Thursday, 12 May 2016

Giving a heads-up

I came across this headline in the Stockton and Darlington Times: Disbelief as pub landlady prosecuted over 'pint short by six teaspoons of beer'. My first thought was: why disbelief? Most of us would object if we were offered a box of eggs with one missing, or a loaf with a couple of slices removed, even though both of these purchases are cheaper than a pint. Should we be tolerant of short measures of beer? After all, the customer had paid for those 'six teaspoons of beer'.

Looking at the article, I conclude that some of the reaction seems to be that taking the licensee, Michelle Craggs, to court is disproportionate to the offence, especially as the council incurred costs of thousands of pounds, including the hiring of a barrister, at a time of serious cutbacks, only for the case to be thrown out anyway.

The British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) guidelines suggest:
  • A measure of beer served with a head must include a minimum of 95% liquid
  • The beer should not be made available to the customer until bar staff are satisfied with the measure
  • Requests from customers for top-ups should be received with good grace and never refused, subject to avoiding spillage of liquid.
Ms Craggs claimed she had never heard of these guidelines, but that's no excuse: ignorance is no defence. However, the magistrates dismissed the charge after accepting she trained her staff adequately and took care to ensure that correct measures were served. It's a pragmatic approach permitting occasional slip-ups as long as the licensee takes all reasonable steps to prevent them.

Serving just the right amount of beer can be problematic, mainly because the product, whether real or not, has conditioning which gives it life and creates the head on your pint. I've worked at many CAMRA beer festivals and I know that it can sometimes be quite difficult to pour an exact pint even if you're using lined glasses. The liveliness of beers can vary a lot: some beers create big heads no matter how carefully you pour them, while with others you struggle to get a small head. It is not always immediately obvious whether a pint will settle into an acceptable measure; to be certain, you might have to let it stand for perhaps a minute, but a bar full of glasses slowly settling is not what you want on a busy Friday night. This is a problem that is unique to beer and does not apply to any other liquids sold in pubs such as wines, spirits or ciders.

I've always regarded this to be a problem that CAMRA is partly responsible for by its promotion of handpumps over electric dispense. It is perfectly possible to serve a full pint of real ale through metered electric pumps into oversized glasses, and indeed that was how most was sold in the 70s and well into the 80s. I recall a CAMRA trip in the 80s to Hydes Brewery when we shown around by Mr Hyde himself, and he firmly told us that his company preferred electric pumps and oversized glasses for all their beers, whether real or keg, as it prevented all the arguments about short measures. This didn't go down too well with some of our number, although it amused me that he seemed to enjoy puncturing CAMRA preconceptions. However, if the Campaign was serious about wanting to get rid of short measures of beer at a stroke, it would adopt Mr Hyde's policy, but then we'd have to sacrifice our treasured handpumps.

I like handpumps: they add the the atmosphere of a pub, and tell you at a glance that real ale is available, which you could never do with electric pumps. I think we have to accept that always getting 100% liquid in brim measures from handpumps is not feasible. Oversized glasses will never catch on generally because it is inevitable that too much will be served; you only have to look at some of the measures served at CAMRA beer festivals to see that. The usual response I've seen from full-pint advocates is 'improve staff training', but no amount of training will adequately address all the problems that I've mentioned: part of the problem is the nature of the product itself. A once-a-year CAMRA festival can afford to give excess measures because nobody's livelihood depends on it; a pub cannot afford to give away free beer all day every day.

Where beer is served through handpumps into brim glasses, pubs would be wise to display signs stating that beer will automatically be topped up on request. In turn, drinkers should try not to be shy about taking them up on it, and should accept that 100% liquid is for the most part unrealistic. I realise such tips are neither original nor perfect, and that it's not always easy to ask for a top-up when drinkers are six deep at the bar, but it's probably the best we can do as things are. After all, life isn't perfect either.

I wonder whether the trading standards officers asked for a top-up.

7 comments:

  1. The solution is keg bar taps of consistent beer and lined glasses.

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    1. That is definitely a solution.

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  2. Oversized glasses will never catch on generally

    And yet the standard half-pint glass for 'craft keg' beers is a lined, oversize stem glass. So to some extent it has caught on, if only within the craft bubble. I've even seen people drinking pints from lined oversize stem glasses, although I've never been served one myself.

    (I specify 'keg'; in two separate bars I've ordered halves of the same beer in cask & keg form, & got one in a stem glass & the other in a dumpy nonic. If anything it should be the other way round, to give the keg a chance to warm up.)

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    1. Pubs can afford it for a low-volume, high-margin product. But, if a full liquid pint law came in, the likes of Wetherspoons would have all their keg beers and ciders on meters within a matter of months. The trade would also ask CAMRA to come up with a distinctive design of metered font for cask beer.

      Also don't forget that what appears to the punter to be a full measure, i.e. with liquid beer right up to the line, is in fact an overmeasure because of the beer contained in the head. This is why in the old days it was always recommended that unlined oversize glasses should be used with meters. If you ever got a lined oversize glass, the liquid beer would stop a little way short of the line. The meter was the measure, not the glass.

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    2. That's wack, as the kids say. Lined stemmed half-pint glasses seem to be the norm (or becoming the norm at least) in Ramsgate & environs, regardless of whether the beer is poured from a cask or a keg. While I would prefer a nonick or jug to such a glass, I'll take it just because it's an oversized glass provides a superior drinking experience.

      Think of how much less sloppage there'd be on the bar, on the table, and on the floor with lined glasses. And you've got room to enjoy the aroma of a freshly-poured beer.

      If I were to run a pub, it'd certainly be with oversized glassware, with liquid filled to the line. The excess 25% liquid of any head would simply be a cost of operating a quality business.

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  3. Not a million miles from my own thoughts on the subject :-) Good to see someone else making the point that CAMRA itself had a part to play in the disappearance of oversize glasses. Effectively, they had a choice between full measures and handpumps, and decided they preferred the latter. The only places you now see oversize glasses being used for cask beers are CAMRA beer festivals and a handful of independent pubs.

    I'd say a one-off prosecution of this licensee was a touch vindictive. However, if she'd been doing it routinely, or as a deliberate policy, things would have been different.

    I often see CAMRA members bring blatantly short pints back from the bar which surely would have been topped up without asking if they hadn't snatched them away so quickly.

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  4. Nick: I assume 'that's wack' is a way of saying 'that's rubbish', but it isn't. I can't speak for Ramsgate as I've never been there, but I can say that everywhere I drink, which is by no means confined to the Merseyside area, the situation is more or less as I described it.

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