Pint-sized Problem

The size of a drink is a subject of contention among bartenders – but it shouldn’t be that way.

Photography Daniel Wood

Grabbing a pint is a tradition, almost sacred, in Edmonton. It’s the after-work special. It’s the quick catch-up-with-friends ritual, the engagement announcement, or the sombre post-Oilers-game analysis meeting. It can rejuvenate you mid-week or help you celebrate the beginning of a well-earned weekend. But when is the last time you had a pint? That is, a real pint – 20 ounces worth? It’s less often than you think.

Armed with a measuring cup and a thirst for truth and suds, I investigated the state of pints in Edmonton. I live downtown, so, over the course of a month, I strolled from pub to pub (11 in total) to inspect the inconsistent definition of a pint.

The bar manager at Mercer Tavern, Keir MacIver, agreed to meet with me and show me the establishment’s glassware. We settled into the skeeball cove located in the northeast corner of the bar, and sat down with a one-litre measuring cup, a jug of water, a sleeve glass, a pint glass and a stein.

“We do two centimetres of head per pint and one centimetre per sleeve,” said MacIver. “It gives them the correct amount of beer as well it makes it look wonderful. The head is a big part of the beer. It adds a lot of flavour and it adds to the nose.”

With MacIver’s guidance (I’m not a bartender), I poured the water into the sleeve glass until it was one centimetre before the rim of the glass. I then poured the glass of water into the measuring cup. It was at the 12-ounce mark. I then poured water into the pint glass and then from there into the measuring cup.

“It’s just under 18,” said MacIver. “You’d make a great bartender.”

Maybe not.

On Aug. 1, 2014, Measurement Canada’s Fairness at the Pumps Act became law. The act requires that pints sold at licensed businesses contain no less than 20 ounces of liquid – with a half-ounce margin for error that doesn’t include the head. Businesses failing to comply can be fined between $250 and $2,000. The Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission (AGLC) has similar legislation provincially, but it hasn’t been strictly enforced – the provincial body relies on consumer complaints.

“Each licensee must post the amount of liquor contained in a drink in ounces on the menu,” said Tatjana Laskovic, communications officer for AGLC. “For example, if there are 20 ounces of beer in a pint, then the consumer should be served the 20 ounces. The AGLC is concerned that licensees are appropriately stating the amount that they are serving and that they are serving the amount they are stating.”

Laskovic also specified that the AGLC requires that the amount of beer being served must be specified in ounces on the menu, regardless of whether it’s called a pint or not.

“All licensees are still expected to follow all federal, provincial or municipal legislation,” said Laskovic. “If licensees are found to be short-pouring their customers, the first step would be education and a warning, with fines occurring after repeat offences.”

Mercer is not alone. Along Jasper Avenue, I tested the “pints” served to me, with none reaching the minimum amount of 19.5 ounces. Why? A few possibilities exist. Perhaps the bars don’t know the law, or the bars are confused because an American pint is 16 ounces, whereas Canada follows the Imperial System of 20 ounces. Or maybe the bars are knowingly flouting the law. Of course, while the laws are in place, they are only worthwhile if they are enforced.

“It’s a crapshoot what the AGLC is going to strongly enforce,” said Kyle Simpson, a bartender at North 53 and El Cortez Cantina, and the director of Bar Squire International. “[The AGLC’s] mandate is to protect the public from alcohol-related harm, which includes unscrupulous publicans. I don’t think many people are aware they have the wrong glassware to serve the proper 20 ounces.”

Back at Mercer, I asked what would happen if people complained about the amount poured, but MacIver said that’s never been an issue.

“We’ve heard about places where people have ordered a pint, but they’re getting a sleeve,” said MacIver. “I don’t know where that is happening. We are giving everyone their money’s worth.”

The law is there to protect the consumer, which only strengthens the bond between consumers and businesses. Maybe some day soon we’ll be able to go to any bar downtown and have a real pint. Until then, I’m thinking about investing in glassware stocks.

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