On the other hand, here on the Canadian prairies, we have no such consistency. And that is what makes me mad. Order a pint here and you could get anything from 470 ml to 570 ml. That is because serving sizes are not regulated in Canada – a bartender can serve beer in whatever size glass suits their fancy. On the surface this is fine, as it can create a range of sizes to meet various needs.

But here is the thing. When was the last time you went to a pub and asked for 470 ml of pale ale? No, you order a bloody PINT! It offers you an unceasing line of connection to beer drinkers through the ages. Thomas Hardy ordered pints of ale. Oliver Cromwell probably ordered a pint now and then (when he wasn’t pissing off Ireland).

The federal Weights and Measures Act defines a pint as the Imperial Pint, in other words 568 ml. But that has no effect on the beer industry. “Pint” glasses seem to come in three sizes – the U.S. Pint of 473 ml, the metric measure of 500 ml thanks to Continental Europe, and the Imperial Pint. Go into a bar, order a pint and any one of those three sizes might be offered to you.

This would just be the hollow fury of a beer geeks, except that while the volume isn’t standardized across establishments, the price sure seems to be. All “pints” seem to come in the same price range, regardless of how many millilitres are actually in your glass.

An example of deceiving glassware. 14 ozs? Those poor American shmucks!

The Alberta government (and I believe it is the same for other provinces) in its tireless efforts to protect the consumer has a regulation requiring a pub owner to tell you how much beer you are getting. Right. I have researched this. Most places have some fine print on their menu somewhere telling you the volume. The good places put it right beside the

beer list. Others bury it. However, how often do you look at the menu to find out what is on tap? Usually you just ask the server. I know I do. Sometimes I like to try an experiment. When ordering my “pint” I ask the server how big their serving is. Less than half the time do they know the volume. Often I get “it’s a pint”. I love circular logic. When I push they usually go scurrying off to the manager and I get my answer. But that is a lot of work to find out if my $7 pint is 470, 500 or 568 ml.

Making matters worse for the consumer are that you can’t always tell just by looking at the glass. Some have thick-walls and a shape that can disguise the true volume, making the drinker think they are getting more than they are. The worst offender I have come across is a big pizza chain (whose name I will not mention but it happens to share a name with the setting for Cheers). The glass is heavy and substantial, with a huge base and thick wall and a tapered side. Looks like a lot of beer. The volume? 470 ml.

And don’t even get me started on intentionally pouring with a billowy head.

I don’t think we need tons of new regulations about this. But some transparency would be good. In the EU they require beer glasses to have volume markers, so you know when you have your full 500 ml. That could work here. Plus what is wrong with standardizing the term “pint”? A pub owner could still serve what ever glass size they wanted, but to call it a “pint” it needs to be 568 ml.

That is my twopence on this topic, as it were.

14 comments to Size Matters

  • “A schooner is a schooner is a schooner (but don’t try saying that after three or four schooners).”

    I accept your challenge.

  • Darrell

    Well said! I raise my-ok still figurative at this point &*sigh*no not an actual pint{only about 370ml)-glass of Charlevoix La Vache Folle Milk Stout. Gee now I have a couple dilemmas – do I use a tulip glass instead? That’s probably only 250-275ml. And dilemma #2, do I open that Alley Kat chocolate/orange porter instead?*wanders off muttering*decisions, decisions… ;-)

  • [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Terry O'Riordan, RyanB. RyanB said: You're damn right it does- Size Matters | On Beer http://t.co/X9ms0NB [...]

  • and then there are the sleeves instead of pints in BC…

  • Hey. Call me fruity. But isn’t the “pint” quite clearly defined as 568ml in the Canadian Weight and Measures Act: http://laws.justice.gc.ca/eng/W-6/page-9.html#anchorsc:2 – furthermore, section 9 clearly states that it is not permitted to advertise a measure as anything other than that amount: http://laws.justice.gc.ca/eng/W-6/page-4.html#anchorbo-ga:s_9

    Therefore, unless im wrong, these conventions of calling a “pint” whatever you like, are probably contravening the law. We’re just not doing anything about it?

    • Hi Dan,

      Thanks for the comment. I think the issue is not that the pub owner is “advertising” that they sell a pint – they are simply taking advantage of how we all order a pint. They don’t have to call it anything – or they can call it some non-standard name, like “Mike’s Mug” or what have you. So, I don’t think they are breaking the law per se. And even if they were – who is going to enforce it? I suspect (but have not investigated) that there is no Weights and Measures police.

      However your point is well taken.

      Jason

  • Yeah, as I thought http://www.orwelltoday.com/beerpintproles.shtml .

    You should really be preaching at people to demand what’s rightfully theirs!

    • I contemplated making reference to that scene from 1984 (one of my favourite books), but thought it was too esoteric. Too funny that someone already had.

      Interesting thing about B.C.’s rules. Too strange. Saskatchewan has ZERO rules (I researched that a couple weeks ago) around serving size. Another example of how provincially regulated alcohol creates bizarre rules and stunning inconsistency.

      Thanks for commenting.

      Jason

  • John

    Why not just order a beer

  • James

    Would you complain if you were short sold on a liter of gasoline if it was not a liter? I think you would be very annoyed. Why not the same for beer? Why should restaurants and bars be allowed to rip you off ?

  • graham woodhall

    I’m from the UK and how right you are about Canadian alcohol measures and pleasing themselves what you get. A pint is 568ml/20ounce, hard liquor 25ml a shot and wine 125/175/250ml a glass and order the size you want and that’s what you get everywhere in the UK so you know just how much your drinking/paying and a price list has to be displayed plus a cash register has to show what your charged.
    Prices, I don’t know how you pay them !! A UK “PINT” is around $4.25, yesterday I paid $9.50 for 2×10 ounce beers-which is a UK pint-in an out of town bar in Halifax N.S.and they expect a tip !! Crazy.

  • […] When Canadians make reference to fluid ounces, or gallons, we are almost always referring to US customary units, not British Imperial units.  One notable exception is in ordering “pints” at a bar.  First of all, very, very few establishments in Canada offer true pints.  In both the imperial and US customary systems, one pint is half a quart.  However the two systems define quarts differently.  In the imperial systems a quart is 40 fluid imperial ounces, so a British pint is 20 ounces x 28.41… mL/oz = 586 mL.    In the US system a pint is 32 fluid US ounces, which corresponds to 473 mL. Unfortunately we don’t take the term “pint” as seriously here in North America as they do in the UK, so when you order “a pint of beer” you are basically just asking for draft beer, and the establishment can serve you your drink in whatever glass they want.  (Find out why this is a problem here.) […]

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