Is That Craft Beer Pint You Just Ordered Really 16oz?
We are indeed fortunate to be craft beer drinkers in the Midwest. No place is perfect, but the Midwest seems to have just the perfect mix of enough breweries and people who understand or want to understand craft beer, with a minimum of craft beer bullies and snobs. The brewers of the Midwest most definitely have the drinkers’ experience foremost in their mind, and the taproom managers and owners are consumer friendly without becoming snobbish themselves. Every time I talk to a brewery, owner, or manager the key phrase they use is “customer experience.”
To give you just one example of the great relationship between the drinker and the brewery folk in the Midwest, lets talk about what it means to order a pint of beer. With the expansion of craft beer production into small batches and barrel aged beers with high ABVs, ordering a pint nowadays doesn’t actually mean you’re going to get a US pint (16 oz.) of beer in your glass. “Pint” has become generalized to mean a glass of beer. Even when I know a certain beer is going to come to me in a snifter or as a half pint, I often ask for a pint. My server knows what I mean – I don’t want a taste, just pour the beer.
In the UK, the pint distinction has remained, primarily because English law requires that a pint of beer be equal to 20 imperial ounces (19.2 US ounces). Because of this, pint glasses in the UK are bigger than in the US. Certainly, some breweries in the Midwest offer imperial pint glasses (think Broad Ripple Brew Pub), but the law doesn’t require them to serve 19.2 oz. or even a full 16 oz. when a customer orders a pint of beer. The distinction is subtle, and I hope it remains so – in the our experience, I can honestly say that no one in Indiana has ever tried to rip Walter and I off off when pouring us a beer. But that doesn’t mean that we get 16 oz when we order a pint – and we don’t expect to.
A standard US shaker pint holds exactly 16 oz if you pour beer to the absolute lip of the glass (cochtan style, also called neat, we’ll talk about this soon). But most craft beer drinkers understand that a pint of beer requires an inch or so of head to maximize the beer experience. As such, the consumer is really only getting about 14.5 oz of beer – buts that’s OK, and most craft beer drinkers understand it. I took a very unscientific poll of beertenders and brewery owners over the last few weeks; they say that the number of people that complain about getting shorted is so small as to not be memorable. Chris Jones, assistant brewer at Blind Owl, says that a couple of people have asked for a top-off of their beer in the years he has been pouring, but they weren’t angry about it – and he was happy to do it.
It’s a nice attitude to have – remember, they are their to maximize your enjoyment, that way you’ll come back. Brian Nentrup, owner/brewer of Hoosier Brewhouse in Franklin, said that he has no problem topping off a beer when a patron asks for a bit more. The point is to have a good beer experience – if that means a bit more beer and no head for some individual patron, then that’s fine – no skin off anyone’s nose. Josh Smith at Redemption Alewerks says that he has learned to get a feel for a patron as they order their beer by the questions they ask and the types of comparisons they make when they search out a beer they might like. In some cases, he is more likely to pour to the lip of a glass and be less worried about the head if he gets the vibe that that is what will make the patron happy.
A two finger head might be proper, and most breweries consider that to be a part of the pint of beer, but if the customer hasn’t reached that point yet in their craft experience, why not get them a bit more beer? Of course, there is the idea that a shaker pint is widest at the lip, so too short a pour will reduce the pour by a decent amount of beer. Luckily, here in the Midwest, the pourers are more than sufficiently skilled and the craft beer drinking population is sufficiently learned to know that the beertender is doing right by them. These are indeed great days.
Apparently, the same can’t be said for the entire country. John Patrick, a state senator in Maine, put forward a piece of legislation in 2015 to standardize the definition of a pint of beer in Maine to equal 16 fluid oz. (473 ml). This is similar to legislation proposed in Michigan (2013) and Oregon (2009), yet none of the acts were enacted into law. The governor of Maine stated that current consumer protection laws on the books were sufficient to protect against deceptive trade practices, and that drinkers could vote with their feet and leave establishments that did not meet customer expectations. I think he was right; most true craft drinkers understand the implications of ordering a pint of beer, and can always leave a place they come believe isn’t measuring up.
Unfortunately, it does happen. Believe it or not, there is a type of shaker pint that has come to be known as the “cheater pint.” The glass looks regular and is the standard height of a shaker pint, but it has an unusually thick bottom (see left). Instead of pouring 16 oz. to the lip, a cheater pint can only hold 14 oz., this ends up being about a 12.5 oz. pour with a two finger head. Over time, that can add up to a lot more profit for a taproom, bar, or restaurant.
I looked through the extensive glassware collection that Walter and I have amassed over the years, and low and behold, I found one cheater pint out of about 200 shaker pints. I am happy to report that this glass didn’t come from a brewery in Indiana or even anywhere in the Midwest, and this helps to bolster our good feelings about the craft beer environment in this stretch of the country we call home.
Of course, not every beer you order is going to come in a pint glass. Small batches, expensive to make or purchase beers, and aged beers with more loss over time require shorter pours in order to maintain a decent profit margin for the establishment. Nobody’s getting rich here, the margins on craft beer are modest to begin with. The glassware selection available today adds to the issue – do you know how much beer each one holds? Suffice it to say that I do, and I know that Walter and I are being treated fairly.
In Indiana, you can find just about every type of glass, from the new Spiegelau IPA pints and the newer evolution pilseners (Brugge Brasserie has some) to the tekus and even traditional stemmed wine glasses that are becoming popular for many styles of beer. Many establishments will tell you how many ounces of beer will be poured for each offering, and this helps to prevent misunderstandings – Redemption Alewerks and Twenty Tap come to mind. Black Acre has moved to just two standard volumes, the pint and the half pint. But even so, the level of craft beer knowledge has progressed to the point that I personally have never seen someone complain about the pour they have received. I am glad to see that people understand the environment and that the breweries are doing their best to get people the most beer they can. The same beer may be poured differently at two establishments, but that is likely because they have purchased different volumes from the distributor, and they are hoping to get some of the beer to the most patrons. (UPDATE – I saw someone get upset today. A gentleman wanted to know why his beers weren’t included in the $4/pint special and was told that the special only pertained to those beer that were poured as pints, not the snifters and goblets. He was not happy.)
Whitney Watson, bar manager at Blind Owl Brewery, told me that their head brewer decides what the pour will be and what the charge will be. At other places it might be the general manager or one of the owners. There’s some math involved, but in general, they divide the cost of the keg by the pint serving size, and then divide that number by their general liquor cost (usually around 25%). This gives a cost per pint for the patron. If that number is above a certain level (a price that makes it unlikely that a patron will pay for a full pint) then they redo the numbers with a smaller serving size until they are balance cost, profit and size. For very rare beers, the liquor cost might be higher than 25%, so the serving size is apt to come down a bit. Walter tried to explain this to me in layman’s terms, but I just had to go to the math – it’s one of the hazards of being trained as a scientist. It turns out that she definitely had a good understanding of pricing and sizing, as do most craft beer drinkers around us.
In Indiana and in the parts of the Midwest that Walter and I frequent for beer, the camaraderie between beer drinker and beer provider is strong. Drinkers know that breweries and craft bars aren’t trying to gouge them or get away with something (ie. cheater pints). And the brewers appreciate their patrons and want to get them the biggest pours of the best beers – if we as consumers happy, they know we’re going to come back. The drinker always has the power not to purchase, but if I see a beer that I know is rare, that I know has a great reputation, and that I know was work for the bar to bring in, then I’m not going to balk at paying a dollar an ounce or more. Craft beer is a partnership between maker and drinker, and I am happy to say that in the Midwest, the partnership is thriving.
Walter’s words of wisdom – Beer samples can cost a brewery upwards of fifty cents each. Considerate patrons limit themselves to asking for one or two samples at a sitting.