Twother or twaddle?

One area where metric units have been banned in the UK is draught beer and cider. This is despite the fact that bottled or canned beer and cider is mainly available in round metric quantities. Compared with most countries the restriction of draught beer measures to pints, half pints and third of a pint is very narrow. Recently it was reported that the National Weights and Measures Laboratory has included a proposal for a two thirds of a pint beer measure – the twother – to be introduced.

This has been variously greeted as offering more choice or as an attack on the traditional pint. However the choice of metric measures has of course not been proposed. This seems extremely short-sighted and will perpetuate the problem that using pints blurs an understanding of alcohol consumption.

Beyond the traditional pint

Because drinking a “pint” is a colloquial expression for drinking a “beer” many anti-metric campaigners have tried to represent any threat to the “pint” as taking away beer itself. Put the same beer in a 500 ml or a 600 ml glass and it will taste no different from a pint; indeed most pint supporters seem not to notice that when they order a “pinte” at a British or Irish bar abroad they are actually getting half a litre.

Traditionally the mainstay of British beer has been ale with about 3-5% alcohol with pubs tied to a brewery and offering a small choice of brews. However in recent decades there have been major changes and the public has been offered a much wider range of drinks. Some free houses offer a very wide range of real ales. Many more beers from abroad are offered ranging from Czech lagers to Belgian trappist beers. More exotic British brews such as winter warmers, Christmas Ales and barley wine are offered with a considerably higher alcoholic content (6-10%) than traditional ales.

It seems strange that the new and varied beer scene is constrained by the traditional pint measures. For example if somebody wanted to put on an authentic Munich-style Oktoberfest they would want to offer one litre jugs. However this is forbidden by law. A visitor to a pub with a large selection of real ales might want to order a set of small sampler glasses rather than to choose between a few pints or drinking too much.

beer sampler glasses

It is a shame our weights and measures laws make no provision for this. The picture above shows a set of eight samplers (100 ml each if I remember correctly) offering the drinker a taste of many of the beers on tap. It should be possible to sample a wide range of drinks without getting sozzled.

It seems to me that abroad there are more creative approaches to serving beer. One is a glass supporting multiple measures.

Finnish beer glass with multiple measures

In this case, the glass can be filled to either 0.33 litres or 0.4 litres – and was filled with liquid to the line!

Understanding alcohol consumption

An issue that has been ignored in discussions around beer and cider measures is the ability of the public to understand how much alcohol they are consuming. Advice is generally very opaque. For example the Times article on the “twother” states

At present a standard pint of beer contains two units of alcohol, while a high-strength premium beer has three units and a strong half has one and a half units

A unit of alcohol is one centilitre. An imperial pint is 56.8 centilitres so:

a) a pint of beer with 3.5% alcohol is 3.5% × 56.8 units = 1.99 units of alcohol
b) a pint of beer with 5.0% alcohol is 5.0% × 56.8 units = 2.84 units of alcohol

A safe level of drinking depends on both the strength of the drink and the amount consumed. Unfortunately working in pints or twothers means that working out alcohol consumption requires a calculator and a very clear head to understand.

Constrast this with a man in Munich drinking his half litre of Wei�bier with 5% alcohol. He just needs to halve the 5 to know that he is drinking 2.5 units. A Dutchman drinking his 0.2 litre kleintje with 5% alcohol knows he is drinking a fifth of a litre; a fifth of 5 is 1 unit. A Belgian drinking a 0.33 litre glass of bière trappiste with 6.9% alcohol just needs to divide 6.9 by 3 to know he is drinking 2.3 units of alcohol.

A way forward

Introducing the twother is a completely stupid idea – it’s complete twaddle! More measurement options are needed – especially for strong beers – but this one, at 37.9 centilitres, will help to continue to confuse beer drinkers about their alcohol consumption. Working with round metric numbers has the advantage the drinkers can compare prices easily with bottled or canned products and can work out their units of alcohol.

I would welcome introducing a few metric sizes such as:

half a litre – 500 ml
third of a litre – 330 ml
fifth of litre – 200 ml
tenth of a litre – 100 ml sampler

[Contributed by Roddy Urquhart]

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13 Responses to Twother or twaddle?

  1. Martin Vlietstra says:

    For some reason, the Department of Health seems to have an aversion to publicizing the definition of a unit of alcohol. While not all drinkers calculate how many units they are drinking when they are actually in the pub, publication of the formal definition of a unit of alcohol would enable journalists to target any "drink sensibly" messages much better than the DoH could ever do – after all journalists usually write for a particular target audience – DoH publicity is aimed at everybody in general and nobody in particular.

  2. Robin Paice says:

    The article could also have made the point, often argued by CAMRA, that when you order a pint in a British pub, you are only guaranteed about 90% liquid, which is about half a litre! This is because the froth is counted as 5% of the beer, and the Courts allow a further 5% tolerance, so TSOs won't prosecute for short measure. Try pouring a 500 ml bottle of beer slowly into a standard brim-measure pint glass. The liquid plus the head will almost fill the glass.

  3. Tony says:

    It's very sad that the British pub is facing such growth from the off-trade sales in supermarkets; very soon the off-trade will overtake the on-trade. It is interesting to note that in supermarkets beer can be sold in whatever volume the consumer prefers, and 99% of off-trade beer sales are in metric sizes without great scenes of confusion in the supermarket aisles.

    In the shops I can buy beer in volumes of 250, 330, 440, 500, 660 or 750 ml, or even a litre. Why are pubs banned from offering novel sizes to customers, all the way from from 100 ml tasters to litre steins in themed bars?

    Surely in a free market the pubs' hands should not be tied by the government while it taxes this traditional industry out of existence?

  4. David King says:

    I was in France and Italy recently, and there the beer is often served in glasses of 25 cl, 50 cl or even 1 litre. Bottled beer tends to be 33 cl.
    A friend who was with me often asked for a pint of beer, and always received half a litre. He did not complain, he probably did not even notice the difference of 68 ml.
    Instead of having 2/3 of a pint of beer in pubs, it is about time that the government allowed pubs to sell in metric units, such as 25 cl, 33 cl, 50 cl or other useful sizes. They can be given cute nicknames as well of course like they use in Australia (e.g. schooner), or just names like "a quarter", "a third", "a half" or "small", "medium" or "large".

  5. Free the beer says:

    Three cheers for your sampler idea. If I recall correctly, a beer festival was selling samplers and ended up being prosecuted because of our draconian fixed size laws.

    Many pubs will have small glasses as used for wine and spirits. Spirit glasses are often 120 to 180 ml. Wine glasses are often calibrated with a line at 125 or 175 ml.

    The variety of beer bottle sizes shows that people don't really care that much about the quantity itself.

    Free the beer.

  6. Dave Brown says:

    I read recently that draught beer is suffering yet another decline in sales. Marketers put it down to the looming recession; but is that the whole story? Draught beer and cider are the only drinks you can buy in a pub that still use olde-worlde imperial measures, giving them a dated image - old men's drinks. Perhaps their image could be updated by allowing metric measures and a younger customer could be attracted.

  7. lee kelly says:

    when ever i go to the pub i always ask for half a litre of beer & i always ask when ever i order steak, i ask if they have metric measures ! (trust me if you want to confuse the bar staff it works) if they say they don't have them i'll just find some where that does ? if we all did that they would have to change .

  8. PhilH says:

    I have heard that pubs are struggling at the moment because of recent legislation banning smoking. So perhaps we shouldn't read too much into it from a measurement point of view or indeed the global financial crisis (traditionally pubs don't suffer much from that sort of down-turn).

  9. Martin Vlietstra says:

    This article was originally sparked by a consultation that is being conducted by The National Weights and Measures Laboratory. Other areas covered in the consultation include a question as to whether or not there should be standard measures for alcoholic drinks not currently covered in legislation. For example, whiskey must be served in 25 ml or 35 ml measures, but there are no standard measures for schnapps.

    It appears to me that there has been an on-going tinkering with the law. My suggestion is that the government should specify a standard set of glasses that may be used for the dispensation of any alcoholic drink. As a starting point, I would suggest 10 ml, 13.3 ml, 20 ml, 25 ml, 40 ml, 50 ml, 70 ml, 100 ml, 133 ml, 200 ml, 250 ml, 400 ml, 500 ml, 700 ml and 1 L glasses would give the industry a suitable range. Publicans and restaurateurs could choose any of these glass sizes, but would be required to publish the number of units of alcohol for each glass.

    Any comments from readers?

  10. Goog-Ale says:

    The sooner we dump the pint in favour of metric measures the better!

  11. George Carty says:

    Might metrication of pub drinks be less unpopular if the pint were rounded up to 600 ml rather than down to 500 ml?

  12. Seares says:

    Having recently been on a (wet) cycling tour in Ireland it was great to find all the signs in kilometres, with no-one referring to miles, and likewise metric measures in the shops. The prices were all in euros too. It was strange for the first day, but then became just normal. If we were to change over we'd find it easy, just as the Irish did.
    But you still ask for Guiness by either 'the pint', or 'the glass' (being about half a pint). Does anyone know what the actual measures are? I didn't bother to find out, I just enjoyed the drink!

  13. Pat Naughtin says:

    Many years ago there was a debate about how to serve a pint of beer that centred around the idea that the publican poured as much beer as would fit into a one pint container. Drinkers lost this debate when almost all pubs chose to serve less than a pint of beer in containers that hold a pint only when filled to the brim.

    Naturally, when you allow for froth, you always receive less than a pint of beer even though you asked for 'A pint of beer, please'. I think that it's fair to say that when you ask for a pint of beer in a UK pub, you actually get very close to 500 millilitres.


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