Friday, 15 November 2019

Suit yourself

A new bar has recently opened in Nottingham called the Tap House where customers are allowed to pour their own beer. It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that this is basically a gimmick rather than a glimpse into a brave new world, but it does raise a number of issues. One obvious one is whether customers are entitled to a fresh glass each time they want to pour a different beer, as they now expect in conventional bars. This would increase the staff workload and make the process less streamlined than it might at first appear, as they would need to visit a glass exchange point and then the actual tap.

There would also be a need to guard against serving alcohol to minors, and on providing it to people who were already drunk. The first presumably can be achieved fairly easily simply by restricting entry to over-18s. However, the second may be more challenging, especially as the bar allows you to build up a tab on a card and settle at the end of the evening. It is much easier to assess whether someone is drunk by looking them in the eye when ordering a drink, than from observing their general behaviour. And people can always serve beer to their friends and not just themselves. I’m not sure what the answer is, but clearly it will require a level of staff supervision that erodes any potential savings from self-service.

The most important issue, though, is that of the measures served. The report says “Customers can select a range of drink sizes from a sample of around 50ml to a schooner (three quarters of a pint).” On the face of it, this would appear to be illegal, as the law only permits draught beer to be sold in thirds and halves of a pint and multiples thereof. Indeed, there’s an example of pub in Stockton-on-Tees using the same model being compelled to restrict themselves to the prescribed measures.

Some people have commented that “surely their operating plan will have been checked out by the council before they opened”, but that reflects a very optimistic assessment of how much time hard-pressed staff have to review such things. Anyway, it seems that they have received a visit, although it’s not made clear what the outcome was.

(Click on the image to read the text)

It’s conceivable that there is an exemption for cases where customers are serving themselves using a measured flow, as with petrol pumps, rather than the bar offering specific quantities for sale. I have my doubts, though. In any case, clear guidance would be useful. This would also apply to the growing number of single-price “all you can drink” craft beer festivals which often use a standard measure that is less than a third of a pint. As with several other examples in different areas, it suggests there is a need for clearer national standards on trading standards issues.

Some people have gone on from this to argue that it is time for the complete deregulation of measures – shouldn’t pubs and bars be allowed to serve beer in whatever measures they deem most appropriate? I suspect that much of this comes from those who simply object to the use of Imperial measures and would prefer metric ones. I’d hazard a guess that such people don’t tend to be Leave voters.

However, it’s important to remember that standardised measures were introduced for reasons of consumer protection. They make price comparison more straightforward and allow people to keep track of consumption of an intoxicating product. Deregulation of measures would lead to confusion amongst customers and open the door to all kinds of rip-offs. While there is a strong identification with pints, as soon as this was relaxed bars would be selling beer in all kinds of sizes, and it wouldn’t be long before people were simply asking for a large or a small one. Who would benefit if bars were able to define “a whisky” as 22ml, or 18ml, or whatever, and only declare this on an obscure sign somewhere?

We already see this on the price boards in some craft bars such as BrewDog, where a single price is given for each beer, with the quantity it relates to being shown beside it in smaller print. How often in practice does this lead to customers ordering a specific beer by name without stating the desired quantity? Not “a half of Elvis Juice” but just “an Elvis Juice”.

Whether the measures are Imperial or metric is irrelevant to the argument for standardisation. A comparison is sometimes drawn with petrol, where customers are free to dispense any quantity they choose. However, this doesn’t really stand up, as petrol is bought for consumption over a period of time rather than as a single serve to be used immediately. A bar is, in effect, serving “a drink”, not x amount of a particular product. Sheer practicality, such as the glassware required, would require a bar to define which were the normal quantities of beer it sold to customers. And petrol is in any case always very clearly priced per litre, so there is never any doubt about the actual unit price.

There is, perhaps, a case for allowing a smaller measure of beer for outlets, typically festivals , that operate effectively on what is a “sample” basis. But this could easily be accommodated within the current system by legalising measures of a quarter or a sixth of pint. It’s not a proper drink to my mind, though. It’s also doubtful how much take-up there would be. After all, while thirds have always been legal, and two-thirds was permitted a few years ago, they’re still rarely seen in the generality of pubs and bars. Try asking for two-thirds of Carling in Wetherspoon’s and see what response you get. But if you do want more flexibility without upending the whole system, this is what you should be arguing for.

11 comments:

  1. The Stafford Mudgie15 November 2019 at 22:20

    I don't understand why "A comparison is sometimes drawn with petrol".
    Yes, "petrol is bought for consumption over a period of time" but intoxication doesn't result from buying too much petrol at once.

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    1. I agree the comparison doesn't really stand up, but that hasn't stopped people using it on Discourse. Plus our friend Richard English used it in the debate about full measures.

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    2. The Stafford Mudgie16 November 2019 at 11:49

      Ah, yes, and so he did.
      Owners of small cars would soon complain if petrol stations had a one price "all your tank will hold" system yet I've not heard slenderly built drinkers complain that “all you can drink” craft beer festivals are unfair.

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  2. I fear I may have to try this place out!

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    1. It would be interesting if you did and wrote a blog about it. Very different atmosphere from LE67, I'd guess.

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  3. In Spain I have seen similar operations where the customer pre purchases an amount of beer,possibly one or two litres and is given a glass or glasses which comply with the legal measuring requirements. The customer may then pour as much or as little beer into his glasses until such time as he has consumed the beer which he has purchased. In this way the beer is sold to the customer in legally approved measures,multiples of pints can be substituted for litres and the customer consumes the beer using an approved glass after pouring it from his tap.In this way the legal requirements concerning sales in approved measures are complied with.

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    1. That would only work if the bar was only dispensing one beer.

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  4. It's a gimmick that I hope doesn't catch on, It further waters down the true pub experience, think corner shop Vs Supermarket, Trad backstreet local Vs Spoons, not a great move in my opinion.

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  5. This type of thing has been going donkeys years. I went in one on Oxford Road over ten years ago. You book a table and they bring you a glass and you help yourselves. You get a bill at the end on the meter of what has been poured. Not really a pub but a gimmicky bar. Duvel Green was the only beer of interest to geeks in the one I went in. I enjoyed it but that was more the company of friends than the gimmick of not buying rounds and splitting a bill evens when I necked the most. Doesn't appear illegal at least in the sense of an authority been that bothered.

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  6. The Dirty Bottles (Ye Olde Cross) in Alnwick has had self service at the table for about three years. A screen on each table to order and pay for drink and food plus a fount with two keg beers to help yourself up to how much you've paid for. The main problem I can see is that most people can't pull a pint to save their lives, especially if the beer's over-carbonated or fobbing.

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  7. It's been reported on CAMRA Discourse that, following the visit from Weights & Measures referred to above, the Tap House has changed its system so that customers can only dispense beer in quanities of a third or a half of a pint. Result!

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