A Pint-Sized Problem

Whether you think it's half-empty or half-full, your glass is almost always two ounces short.

For the consumer, it's a given--a pound equals sixteen ounces in weight, a gallon equals 64 liquid ounces, and a pint is sixteen of the same.

Thanks to the watchful eyes of various government consumer agencies, the public trusts that any advertised serving measures up. But here along the beer-blessed Front Range, in the state that produces more beer per capita than any other, beer drinkers are coming up short.

The problem? The "pint" glass used by nearly every bar holds sixteen ounces only when filled to the brim; it's a fill that rarely happens due to the head on the beer and the impossibilities of delivering a brimming glass to a customer. As a result, the average "pint" holds only twelve to fourteen ounces, and in some cases, the beers are even shorter.

It's a reality that leads to pressing questions for the beer nut: Why are bars getting away with this? Why doesn't the state do something about it? And where the hell is the rest of my beer?

When David Wallace, chief of the Colorado Department of Agriculture's Inspection and Consumer Services, watches a demonstration of this scam in his northwest Denver office, he's intrigued. As twelve ounces of apple juice rises to the typical fill level in the "pint" glass, he leans forward and eyes the glass with suspicion. When the sixteenth ounce spills onto his desk, he scratches a few notes on a pad.

"There's definitely a problem of misrepresentation of quantity here," he acknowledges. Is it illegal? "Yes," Wallace says.

Bob Athearn, chief of field inspections for Wallace's office, also looks at the contents of the glass cresting over the rim. He nods his head knowingly. Two years ago a Denver consumer complained about short pours at a local bar, he says. After the complaint was investigated, however, the bar wasn't cited for misrepresentation of quantity, because portions were advertised as "draws," not pints.

But both men agree that if a joint promises a pint--a clearly defined unit of measure--it has to deliver it. So does the state code they're charged with enforcing. "No person," declares the state law, "shall sell, offer, advertise, or expose for sale less than the quantity or commodity or service he represents."

Doing so has a price--as much as $500 per offense, depending on the severity, frequency and "willfulness" of the infractions.

"That's terrible," shouts Ken Lane, of the Colorado Attorney General's Office of Consumer Protection, when he hears about the scam. "You go in and ask for a beer, everybody assumes you get what you're supposed to get." But Lane quickly admits that there is probably nothing his office can do about it. "We get over 40,000 complaints a year and have an intake staff of one," he says. What's more, he adds, "I can almost guarantee you that if we went to the DA's office with this, they would look at us cross-eyed.

"And because this happens thousands of times a day over the course of a year," Lane continues, "you can almost argue that people understand this already. As a person who goes out to bars, I know I'm not going to get a full glass of anything, and I've never wondered about it. And generally, after the first beer, I don't care," he says, laughing.

Wallace says it would be impossible for his office to investigate the matter on a statewide basis because of staff and budget limitations. Plus, he's got questions about the seriousness of the whole thing. "I don't know how concerned we can get over whether people are getting enough beer to drink," he admits. "Is head part of the beer? There's also the problem of delivery of the portion. Can we cite a server for spilling beer? And I'd want to know how prevalent these short measures are and how many bars use the word 'pint' to describe their beers."

Lane says the criteria needed for his office to look into something--whether it has a significant impact on individual and collective consumers and whether the issue is "something that we as a society should refuse to stand for"--may not be present in this case.

But maybe they are.
pIn visits to over thirty area drinking establishments in recent weeks, only one--Lefty's bar at DIA--told patrons the glass of beer they were getting wasn't a pint. "We certainly don't exaggerate what we serve, and we train our servers that way," says Joe David, who oversees operations of the three Lefty's locations at the airport. "If somebody thinks they're going to get a pint and they don't, then we have a problem on our hands. We sell beer by the glass, not the pint."

Unfortunately, David's peers aren't as honest. The Hornet, at 82 South Broadway, serves brews in a phony pint glass that holds only about fourteen ounces, meaning that patrons get only about twelve ounces.

"Everybody knows that we serve a fourteen-ounce glass of beer," insists Hornet manager Mary Beth Hatter, pointing out that the menu lists small and large beers, not pints. But the waitstaff calls them pints, and Hatter acknowledges that she's "never really thought about this before. I guess these are details we have to work out. This is not a deliberate effort to dupe people."

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