Monday, June 9, 2008

A Pint-Size Problem - Or much ado about nothing?

The Wall Street Journal is running a piece entitled "A Pint-size Problem". Journalist Nancy Keates attempts to make the case that there's a move by pubs and restaurants to cheat beer drinkers.
Four-dollar-a-gallon gasoline may be a cause for outrage. But it pales next to the righteous fury provoked by five-dollar-a-pint beer.

Beer prices at bars and restaurants have risen over the past few months, as prices of hops and barley have skyrocketed and retail business has slowed alongside the economy.

Some restaurants have replaced 16-ounce pint glasses with 14 ouncers -- a type of glassware one bartender called a "falsie."

And customers are complaining that bartenders are increasingly putting less than 16 ounces of beer in a pint glass, filling up the extra space with foam.

Two of the world's biggest glassware makers, Libbey and Cardinal International, say orders of smaller beer glasses have risen over the past year. Restaurateurs "want more of a perceived value," says Mike Schuster, Libbey's marketing manager for glassware in the U.S. Glasses with a thicker bottom or a thicker shaft help create the perception. "You can increase the thickness of the bottom part but still retain the overall profile," he says.

Dedicated beer drinkers are fighting back, with extra vigilance about exactly how much beer they get for their buck. They are protesting "cheater pints" and "profit pours" by outing alleged offenders on Web discussion boards and plugging bars that maintain 16-ounce pints, in hopes peer pressure will prevail. And they are spreading the word about how to spot the smaller glass (the bottom is thicker).

Everyone loves a conspiracy! I think the tone of the article could give readers a false impresion. In the interest of full disclosure I must state I answered an email query from Ms. Keates as she was preparing the article and made many of the same points I writing here. I'm not so sure we are dealing with deception as much as a simple awareness issue. Let's face it folks, prices are going up all around, and this is often reflected in packaging. Candy bars, detergent boxes, juice bottles; it's easy to find products now being presented in smaller packages for the same price. I don't doubt that there might be some bars that are purposefully mislabeling "pints." However I think this article creates an impression of deception where there is none.

At many bars and restaurants the draft selection is listed as simply "draft beer". I've seen "large" and "small" options as well. If I'm unsure of the glass size or style, I'll ask. As I stated in my response to Ms. Keates' query, unless the bar is specifically stating that the draft is a pint, or giving a specific ounce listing, there's no duplicity. The Wall Street Journal article states "Evidence of short-pouring is hard to nail down, but there are signs the practice is common." So, either the evidence is hard to nail down or it's common.

The online article is accompanied by a link to an audio interview with the author. In this podcast the interviewer asks "Are restaurants and other establishments still trying to call it a pint when it technically isn't?" Nancy Keates responds "No, I don't think it's really deceptive ..." After Keates specifically states that she found no deception, the interviewer follows up with "Is there any other type of deception that's taking place out there?" The author then goes on to explain that patrons feel they are getting less beer. This may indeed be the case, but that doesn't point to deception unless the size of the glass is claimed to be different. Later in the interview Ms. Keates states that people are indeed willing to pay a higher price for a larger-sized glass. Hmm, drinkers are willing to pay more for a larger glass, however when they pay less for a smaller glass it's deceptive? In the interview Nancy Keates adds, "There's an assumption when you order a beer at a bar you're getting a pint." There's no evidence presented of this universal assumption. Unless the menu states specifically a pint, why would I assume a 16 ounce pour? In fact, there are many beers with which I would specifically not expect 16 ounces.

A portion of the article, and also the accompanying podcast, is devoted to the "problem" of head on a beer. Perhaps it's just me, but I get very upset when I watch a bartender work so hard to avoid any head on a pour. A proper beer pour does include a head on the beer. Servers who attempt to pour a beer with no head are uninformed, as is the drinker who insists on a headless pour. The carbonation helps to release the aromas and flavors of the beer. I think what we have here is not a conspiracy to cheat the drinker, but a lack of education on the part of servers and drinkers alike.

The problem we do have is the rising cost of a beer, not the size of the glass. Let's focus on solving the former instead of creating an issue where none exists.

Now if my beer shows up in a frosted glass or with fruit, then we have a problem!


  1. I will attest to a particular bar I frequent while on travel (the one in the hotel were we always stay) has 'small' glasses that they use during happy hour. When they go to full price, it's out with the small 14/12oz to larger 16 or 20oz glasses. Luckily the bar tender is great and for regulars that tip well, we normally get the 'large' ones right off the bat. I'll be keeping an eye open for difference as prices increase.

  2. Good analysis of a surprisingly poorly-researched piece by the WSJ.

  3. THOMAS 'Tom' CIZAUSKAS said...
    Good analysis of a surprisingly poorly-researched piece by the WSJ.

    >I don't understand. What is surprising about this? Most print media, WSJ including, have allowed any standards they once had to slip incredibly over the last decade or so.


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