A Pint-Sized Problem

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."

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.

So what should the cheated consumer do? "The first remedy is for the patron to complain," says Ken Lane. "Then if the bar owner didn't comply, we might take a look. But that's a big might."

The agriculture department's Athearn offers another option. "You can ask the bartender to top it off," he says. And if he doesn't do it? "Give us a call. We'll go out and educate him: 'Your glass at less than full fill doesn't hold sixteen ounces; therefore, you shouldn't advertise it as a pint.'"

Wallace suggests that consumers should insist on having their glasses topped off. "The consumer has the right--no, the responsibility--to call the bartenders on the fact that they aren't getting a full measure of beer," he says. "They shouldn't be embarrassed about it. And if they don't do it, then don't go back there. Tell your friends, 'Don't drink beer there--those people are serving short pints.


We use cookies to collect and analyze information on site performance and usage, and to enhance and customize content and advertisements. By clicking 'X' or continuing to use the site, you agree to allow cookies to be placed. To find out more, visit our cookies policy and our privacy policy.


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >