Saturday, 7 January 2012

Measuring up

I was recently in a pub next to a group who looked like they were a middle-aged man and his parents. The father went to the bar and returned with a round of drinks, including a pint of bitter for the son with a head at least one and a quarter inches deep. “I asked for a pint, not a half,” he said. “Well, take it back to the bar for a top-up,” his father replied. He pondered this for a moment and said “You know, I really can’t be arsed.”

This illustrated very well the problem with the issue of full measures in pubs. As I argued here, while in principle I support legislation that a pint should be a pint, and no less, in reality on the ground it is not something that people get very excited about.

Something similar happened in another pub at a CAMRA event. A colleague returned from the bar with a blatantly short pint and said “we really should be campaigning about this!” It was pointed out that campaigning for full measures legislation was already CAMRA policy, but not one that resonated very much with the general drinking public. Of course, if he wasn’t happy he could always ask for a top-up, although in reality when pubs are busy that often isn’t practical, and many people, as in the first example, just don’t bother.

Twenty or twenty-five years ago, across large parts of the Midlands and North of England, there was a critical mass of pubs using oversize glasses which could have formed the basis for such a campaign. However, while I’m not saying that CAMRA actively campaigned against full measures, in practice, when pubs stopped offering them they were never criticised for it, as it invariably coincided with the replacement of electric metered dispense with handpumps.

And that is what this poll was all about – presenting people with a simple either-or choice of which, to them, was more important, full measures or handpumps. And the result is quite clear – it’s handpumps, which provide an unambiguous symbol of cask beer in a way that no form of metered pump ever quite did. In a sense, the poll is a mirror image of asking in 1987 “Would you like to see the widespread restoration of handpumps even if you knew if would lead to the loss of full measures?”

What would be totally invidious would be to try and run a campaign highlighting certain pubs for being more likely than others to serve seriously short measures. Over time, I’ve probably asked for a top-up in pretty much every pub I visit regularly and, while some do perhaps seem more prone to it than others, that would be well-nigh impossible to prove.

Many years ago, someone tried to get the local CAMRA branch to mount a campaign against individual pubs suspected to be returning slops to the cask. This is undoubtedly a reprehensible and insanitary practice, not to mention being illegal, but the problem is that it also is very hard to prove. The presence of a stainless steel bucket behind the bar doesn’t prove it’s happening, and the absence of one doesn’t prove it isn’t. So the end result would be making insinuations against particular pubs on the basis of hearsay and supposition, which could be extremely damaging to CAMRA’s reputation amongst licensees.

Any campaign that involves singling out specific pubs for criticism must do so on the basis of verifiable fact, not rumour and speculation.

It’s worth adding that, in my view, as often as not short measure results simply from sloppy bar practice rather than from any deliberate intention to short-change the customer. And I have often seen customers - including members of CAMRA - take pints off the bar that, if left for a moment, would have been topped up without asking, which may well have been the case in the first example I gave.


  1. Not a part of the campaign we're very passionate about, although it is nice that, apparently as part of company policy, St Austell pubs bar staff will wrestle a glass from your hand and insist on topping it up whether you ask or not. (Although they always leave a nice head. They get it.)

  2. It's a tricky one this. I was all in favour of oversized glasses and full measures (and in principle, I still am), but a conversation with a local pub manager made me rethink.

    Even with a proper head you get 95 - 97% of a pint for your money. The 3 - 5% that you don't get goes towards the pub's profit!

    If all pubs were making money hand over fist, then I'd complain, but as many are struggling to make ends meet, insisting on a 100% full pint might hasten the disappearance of even more than are already going!

  3. well one way to ensure you got a full pint would be to discourage the use of sparklers :) but seriously it is a tricky area I think which is why I dont believe it always gets much traction behind it, because I know pubs that use oversize glasses reckon it costs them ~5% extra in terms of the volumes of beer they go through as you invariably dont have the time or accuracy to always give an exact pint, you tend to overfill (and also waste time explaining to people its an oversized glass so wont be topping it up again). overall the pub doesnt lose out as it prices what it sells accordingly, but if your in a competitive environment and people start choosing price instead of full measures then as the landlord youve got a hard choice to make, and I dont think CAMRA should be campaigning for something that makes it more troublesome to run a pub than it already is.

    we should always encourage pubs to sell full measures, and certainly insist consumers retain the right to challenge and not be refused topups, but I dont think oversized glasses will ever be something more than an option for pubs as part of their overall selling points, thats no different to having fruit machines or quizzes,offering food, live music etc etc.

  4. You've hit a couple of points bang on the head - more often than not in my experience staff will offer a top up, or at the very least happily do it when requested.

    As for naming and shaming pubs, perhaps name those that refuse to top up pints? I'm yet to find one myself...

  5. Why did you load the question? Isn't the problem with lack of full measures not whither legislation would remove handpumps?

    Why not ask "do you think a pint of beer should be 20, 19, 18 or 17 fluid onuces?" or "Do you think weights & measures legislation should apply equally to beer and petrol?" or even "Are you happy to pay £3.15 for something advertised as costing £3?"

    Pubs that refuse to top up pints? Try Sam Smiths who've just sacked managers for serving full pints.

  6. It's no more a loaded question than asking in 1987 "are you happy to see pubs replace electric meters with handpumps, even though you know at the same time this will also involve the replacement of oversize glasses with brim measures?"

  7. I'm in the habit of ordering my pint first so it settles whilst i order my wife's drink, then i've time to see whether it needs topping up or not, and i always ask if it does.

  8. I am against legislation in this area (as in most areas tbh). If I pub chooses to serve me a short measure, I will either ask for it topping up or let it ride - that is my choice.

    If I consistantly get served short measures, I will either not go back to that pub for a while or just continue patronising the place - again, my choice :)

    I prefer oversized pint pots as I like a head on my beer, but if a pub doesn't use them - so what?

    The point I'm sort of making here is that we do not need more rules and regulations - we need to use our own judgement and speak with our wallets.


  9. Equally problematic (I believe this is also something Boak & Bailey have mentioned) are barstaff who are overly cautious about making sure there is no need for a top up - i.e. where the pub is keen not to be seen short changing the customer.

    Because often what will happen then is a perfect pint with a lovely head will be overfilled, causing some beer to slop down the side of the glass and the head to be lost.

    Another serious problem is imported German/Czech beers. The branded glasses are often pint-to-line but are clearly *the same* glasses used for 500ml measures on the continent - but with a pint line. Consequently, these continental keg beers that ought to have a big, frothy foaming head do not (as the pint line is too high for that to be possible).

  10. One day you might post a poll that has balanced options rather than a heavy bias.

    I'm not holding my breath though.

  11. Rather than being a "biased poll", I would say it's one that makes people confront an uncomfortable dilemma.

    Maybe I should have asked "Between about 1985 and 2005, large numbers of pubs replaced metered dispense (for cask beer) and oversize glasses with handpumps and brim measure glasses. Do you believe that, overall, that was a positive development?"

  12. When some breweries brought in oversized glasses years ago, they apparently had trouble with customers complaining that they had been given short measure. Even when it was pointed out that the beer was up to the pint line, some customers refused to accept that they had a full pint. You just can't win!


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