Monday, February 02, 2009

The terrible curse of the shrinking pint

Americans are often surprised when I tell them that we Brits share their arcane system of weights and measures.* Sure, in the UK we at least try to teach schoolkids about weird European stuff like kilograms and metres, but we also measure height in good old feet and inches, calculates road distances and speed limits using miles, and even add some extra confusion to the whole festival of irregularity by weighing ourselves in stones, which are equal to 14 pounds. And our pubs serve beer in pints, just like they do here.

Or at least I used to think they did.

I've resisted writing about this before because ranting on about "The Pint" is an effective measure of small mindedness in the UK. It is a symbol of Britain's independence from Europe second only to the portraits of the Queen that grace our coins and banknotes in importance. Indeed, for a certain section of xenophobic idiots, the idea of ordering a beer measured in millilitres would be tantamount to replacing "God Save the Queen" with "Frère Jacques", or knocking down Buckingham Palace to make way for a Volkswagen dealership, a new branch of Ikea and a couple of pizza restaurants.

While I don't agree with such sentiments, I have come to realise that the British pint is more important to me than I thought it was. I'm not talking about the fact that pints back home are about 20 percent bigger than American ones (568 ml compared to 473 ml, fact fans). No, it's the way that when you order a pint in Britain, you know exactly what you'll get: a pint. But depending on where you order one here, it will vary in size from a full British pint, through a standard 16-ounce US measure, all the way down to 12 fluid ounces or less – which isn't much bigger than a half pint back home.

To compensate for serving smaller drinks, some sneaky bars even use special glasses with thicker sides and a heavy bottom that look and feel like the real thing, except that you run out of beer unexpectedly quickly. Other places, particularly music venues or clubs, tend to be a little more upfront about it, probably because there isn't much you can do to disguise the size of plastic cups. Either way, you only know what you're getting after you get your first drink in your hand as bars don't tend to advertise the size of their pours, and prices rarely change to reflect smaller measures.

To someone from Britain, a country where pint glasses carry an official Government stamp and any beer not filled to the brim is immediately returned to the bar for topping up, such irregularity seems unforgiveable. No one in the States would tolerate petrol stations that sold pint-sized gallons, or butchers who shaved an ounce or two off a pound of meat, so why the laissez faire attitude to beer?

Thankfully there is a silver lining to all this bar-based debasement of measurements: the spirits pours here are similarly irregular in size, but uniformly generous when compared to the mean thimblefuls that are served in UK pubs. So perhaps in future I should be ordering a half and a half instead.

* NOTE: Many of Britain's Imperial measurements differ from United States Customary Units in size. However, both systems share a common ancestor, which explains their many similarities - including a complete lack of logic or common sense.

1 comment:

Mark Crowder said...

We take beer seriously up here in Oregon, and someone has set up an Honest Pint Project to ensure that we're getting a full pint. They certify local pubs that guarantee a full 16+ oz pint.