BIS sticks with pints of beer (but only on draught)

As expected the Business Department has refused to permit sales of draught beer and cider in convenient metric measures – but its reasoning is bizarre.

Background – fixed package sizes

In October 2008 the then National Weights and Measures Laboratory (then part of the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills) consulted on “specified quantities” – that is the practice of requiring goods to be packaged or dispensed in fixed quantities (such as 227 g for jam and honey).  Also included within the consultation paper was the issue of fixed quantities for draught (but not bottled or canned) beer and cider.

The first issue – fixed package sizes – has now been resolved, and the necessary Regulations implemented.  With the exception of wine and spirits, fixed sizes have been abolished, so that the consumer is now protected only by the requirement that medium and large shops (but not small shops or market traders) must display the “unit price” (per kg, or 100 g, or litre etc) as well as the package price.  However, there was no Government publicity to explain this fairly significant change, nor did consumer groups such as the Consumers’ Association (aka “Which?”) offer any helpful advice.

Draught alcoholic drinks

The renamed National Measurement Office, now part of the merged Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), has now published its response to the consultation on whether draught alcoholic drinks should be dispensed in fixed quantities and, if so, what those quantities should be.  Predictably, they have resisted any moves toward permitting metric measures for beer and cider, but to the astonishment of many, they have announced an intention to permit an additional permitted size – the 2/3 pint.

The UK Metric Association, in its response to the consultation had argued that optional metric sizes should be permitted (not required), provided that the quantity and the unit price (per litre) were clearly indicated.  Our arguments were:

  1. It would allow wider choice for both customers and pubs and restaurants in the quantity they buy and sell.  Pubs that wish to continue to sell in traditional measures would be free to do so, and pubs and restaurants that wish to experiment with different quantities could also do so. This could be of particular interest to Austrian or German “theme pubs” or Spanish-style tapas bars and restaurants, who may wish to dispense draught beer in convenient metric measures such as 500 ml or 300 ml.
  2. It would be consistent with the availability of non-prescribed quantities (e.g. 500 ml or 330 ml) in bottles and cans in supermarkets and off-licences and even the same pub, and, especially if the unit price is displayed (as we propose), it would thus facilitate more transparent price comparisons and better information for consumers.
  3. The main current control on beer glass sizes – the “crown stamping” of brim measure glasses – could easily be replaced by a regime of lined glasses indicating the quantity dispensed.  This would also have the incidental advantage that drinkers would be able to verify whether they were receiving the quantity of liquid that they had ordered.
  4. The use of metric quantities could have important benefits for health. If it were permitted to dispense beer and cider in metric quantities it would be easy to calculate the quantity of pure alcohol being consumed.  For example, if the “alcohol by volume” (ABV) of a beer is 4%, then it is easy to calculate that the alcoholic content of a 300 ml glass is 0.04 x 300 ml, i.e. 12 ml, which is 1.2 “units” of alcohol.  Similarly, a 175 ml glass of wine at 12% ABV contains 21 ml of alcohol (2.1 “units”). Such relatively simple calculations are much less easy with imperial measures.
  5. Deregulation would enable customers to order smaller quantities than the current minima (currently, 125 ml for wine and 189 ml for beer and cider), for example if they want to sample small “taster” quantities of “real ales” without becoming excessively intoxicated.

Other submissions

According to the BIS document, “the vast majority of those who responded to this question supported the retention of prescribed quantities for non pre-packaged alcoholic drinks.”

It continued:  “Most supported retention based on fair trade, consumer protection and health and road safety arguments. In particular, respondents commented that prescribed quantities allow consumers to manage their alcohol intake and that it was important for consumers to know how much they were drinking for both health and road safety purposes.”

The following, somewhat confused points were made:

  1. “Where non-prepacked goods are concerned, prescribed quantities have a greater role to play in ensuring fair competition between trader and trader; this also allows for a balanced equity between trader and customer; it allows for clear price comparison by a prospective customer between traders.” (Trading Standards Institute). [but this ignores “unit pricing” – and they didn’t apply this reasoning to the sale of tomatoes in the street market]
  2. “Abolition of prescribed quantities would prevent consumers from accurately assessing which pubs offer the best value for money thereby undermining price competition.” (CAMRA) [again, this objection ignores the obvious remedy – that the unit price (per litre) would be displayed]
  3. “Deregulation will confuse rather than aid the promotion of health messages around alcohol which are based on alcohol units in beverages.” (Alcohol Concern) [but it is much easier to calculate “units” – i.e. centilitres – of alcohol if quantities of the drink are measured in millilitres]
  4. “Existing prescribed quantities are well known by consumers and bar staff and  their removal could cause confusion.” (Scottish Licensed Trade Association) [but if customers order half a litre of heavy, why would they be confused?]

BIS response

Unfortunately, and to their discredit, the BIS has chosen to side with the irrational majority, with their innate conservatism and unwillingness to contemplate change – rather than giving serious consideration to the arguments. This is their response:

“The Government’s view is that there remains a strong case for the retention of prescribed quantities for non pre-packaged alcoholic drinks served in licensed premises. We agree with those respondents that argued for retention based on consumer and health protection grounds.

“Whilst there is an argument for unit pricing to be extended to non prepackaged alcoholic drinks, the Government’s view is that this is likely to increase costs for business, and may cause confusion for consumers who are familiar with the existing measures. [How can unit pricing cause confusion?! Does it cause confusion in the supermarket?]

“The Government has no plans to extend metric measures to the sale of draught beer or cider. The Government believes that there are strong grounds for treating  alcoholic drinks differently than other products and for that reason proposes to retain the regime of prescribed quantities for non prepackaged alcoholic drinks with the amendments set out below.” (These related to deregulating quantities of wine less than 75 ml, requiring the smallest prescribed wine glass size to be available, and – bizarrely – prescribing a new 2/3 pint size for beer and cider).”

Comment on the BIS response

The BIS response defies logic.

  1. The consumer protection argument clearly favours displaying the unit price (i.e. the price per litre), but BIS reject this on the specious grounds that it would increase business costs.
  2. Similarly, the health argument favours metric measures since this would make it easier to calculate the number of “units” (i.e. centilitres) of alcohol being consumed. Yet BIS supports those objectors who claim that it would be “confusing.”
  3. As to the 2/3 pint, this proposal was fairly comprehensively rubbished by the majority of respondents (it is in fact only 95 ml – one large gulp – more than half a pint).  However, BIS says it would be optional and would increase choice (without being “confusing”), and it has therefore supported the proposal.  They appear not to realise (or admit) that the same logic would apply to a half litre or 300 ml size.

Above all, the BIS appears to have overlooked the fact that it is part of the Government.  According to the Science Minister, Lord Drayson (not to mention former Prime Minister, Tony Blair) the longstanding policy of all UK governments since 1965 has been “to move to full metrication in time, but at a pace that recognises that a significant proportion of consumers are still more comfortable with using imperial units.”  Here was an opportunity to take a small step towards that goal – a step that would be entirely optional, would permit pubs and drinkers to carry on using pints, would impose no significant new costs on businesses, would reinforce consumer protection, and help drinkers to calculate their alcohol consumption.  But the BIS cannot or will not see it.

As the proverb says, “There are none so blind as those who will not see.”

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10 Responses to BIS sticks with pints of beer (but only on draught)

  1. A says:

    I'm surprised that Alcohol Concern did not side with deregulation which would allow people to choose smaller quantities of alcohol. I also find it rather confusing on their part considering their agenda. How could they miss the opportunity to allow people to consume smaller quanitities of alcohol? A glass of beer is already expensive and people may feel that they are not getting their money's worth unless they drink all of the glass.

    As for CAMRA, this could have been an opportunity which would have gone in their favour! Point 5 makes this clear as to why. How short sighted of them.

  2. philh says:

    In fairness to Alchohol Concern they seem worried by the thought of deregulation per see rather than a change to metric. They would rather keep things as they are so the existing guidance to consumers on the type and size of drinks does not have to be changed.
    The trouble with existing advice is it takes no account of the wide variation in strength in the same type of drink. For example wine can be anything from 9% to 15% ABV. Beer can range from 3% to 6% or even more for some super-strength lagers.
    Admittedly a lot of people simply wouldn't know how to calculate consumption from percentage ABV but that is no excuse for obscuring the fact that a so called unit is actually 10 ml or a cl of alcohol. At least the more numerate among us would have the opportunity to work it out for ourselves, especially of the size of drinks were in rational metric quantities.

  3. Martin Vlietstra says:

    One of the problems in the past has been the refusal of Government to publicise the definition of a "unit" of alcohol. While I do not expect every drinker to know how to use that information, I would at least expect a journalist to know how to use a calculator to work out ABV (at least when he is sober) and to use this information to target their chosen audience. Likewise with the medical profession

    Fortunately I have seen a few small cracks in this policy - it is up to us to exploit these cracks.

  4. Jeremiah says:

    I for one would like to know who exactly in the Trading Standards is responsible for the rule that only pints can be served? Is it a single person or a committee of people who have made the decision and is it based on a true concern or a personal prejudice against the metric system?

    In reference to Phil's comment about comparing between a pint and half litre, is this a real important point to the public? How many patrons of pubs actually stop to consider the price before making a purchase? Or do they just purchase what they like no matter the price and are just out drinking to have a good time?

    I would suggest that the pubs be allowed to offer different size (small, medium & large) pints, where each of the sizes correspond to 400 mL, 500 mL and 600 mL. In this case the pint name is retained for those who prefer it but like in Australia, the name is just a vague reference to a glass, with no particular or specific amount intended.

    If the law defining the pint were changed so that the pint can be defined as any amount between 400 and 600 mL, then it would cover most (if not all) the pints that ever existed and the pint would be defined as intended.

  5. John Smith says:

    I know this thread is old, and I am in the United States, but I have to say, I can't see the problem with dispensing beer in Imperial or U.S. fluid ounces.

    It isn't just a matter of the United States, Liberia and Burma sticking to the old measures, a vast majority of the commonwealth nations and many U.S.-influenced countries continue to dispense gasoline, beer, and water in U.S. or Imperial fluid ounces, pints, quarts, gallons, and barrels.

    Crude oil continues to be traded in BBLs (42-USgal barrels no longer used)) in USD. The actual product is moved in 55-USgal drums. This causes no problem whatsoever, unless one insists upon liters only.

    Fact is, LIFE isn't in liters. Nor is it in gallons of any sort. Bars are messy, drunken, imprecise establishhments more worried about cigarette fines than precision pours.

    In the U.S. a "tall" actually varies from bar to bar. 22, 23 U.S. fl. oz (slightly bigger than imperial by about 4%) are the weapon of choice. Beer must be dispensed in ounces from a keg. I once saw beer by the liter, and told them they were breaking the law, but didn't report the matter to weights and measures. A unit of 10mL is easy? So is a unit of 3.2% 12U.S. fl. oz. of beer. Do the math, and this works out to being equivalent to about 0.4 fl.oz of pure ethanol. Close enough to a 40% 1 imp. or U.S. fl. oz. shot (pony). So a "unit" of 10mL is 1/3 of a standard U.S. beer or unit or alcoholic serving. Refusing to work with ounces, and pints, 468 mL is ugly indeed, but, assuming it's 3.2% means that's equivalent to 1-1/2 U.S. units. or a 1-1/2-fl.oz. shot (jigger).

    Anyway, getting back to kegs. IDK what the hell a BBL of beer is. Nor does it matter. You find out how many ounces per keg, then divide by 22 or 23 or whatever you are pouring.

    Even if the numbers are neat on paper, they won't be in practice.

    You've got foam, waste, and the impossibility of evacuating every last drop from one container into another container. There's waste, spillage, bad lines, evaporation, foam, and the inability of the pump to pump liquid once it gets to a low-enough level anyway.

    The world won't end because of the U.S. gallon or the imperial pint. . .

    The whole argument is moot in the real world

  6. John Steele says:

    @John Smith

    I think some of your points require substantiation.

    Crude oil moves in tankers due to the vast quantities. 55 gallon drums are used for lubricating oil and other speciality products. I don't think they are ever used for crude and rarely (emergency supplies) for fuel. Announcements on metrication by various Caribbean, African, and Middle Eastern countries leave me feeling there is a very short list of countries using Customary or Imperial gallons, quarts, pints. Can you provide a list of countries you think still do (you can omit US for everything, UK for beer, and for milk in returnable containers)?

    A few states limit beer to 3.2%, but generally that is a low alcohol content. Most beer is in the range 4.5 - 6.5%. Bottled beer must be labeled and sold with Customary net contents, supplemental metric is allowed. I can't find any Federal law affecting measure of draft beer. Since 50 States=50 Ways, there may be a State that forbids dispensing by the liter, but I don't think that is generally true (however, it is rare in the US to find a place that emphasizes metric servings)

    Places continuing to serve in ounces may or may not be the end of the world. A law forbidding serving in metric quantities (UK, draft beer) is obviously a barrier to metrication and should be overturned. If 95% of the world's population uses metric as their only system of measurement, is it really worth maintaining another system and converting back and forth.

    Incidently in the US, a "unit serving" of alcohol is considered ½ fl oz, roughly 15 mL, of pure alcohol, about 50% larger than the UK definition. The TTB floated a proposal (Notice of Proposed Rulemaking) for mandatory labeling of this on alcoholic beverages, but I think the labeling proposal died. However, the TTB requires wine and spirits to be labeled in metric and beer in Customary, guarenteeing lots of nuisance conversions if the system had to be implemented.

  7. Wild Bill says:

    John, you say "United States, Liberia and Burma sticking to the old measures...."

    Pro imperial measures people all claim that Liberia and Burma use imperial, but they're wrong on that just as they're wrong claiming that the U.S. does. The US uses "U.S. Customary" which is different from UK imperial. The situation with Liberia is hazy. The only reason that Liberia and Burma get lumped in with the US in these arguments is that none of the three claim officially to the U.N. that they are "metric nations". That doesn't mean that they are "Imperial nations" or "USC nations". Liberia (as far as I can tell from other peoples' blogs uses whatever is handy (which often turns out to be metric) but the government hasn't made an offical comment on it. Burma (so it seems) tends to state official national statistics in metric, but the people tend to use a bunch of indigenous traditional measurements for a lot of things.

    "...a vast majority of the commonwealth nations and many U.S.-influenced countries continue to dispense gasoline, beer, and water in U.S. or Imperial fluid ounces, pints, quarts, gallons, and barrels."

    If by "The Commonwealth" you mean Massachusetts, then OK, but if you meant the zone formerly known as the British Commonwealth then no we don't (mostly) use fl.oz, pints, gallons or whatever. Britain still uses pints but only for milk in glass bottles, or beer and cider on draught. You won't buy quarts, gallons or barrels of anything in Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Canada (etc). Possibly you might in some of the tiny Caribbean Island nations.

    And on the subject of beer confusion, I have said the following before in a different thread, but hey:

    Consider this situation: you drink Guinness(*) down at your local pub. They don’t have Guinness on tap, so when you ask for a Guinness they take a 500ml bottle out of the fridge (or a 500ml can) and serve you with that. You’re used to it, and indeed plenty of the UK pub-going public are used to being served 500ml servings of beer if their pub doesn’t do their favourite on draught.

    You go and stay with your brother (in a different town) for the weekend. You pop out for a beer on Saturday night after the match. He buys the drinks. You ask for your favourite – a Guinness.

    Unknown to you, your brother’s local pub *does* have Guinness on draught, so unknown to you (not being at the bar), you get given a pint, not 500ml. That’s 12% more than you’re used to, but in the hubbub, would you notice?

    6 pints later, you’re falling all over the place and wondering why. You’d think that the UK government would want to set up the rules so that people knew what they were drinking – they claim that they do – but here that’s not the case.

    Suppose instead that you drink just one unexpected pint. You’ve still consumed 12% more than you planned. Are you over the drink-drive limit? You may know that you aren’t normally, but that’s at home when you’re drinking 500ml measures. You could lose your licence and more – and all due to the confusion that the UK government causes with their insistence on their “pints for draught beer and cider” rules.

    Just a thought….

    (*) or Grolsch, or……

  8. Peter K says:

    @John Smith

    Wow, what an amazing muddle you describe - imperial flozs, US flozs, pints (US and imperial), quarts (US and imperial), gallons (US and imperial), barrels (who knows how many different sizes), "talls", "shots", "ponies", "jiggers", US beer units, etc.

    Never mind, "bars are messy" you say.

    You may be able to handle all these units, and see no problem with serving beer in either type of fluid ounce (presumably because you able to "do the math"), but in the UK most people are familiar only with millilitres and litres (and pints for milk and draught beer). If a drink was to be advertised as being served in a 16 oz glass, most people would think that it was a pre-metric description of the weight of the glass.

    By the way, I assume that you mention 468 mL in the belief that this is equivalent to 1 UK pint (it's actually 568 mL). Just goes to show how easily mistakes are made when converting from one unit to another.

  9. philh says:

    John Smith wrote:
    "A unit of 10mL is easy? So is a unit of 3.2% 12U.S. fl. oz. of beer. Do the math, and this works out to being equivalent to about 0.4 fl.oz of pure ethanol. Close enough to a 40% 1 imp. or U.S. fl. oz. shot (pony). So a “unit” of 10mL is 1/3 of a standard U.S. beer or unit or alcoholic serving. Refusing to work with ounces, and pints, 468 mL is ugly indeed, but, assuming it’s 3.2% means that’s equivalent to 1-1/2 U.S. units. or a 1-1/2-fl.oz. shot (jigger)."

    A "unit" of alcohol of 10 mL is easy so long as the drink itself is quantified in mL. I cannot comment on the international use of non-metric you refer to John but I can state that the only use of imperial for the sale of booze in the UK is for draught beer and cider in "open containers" (i.e. in pubs). Other than that the sale of alcoholic drink is in mL.

    The UK metric association's contention on this subject is that it makes no sense to enforce the pub pint when all other forms are litre based. We also argue that so called "unit" should be exposed for what it really is.

    The whole business of price comparison and staying within healthy limits of alcohol consumption would be simpler if the assoc's recommendations were accepted.

  10. Ronnie Cohen says:

    Currently, we have the absurd situation that publicans can pour the contents of a can or a bottle, which would be in metric quantities, into a glass but are not allowed to dispense the same quantity of beer or cider from a tap. This is one of the many anomalies that we have in the UK as a consequence of operating a dual measurement system.

    Beer and cider are sold by the litre all over the world and publicans do not go bust as a result. The huge sales of beer and cider at off-licences and supermarkets and bottled and canned beer and cider in pubs proves that the public is prepared to buy alcoholic drinks in metric quantities.

    The replacement of imperial units with metric ones for the sale of wine and spirits in pubs did not lead to disaster. At the very least, the BIS should allow draught beer and cider to be served in metric units as well as the imperial pint.


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