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.