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A Pint-Sized Problem

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

The Wynkoop microbrewery, at 1634 18th Street, which produces more beer than any other brewpub in the state, promotes sixteen-ounce pours and a special twenty-ounce pour but delivers neither. Its "pints" average thirteen to fourteen ounces, while the larger model rises only to the seventeen-ounce range. Pints Pub, at 221 West 13th Avenue, which surely understands its namesake, serves drafts that consistently average a couple of ounces under fill. The story's the same in the bulk of the state's roughly 5,000 drinking holes that serve draft beer.

Standing at the bar, Kyle Carstens, Wynkoop's head brewer, said he's heard a complaint about short portions only once or twice. A quick survey of a handful of bartenders and managers yields a similar report. "That glass is the standard in every pub I've been in, and I've been in a lot of them," he says. "I think most people understand that there's going to be some head on it, and that's part of the deal.

"Most bars want to give you as little as possible and charge you as much as possible for it, and that's a fact," he adds. "But if any bartender here is hassled about too much head on the beer, they'll fill it to the rim for them."

The economic impact of these bogus brews will break only the most ambitious beer drinkers, but misleading labeling has prompted class-action lawsuits over products such as packaged milk and meats.

The collective damage is another matter. According to the Institute for Beverage Studies in Boulder, Wynkoop produced 122,698 gallons of beer last year. If three-quarters of that was sold across the bar (allowing room for keg sales, pitchers and to-go growlers), then Wynkoop poured 736,188 pints of beer in 1998.

But if every pint turned out to be short by an average of two ounces--"a conservative estimate," state agriculture chief Wallace acknowledges--then the Wynkoop would have saved $276,070, based on an average price of $3 per pint.

Statewide, the cost would be even more staggering. David Reitz of the Colorado Liquor Enforcement Division says 94 million gallons of beer were sold last year in Colorado. Judy Henning of the Colorado Beer Distributors Association estimates that about 18 percent of that total was beer from the tap. Run the numbers--assuming two ounces and $3 per pint--and the total cost to the consumer comes to more than $50 million. That's a lot of beer money.

In the United States, the issue has come before the public on only a few occasions, in localities where the microbrewery trade is heavy, such as San Francisco and Seattle. In Great Britain, however, the question has been around for years, thanks to pressure from the Campaign for Real Ale. A consumers' group with a membership of about 50,000, CAMRA has pushed hard for full measures in British bars.

CAMRA studies found that over 80 percent of all pints served in the U.K. were short. "A lot of it's been driven by the marketing people," says Iain Loe, a CAMRA spokesman. "They seem to think that everyone wants a pint with a very thick, creamy head on it because it looks nice in pictures. We say if you want to do that, you should use oversized glasses."

CAMRA has pressured vendors to employ oversized glasses with a clearly marked fill line showing the drinker how much beer he or she is actually getting. A few pubs now use them. Pubs that have continued to serve shorts have been fined for their infractions by local authorities.

The British government has dipped its fingers into the issue in past years as well and in late July vowed to look into the matter more seriously. England's consumer-affairs agencies are considering a number of steps, including requiring lined glasses and developing a stricter definition of a full pour, one that doesn't count head as part of the beer.

"The beer industry says it will cost them money," Loe says. "They're basically admitting that for all these years, they haven't actually been serving a full pint when you asked for one. It's a bit like going into a shop and asking for a dozen eggs and only receiving eleven.

"We think it would be far better if there was a simple two- or three-line bill passed by Parliament that says a pint of beer is a pint of beer."

For Wallace, the size of the glass itself may be the biggest hurdle to prosecuting violators in Colorado--if his staff were ever actually inclined and able to pursue the issue. Because glasses can hold a pint under ideal circumstances, he says it would be hard for his office to prosecute.

According to Jay Achenbach of Libbey Glass, the nation's largest seller of beer glasses, some bar operators may not be aware of the limitations of their glasses. "But they should be," Achenbach says. The company's catalogue offers a vehement disclaimer that descriptions of glass size should not be considered accurate capacities. Furthermore, he says, "we don't sell anything called a 'pint' glass."

The ubiquitous beer vessel is actually a mixing glass and was adopted by brewpubs several years ago. Achenbach says the capacity of these glasses became an issue once when a California beer drinker complained. "After this initial flap, we came out with an eighteen- and twenty-ounce glass of the same shape," Achenbach says. "We warned operators that unless you're serving a pint, don't say you're serving a pint." Despite the warning, only a few operators traded their old glasses for the larger models, he says.

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