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.
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.