Monday, January 26, 2009

Pints, prices, and punters

I wanted to get back to the "cost of beer" talk we've been skirting. By 'cost of beer,' I mean retail cost of a glass of draft beer, not cost of ingredients, or cost of bottled beer in stores. Those are sufficiently different topics that tackling all of them would take more time and room than I care to take here...maybe some other time.

I've been thinking about what it is we get in the U.S. when we order a "glass" of draft beer, because while a lot of this discussion (and that's a polite word for it) has centered on the price of the standard "shaker pint" pour, some of it focuses on just what is being poured: is it a pint? 14 ounces? Less? Seems like something that's on peoples' minds, so let's have a whack at it.

First, let me short-circuit any mistaken ideas: I do get a fair number of beer samples, but it's bottles, sent to my home. I pay for over 95% of my beers in bars and brewpubs, so I do have a good idea of what things are running out there, like the $6.50 I paid for a shaker pint of Molson Export at the Hard Rock Cafe in Montreal last summer (I only mention that because it was so lame, and so expensive, and so annoying).

That out of the way, here's my main thought. As I've mentioned all too often, I have a diesel Volkswagen. I love it. But when I go to fill up, the price of diesel is all over the map. Gasoline prices rarely vary by much; the competition is too intense. If the price is high, there's a reason: better service, the station doesn't sell that much and makes most of their money off their garage, local suckers, whatever. Auto diesel, on the other hand, is not something you find at every station, or even half of them; competition is lower. I've seen prices vary by 30 cents a gallon or more at stations within half a mile of each other.

Beer prices follow a similar profile. When it's the price of Bud Light, or Heineken, beers that are commonly available, you'll find a pretty close level price. It's not price-fixing; people are just aware of what the 'other guy' is charging. But when it's the price of a rare Belgian import, or a craft that's new to the market area, bars charge what they believe the market will bear. Their ideas of what that is may vary as much as $3 a glass.

Up until recently, they could do so with little push-back from drinkers; folks just ponied up the bucks. Now, however, the economy's in the dumper, money's tight, and more and more customers are starting to balk, and ask why, particularly why is one bar charging $4 and another charging $7 for the same beer.

What exacerbates this is that there is no tradition in the U.S. of stating what amount you're getting in a "glass of beer." We've only started saying "pint" fairly recently, and I'd guess it's because we're aping the Brits in an attempt to appear more worldly than we are, kind of like that annoying affectation of referring to the Atlantic Ocean as "the Pond." We ask for a "pint" of this and a "pint" of that, only we're really asking for a glass of inderminate measure.

What we seem to mean is the "regular" 14 oz. "shaker pint," right? How do you want a bar to advertise those glasses of beer? "14 oz. glass"? "Shaker 'pint'"? "Glass o' beer"? "Medium beer"? All are wrong or suspect. You don't get 14 oz. of beer in those glasses unless you've got no head, the reason for fill-lines on Euro glasses. There are several different volumes these glasses come in, and none of them are exact. Besides, a shaker glass is not a pint, so even if you put quotes around it, calling it a 'pint' is incorrect and misleading. A "glass" or a "medium" beer can be any amount the bar wants to pour.

What is it we want? "Fair" measures and prices, standard glassware? Is the standard going to be some kind of calibrated shaker pint? Because I know some beer geeks who will hate that, hell, I don't mind the shaker pint and I don't like the idea: let a million glasses bloom! We just don't know how much draft beer we're getting unless we go to a standard, and I don't see that happening.

What I can see happening is bars being held up to the same scrutiny that Don Russell forced on the concessions at the Vet back in 1998: tell the customer what you're going to pour -- 7 ounces, 12, 16, 18, 22, whatever -- and then pour that much. And if an inspector comes in and orders a beer, and it comes up significantly short (I'd say an ounce is significant), that gets reported somewhere that people will actually see it, and the bar is fined.

Tell me what you're selling me, then deliver that. I don't think that's such a big deal. Then when I have to decide whether I like your place enough to pay $7 for 12 oz. of beer...at least I'll know it's 12 ounces I'm talking about. It's a place to start. Because until you know what it is you're comparing, you're just making meaningless noise.

22 comments:

Stephen Beaumont said...

Exactly, Lew. Most wine-by-the-glass lists will identify the size glass poured, and cocktail lists almost always identify the quantity in the glass, so why not beer? When Brian and I opened beerbistro, we decided to sell 500 ml and 300 ml measures, and then found attractive glassware that would hold said quantity plus an adequate amount of foam. Some people bitched because we weren't offering Imperial pints, but ironically they were often getting just that measure because in the early days some of our bartenders had trouble grasping the concept of "one to two fingers of foam."

Ed Carson said...

For a view of the issue from the other side, take a look at this: http://stonch.blogspot.com/2009/01/glasses-from-brobdingnag.html
As a consumer, I happen to agree with you. It is why the scales in supermarkets and the pumps at gas stations are regulated by government. These regulations exist because greedy people cheat and honest people are penalized,both sellers and buyers.

Lew Bryson said...

I remember seeing menus in the Czech Republic that listed the grams of meat in each dish. Not a bad idea, considering I recently watched a cook weighing out portions of meat for dishes. Indeed: why not beer? Not a standard measure, but tell me what you're going to give me...and then give me that much. Simple.

Lew Bryson said...

Ed,
That's an excellent thread, particularly for the way Jeff's position evolves.

As for greedy people cheating, I remember reading an interview with a war-era Congressman in Studs Terkel's "The Good War"; he was explaining why laws were so long. If it weren't for the bastards that try to defraud and chisel the government, he said, most spending bills could be fit on one page. An exaggeration, to be sure...but there's more than a kernel of truth there.

Be honest with your customers. Why would you be any other way? I don't go in a bar looking to cheat the bartender.

Anonymous said...

To add to the confusion, some of those shaker "pint glasses" are actually 16 oz. if filled to the rim (we've measured), but it's hard to tell by eye if the one set in front of you is one of those or not.

Lew Bryson said...

They're all different! Libby said that, essentially, when people started using them as beer glasses. The glass wasn't designed to be a standard volume, it was a shaker for cocktails.
What's really irksome is the thick-bottomed cheaters, the ones that are shaped like the others, but only hold 12 oz. of beer and about 1/4" of foam. And it's deliberate!

Anonymous said...

If a bar is going to charge a high price for a pint then justify it with some live entertainment at least.

Lew Bryson said...

If I want live entertainment, I'll choose to go some place that has it. Most times I'm going out for a few beers, I want to talk, not just sit and listen, and occasionally yell -- to be heard -- at my companions.

JessKidden said...

Yeah, the "shaker pint" is one of the aspects of the current beer culture that drives me crazy. Part of the reason, too, is that many of the younger beer geeks think they've always existed and that "pints" have always been the standard US draft beer serving. As you've chronicled, it's relatively recent. Heck, just look at eBay auctions of brewery branded glasses, photos from the 40's-60's of people at bars or the brewers' advertising itself (where there was often a half-full bottle of beer next to the full glass).

I recall in my local neighbor bars the 6-8 oz. "sham pilsner" was the standard serving of beer, with sometimes the option to get a "mug" (10-12 oz.)- to me, that's a civilized serving of beer. And, in bars with a good draught list, I'd *still* like to be ordering in those quantities (at the same -or lower -g- "per ounce" price, of course). Hey, I love the UK nonic Imperial pint, but it's much more appropriate for a 3-4% true session ale than for an 9% US Double Imperial IPA.

I maintain that the shaker pint is loved by bar *owners*- easier to stack, rugged, sells more beer at one time, and they need fewer bartenders to pour beer and wash glasses. And, as a bonus, the brewers "offer" them branded versions of the same glass (I stopped into one non-beer savvy bar the other day and that's ALL the glasses they have- I was served a Yuengling Lager in that green Rolling Rock shaker - man, was that an ugly look- amber+green). Should they decide to raise prices, they just "convert" to the thick bottomed 12 ounce glasses with most customers being none the wiser.

Lew Bryson said...

Some great points, JK, particularly the one about size: I'd really like to have those 7 oz. glasses back as an option. That's what I grew up on, knocking back Yuenglings at hotel bars. As for why bar owners like shakers, well, that's why I like them at home, too. My beloved willibeckers are too fragile to put in the dishwasher, pilsners are too tall, goblets are often both. It's like Gresham's Law for Glassware.

Steven said...

The link to Stonch's specific thread on his blog doesn't work for me, so I can't be sure if his reverse viewpoint is the same as mine, but -- I have to say that some of the ignorance of glassware volume works from both sides of the bar.

There's a local around here that has a few imperial pint glasses mixed in with their shakers. I ordered up a Honker's Ale and got 20 oz. for the same price as their 14 or 16 oz. glasses. When I ordered another and the 'tender was going to give me a fresh glass, I told her not to bother (bother), just use the same glass.

To my credit (because I like the place, and feel a tad guilty ripping them off), I explained the differences in the glasses. Of course, I got the look that I was nuts and didn't know what I was talking about -- so I shut up and happily drank the extra 4 ounces.

I don't know where to begin with the new trend of Weizenbier glasses as the new "large" size some bars are taking on.

Stephen Beaumont said...

Stop being so damn lazy, Bryson. Hand-wash your glasses and you need never use an ugly-ass shaker pint again.

Anonymous said...

I dont think most people care enough to ask, much less change anything. If people truly cared what they were getting they would ask for the PRICE at least, and in my experiences hardly anyone asks what xyz brand costs per pint, much less "will that come in a 16oz or a 14oz glass?" And as crowded as it is in some beer bars the buyer nor the bartender really dont want to be hassled with a back-and-forth exchange on how many ounces a glass is and, unlike most wine bars, most beer bars dont have menus to print the size on. Some bars with big draft lists have menus and that some do list the ounces if it is in a smaller goblet or pour.

Agree with Jess-- the reintroduction of the sham would be hip, or at least have it as an option for those of us that want to try less of a lot of beer.

Rich said...

I've noticed that in bigger chain-type establishments they advertise their beer sizes by ounces, at least when you order the waitress will ask do you want 12 or 22 ounce or something like that. What irks me is the sizes, and prices are NEVER on the menu. Even if the price is so volitile (which it isn't) that you can't print it up in the menu, you could at least ad inserts to the menu or signs on the table that shows the beer name, glass size, and price.

So, as far as standardization is concerned, I agree with it to the point that bars should state, and pour the same thing. I would be afraid that our government would ef it up and do something like make government standard glasses that EVERY bar must have, then you miss out on having your beer in the proper glassware...that must be the "beer geek" in me.

It recently happened to me where I ordered a pint, it came out in proper glassware but was much less beer than I originally thought. It was Cantillon Geuze, so every drop was worth it...but damn it was expensive.

Bill said...

If what you're proposing happens, that'd be wonderful. That being said, I don't have a problem with how things are now. I'm paying for a glass of draft beer -- I don't believe I'm paying for an actual pint unless the folks specifically get into ounces in their description. If I feel I'm being overcharged or the place isn't consistent with the pours, I don't go back. Bottle sizes have trained me that a serving of (most types of) beer is 12 oz., so if I'm served 12 or 14 or 16 oz., so long as the price is right and the pours are consistent...

Stephen B., where are you located? I've been to dozens of wine bars and hundreds of restaurants, and i could likely count on one hand the number of times I've seen wine pours or cocktail amounts listed in ounces on lists/menus.

Lew Bryson said...

That's really pretty much how I feel too, Bill, except when I get railed by a place that gives you no clue of cost before that first glass comes across the bar at $7. (http://lewbryson.blogspot.com/2008/09/maia-maybe.html).

Stephen Beaumont said...

Bill, I'll admit that perhaps I was stretching a bit when I included wine, but I do see glass sizes more regularly noted in places where they have decent by-the-glass programs these days. As for spirits, well, it's pretty much standard to indicate size on so-called martini menus and I don't remember the last time I saw a drinks menu that didn't note the size of the shots.

This, BTW, is all across Canada and the US, not just in my little neck o' the woods.

jp said...

Portions in this country have gotten wy out of control, when I was a kid standard drafts were 8 oz while "king size" was 12oz. what is the deal with 22 oz of beer in one glass?

sam k said...

When I was selling beer more than a decade ago, I was provided with a foldable pocket reference card (issued by Schmidt's of Phila. years if not deacdes before) that showed all the different domestic beer glass styles, and the potential sizes in which they were produced. They were then all cross-referenced for three different head sizes, which ultimately gave you the number of pours for each from a half-barrel of suds. You'd be amazed at the difference the glassware made in the profit of the retailer.

I guess my point is that maximizing profits at the expense of an uninformed public is nothing new. Caveat emptor!

Michael H said...

BeerMenus helps the consumer with this very problem (NYC only right now) I believe it lists price and size of draught and bottle beer at bars.

Scoats said...

Libby makes 14oz and 16oz shaker glasses. Unlike other glassware, it's hard to eyeball what size a shaker glass is.

We only use the 16oz glasses at the Grey Lodge. I suspect most really good bars do too. It's about doing right by your customers. If the box says the glasses are something other measurement, I move those glasses out the door ASAP.

Anonymous said...

I rather like the places that 1. know how to pour a beer, 2. use something of a correct glass to pour it in, and 3. identify on their draft list what amount it is that will be poured.

In those cases, I know that if I order say, a hefe, I'll get it in a hefe glass, with the correct amount of head/beer ratio. Also, I know that the Ayinger may cost a dollar more than the Dream Weaver, and I'm ok with that.

But yes, I agree when one goes to a bar, orders a beer, and what you get is just not what you expect, plus on top of that you are paying 2 bucks more than you are used to, often times, for more beer and a better presentation, well, that frustrates me.

I do like the idea of it all working of of a standardized unit and spreading out from there.....