Short Pints – does it matter?

Pint image

If you are like most beer drinkers, you drink beer by the pint, or so you think.  How would you feel if your pint wasn’t actually a pint at all?  Here is the truth – most of the pints sold in Vancouver, are not real pints.  Chances are your pint is between 450 ml and 568 ml. But does this matter?

Outside of the United Kingdom, a pint is more of an informal term used for a large serving of draught beer.  Most people order pints because it is fun to say, it is convenient and it connects beer drinkers to a time when beer was considered wholesome and healthy.  The metric system being vastly superior to archaic imperial measurements is partially responsible for the decline of the proper pint across most of the beer drinking world.   And fair enough – 568ml, the standard volume of an Imperial pint, is an oddly specific serving size.

The English are fond of tradition and have held on to centuries of rhetoric dating back to the Magna Carta, which provides guidelines and regulations for standardized beer measurements.  From time to time beer drinker’s make a go of strengthening Canada’s imperial connection by lobbying our government to regulate the beer pint.  CAMRA Vancouver’s FUSS advocacy campaign is leading the charge in British Columbia – fighting for drinkers rights to know the size of the beer they order.  But again, is this an issue worthy of our concern and time?  Do we want our government to add another regulatory layer to an already over regulated industry?

When beer was necessary for human survival, regulating the ale pint made perfect sense.  Beer has always been a nourishing drink and was heavily favoured over water up until quite recently.  Water was often contaminated with disease, and beer, having been boiled as part of the brewing process, was a safe alternative.  The alcohol content and hops in beer also made it resilient to bacterial infection, giving beer an extended shelf life.  Water made people sick and beer did not.  Because beer and survival were so intertwined, regulating and standardizing beer measurements was critical to maintaining a sense of order.

Without standardized measurements and regulations the average consumer could easily be shorted on his or her beer, and this would not have been good.  Prior to the industrial revolution, which was driven by the discovery of energy dense fossil fuels, the number one energy source was food.  People did most of the work – humans were the primary means of production.  Short a man on his beer and you are shorting him on his daily energy supply; he would be less productive with his time.  If a pub owner was to repeatedly sell short pints, he would become wealthier at the customer’s expense.  The pub owner had an opportunity to profit off of a lie that could significantly hurt the average consumer, and this was deemed unacceptable.  Without regulation, brewers and pub owners held too much power.  Standardizing and regulating this industry just made sense.  If one individual or industry was to hold too much power, people would get angry, and bad things would happen.

Beer is no longer a necessary for our survival.  The western world has a steady and safe supply of water, plus we have an abundant food supply.  Fossil fuels make our days much easier than ever before and, for the most part, we no longer have to physically work for our daily bread.  Our primary food concern is how to eat less, which is very much the opposite of how things once were.  We now drink beer because it is fun, it is part of our culture – drinking beer is a good thing.  But we would survive without it.  Brewers and publicans no longer hold the same level of power they once had.  If beer ceased to exist, we would be sad, but we would go on.  My take on the proper pint is that it just doesn’t matter any more   I am far more concerned with the quality of beer in my glass than quantity.

Let’s face it, the government does not do things well, particularly when it comes to alcohol.  I am an advocate for decreased regulation.  Regulating the standard pint, or beer serving sizes in general, in this country would be overly bureaucratic and expensive.   We are not England, we are Canada, and in this country a pint is a big glass of beer.  Technically, yes 568ml is a pint, but most drinkers do not know this, and I suspect they do not know this because they just don’t care.  In the end if you feel that you are being had or sold a lie when you discover your pint is closer to 500ml than 568ml, the response is simple – stop giving the establishment your business.



20 thoughts on “Short Pints – does it matter?

  1. Brian

    Great post. I’ve been thinking this since the whole CAMRA Fuss thing started. I know the reason for FUSS is they need to start with small items. But why start with small items that nobody cares about?

  2. Jon

    I’m happy to have a smaller serving size too, but not if its advertised as a pint, because the cost of the beer is actually much higher. If a well known beer bar in Vancouver is selling beer in glasses that are just 14 oz (414 ml) for $7.75 and the drinker thinks this is a pint, then there is something wrong. If that was actually a real pint (20 oz, 568 ml) then the equivalent cost would be over $11. That’s a ridiculous price for a beer, yet that is what customers are paying even though they don’t know it. This is why FUSS is needed.

  3. Erik

    CAMRA has done a great job building (creating) a craft beer culture in Vancouver. I think the FUSS Campaign is too far removed from beer culture and is more regulatory based. I would rather see CAMRA help people drink better beer, not fight regulatory battles.

    I think most beer drinkers do not know what a real pint is. The 16 oz American pint adds further confusion. Consumers are also aware that beer sizes (and prices) vary from location to location. If a business charges too much for beer, they will not do well in the long run – unless they differentiate themselves enough to justify above market prices.

  4. Chris

    Personally, when I go to an unfamiliar beer selling establishment, I look around to see what the beer sizes actually are and then make my own value judgement. Places that are overcharging for beer don’t get my custom. While I agree that establishments, as per the law, should list sizes/prices together, I don’t think consumers lack rights. Nobody is forcing me to buy anything.

    To me, the bigger issue is this, when our world is so shitty in so many other ways, should we really be spending our spare time fighting over this ultimate first world problem? Maybe we should be fighting for starving children or improved health care?

  5. Chuck

    Not sure I agree with this post, Chris. A pint is a defined measure according to the Weights and Measures Act. If I sell *anything* in a pint (be it beer, gas, milk, or my own saliva), it has to by law measure 568ml. There is no wiggle room here.

    We don’t need to mandate that bars serve pints. They can serve beer in whatever size they want (up to the legal limit, which curiously was 500ml until rather recently). However, if they do serve beer as a pint, it better damned well be 568ml, because that’s what I expected when I placed my order.

    If they don’t serve a pint, then tell us what size it is before we get the glass and find out. For session ales, the difference between a 14oz glass and a 16oz sleeve is minimal, but if I have driving in my future I’d like to know beforehand that this 14% barley wine comes in a pint glass as opposed to a 6oz bell.

  6. Erik

    The letter of the law clearly defines a pint in Canada as 568ml, but because bars and consumers have been incorrectly using this term for years, I would argue that the there is wiggle room.

    The point on safety (knowing how much you have before getting behind the wheel) is very valid. That said, if you know you are driving, best err on the side of caution and drink less rather than toe the line and risk hurting someone. Besides, their are so many variables than can effect blood alcohol levels, knowing the volume of beer wouldn’t be all that helpful in estimating a blood alcohol level.

  7. Chris

    @Chuck Erik wrote this post, not me, though I do agree with him. I also agree that advertising a pint should mean that you get a pint. I’m not saying establishments should get a free pass. I am saying that, if I’m going to fight for a cause, that cause won’t involve luxurious beverages.

    Side experiment, ask ten random people what the volume of a pint is. I’m guessing between zero and two people get it right. I think most people just don’t know what a pint is.

  8. Chuck

    @Erik – Sorry to mis-attribute your article; while I do concur with the notion of simply not driving (why only have 1 beer?), not everyone is me. Serving size & ABV is incredibly useful information for consumer, and that makes it a consumer rights issue.

    It’s not a hill I’ll die on, but that doesn’t mean I don’t care about it at all. There’s middle ground here.

  9. Erik

    @Chuck – no worries. I am sure their is a middle ground. I am not a proponent of increased government regulation and as such I am not a supporter of the FUSS campaign. I think beer bars that target beer nerds should wise up and offer greater disclosure to their loyal customer, and some have. But to the average beer drinker, I don’t feel this is a large issue, if an issue at all. Consumers have the right to know what they are purchasing – I don’t feel consumers are being all that misled with the poorly defined and poorly regulated beer “pint”.

  10. Joel

    Good post, especially enjoyed the history of the pint size in the UK. I have to admit that even I am surprised when an imperial pint is served, like at Tap ‘n Barrel – it really is quite large compared to what the customer is used to here.

  11. Chris

    I love an imperial pint myself, you get them all the time in the UK of course. That being said, the average beer in the UK is at least 1% less ABV than the average beer here in Canada. Could be one reason bars tend to favour the US 16oz pint.

  12. CaribooChris

    “we would survive without it”
    “If beer ceased to exist, we would be sad, but we would go on”

    I am aghast. Someone is hungover methinks.

  13. Erik

    I was surprised those statements made their way from my mind to the screen too.

    Without beer we would carry on existing, but what would be the point? Where would joy, mirth, and merriment come from? And how long can life last without joy?

  14. Jono

    I think knowing the serving size is very important for consumers. If for nothing else, knowing if you are getting ripped off.

    I know some places that charge more for a 16oz sleeve than other places charge for a proper 20oz pint. I don’t give my business to the former.

    How would you feel knowing that the litre of gas you are buying to put in your car was could be 20% less than it should be?

    Like many people I don’t really care what size vessel the bar serves the beer in as long as they say what size it is so I can make an informed choice as a consumer.

  15. Erik

    @jono If gasoline wasn’t regulated it would be a problem. People need gasoline to get to their jobs, to drive to the grocery store, to drive to visit doctors and so one. Fossil fuel is needed to sustain life, our culture is fueled by fossil fuel. If commodities needed for survival are not standardized and regulated problems occur.

    Beer is not a commodity nor is it as a needed food staple. Beer is a very important part of our culture, and perhaps represents a part of society that has been mismanaged over the years. Their is a lot more that determines the price at the pub than volume alone – ambiance, selection, freshness, quality of service are just a few factors that will determine the price and fair value of a “pint”.

    CAMRA primarily represents the dedicated craft beer segment of the beer drinking market. Beer bars that target passionate beer drinkers (ie. beer geeks) should probably disclose more on their serving sizes as a courtesy to their customers.

  16. garry

    Beer price in Vancouver is on average $6 – $8, excluding tax and tip. In many cases, this means $8 – $10 fully inclusive for a “pint” in a 14oz soda glass.

    In the UK, the average 568ml pint price is between £2 and £3 including tax (no tip is usually necessary). This equates to $3 – $5 Canadian.

    If we’re going to pay double the price for the same beer, at least give us our full pints worth.

  17. Erik

    Drinking beer is an expensive pastime in Canada. Our tax rate (50% approx of the retail price) and our service expectations (we have to tip), makes our beer much more expensive compared to other nations. If there was any form of enforced serving size regulation, the tax on beer would increase.

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