A Pint-Size Problem

Beer lovers nurse a grudge as some bars switch to smaller glasses
June 7, 2008; Page W3

Four-dollar-a-gallon gasoline may be a cause for outrage. But it pales next to the righteous fury provoked by five-dollar-a-pint beer.

Beer prices at bars and restaurants have risen over the past few months, as prices of hops and barley have skyrocketed and retail business has slowed alongside the economy.

Some restaurants have replaced 16-ounce pint glasses with 14 ouncers — a type of glassware one bartender called a “falsie.”

And customers are complaining that bartenders are increasingly putting less than 16 ounces of beer in a pint glass, filling up the extra space with foam.

Two of the world’s biggest glassware makers, Libbey and Cardinal International, say orders of smaller beer glasses have risen over the past year. Restaurateurs “want more of a perceived value,” says Mike Schuster, Libbey’s marketing manager for glassware in the U.S. Glasses with a thicker bottom or a thicker shaft help create the perception. “You can increase the thickness of the bottom part but still retain the overall profile,” he says. 

Dedicated beer drinkers are fighting back, with extra vigilance about exactly how much beer they get for their buck. They are protesting “cheater pints” and “profit pours” by outing alleged offenders on Web discussion boards and plugging bars that maintain 16-ounce pints, in hopes peer pressure will prevail. And they are spreading the word about how to spot the smaller glass (the bottom is thicker).

Jason Alstrom, who founded the magazine BeerAdvocate last year, calls it the “Less for More” phenomenon. “It’s happening everywhere,” he says. He is urging readers and users of his Web site, www.beeradvocate.com1, to “raise a fist and refuse to pay” when served a skimpy pint.

Evidence of short-pouring is hard to nail down, but there are signs the practice is common. Romano’s Macaroni Grill, a national chain, uses the thick-bottomed 14 ouncers in at least some of its locations; a Romano’s bartender in Portland, Ore., volunteered the nickname “falsies.” (A corporate spokesman for Romano’s declined to comment.)

A bartender at a Florida location of the GameWorks chain said it serves beer in the thick-bottomed 14-ounce glasses, adding, “We are trained to say it’s a pint.” Pat Hart, the GameWorks chain’s vice president of operations, says the policy is to serve 16-ounce pints. At that location, Mr. Hart says, “they probably just ordered the wrong glasses.”

Jeff Alworth, a Portland, Ore., beer blogger, university researcher and a founder of the Honest Pint Project, has been testing suspected short-pouring bars, in some cases measuring his beer-glass capacity by the men’s room sink. His group collected more than 400 names in two weeks for an online petition urging state regulators to enforce a 16-ounce rule. And at one point, he was posting the names of bars that didn’t measure up on his Web site. But in response to complaints, he now has taken to listing the names of establishments serving full pints in bigger glasses. “I’m not a firebrand,” says Mr. Alworth. “I am devoted to Oregon beer, and it seemed like using glasses where you don’t get a 16-ounce pour was not so cool.”

Some restaurants make no apology for reducing their beer-glass size. The Damon’s Grill restaurant chain switched to 14 ouncers from 16-ounce glasses two years ago and didn’t lower prices. “Someone who comes in and wants a beer doesn’t want a huge glass,” says Tanny Feerer, vice president for purchasing at Damon’s International. “Fourteen ounces is enough.” Since then, the chain has held draft beer prices steady.

The Hooters chain serves draft beer in 14-ounce glasses at franchised locations in Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee, and 16-ounce glasses in other states. “We can get 20 more beers out of a keg that way,” says Archie Gleason, director of marketing for the franchisee, RMD Corp.

Observant wine drinkers may also notice a change in glass size, says Lee Spielman, a regional sales manager at Cardinal. After several years of pouring red wine into oversize “bowls,” restaurants and bars now are starting to get complaints from customers about the size of the pour. Many places are switching to much smaller “universal” glasses, designed to hold either red or white wine, he says.

The shape of the glass apparently can distort bar patrons’ perception of how much beer they have been served. The British Medical Journal published a 2005 study by Brian Wansink, a Cornell University professor, and Koert van Ittersum, an assistant professor of marketing at Georgia Institute of Technology, concluding that restaurants and bars might increase profitability and reduce waste by switching to taller, narrower glasses and cups — without sacrificing customer satisfaction. If people think they are getting more, they will be willing to pay more but won’t necessarily drink more, the independent study concluded. 

Mr. Alworth, the activist, demonstrated his methods on a recent Sunday afternoon at Henry’s Tavern in Portland. He ordered a pint of a lighter-style lager — which he chose because it doesn’t foam a lot — and poured it into a plastic measuring cup. He let it settle, then looked closely: The liquid reached a little above the 13-ounce mark. Next he measured the contents of a smaller glass of dark beer: It came out even less.

With his Boston Red Sox cap pulled down low on his forehead, he tucked the empty light-beer glass under his corduroy jacket and went to the men’s room, where he filled the glass to the brim with water — 16 ounces, to be precise. The same procedure with the empty dark-beer glass revealed it held 14 ounces.

Managers of several bars disputed Mr. Alworth’s suggestion that they are skimping on their pint pours. Craig McKellar, a manager at Henry’s Tavern, says first of all, the bar uses only 16-ounce glasses, though from time to time a smaller glass could get mixed in, perhaps brought in from outside by a customer. “That would be very rare,” he adds. He says he and other bartenders have a precise idea of how big the foam head on a beer should be. “The way brew masters want you to pour the beer is one-and-½ inches of foam,” Mr. McKellar says. “If you pour it without foam, beer connoisseurs would say it was flat.”

Maybe bars should use larger glasses, Mr. Alworth counters. That way, there would be room for the full pint plus a head of foam. After learning about his Honest Pint movement, Portland’s Raccoon Lodge recently started serving pints in 20-ounce glasses, up from 16 ounces. The 16-ounce glasses held only about 14.5 ounces, says restaurant manager Lisa Crombie; the 20-ounce glasses hold about 18 ounces. “We just thought it was fair,” Ms. Crombie says. “People were paying for a pint, so they should get a pint.”

Beer activists are talking about developing stickers to adhere to the windows of bars and restaurants where pints live up to the name. Oregon legislator Brian Clem is taking up the issue for the state’s 2009 budget, hoping to fund monitoring of beer portions by the state’s agriculture department.

In the U.K., the Imperial Pint (equivalent to 19.2 U.S. ounces) has been a government-regulated standard for several centuries. The standard requires use of official pint glasses — with the word “Pint” and the European “CE” marking — etched onto each glass. The glasses actually hold more than an Imperial Pint, so there’s room for the foam.

But the regulations haven’t quieted debate. In England, a group called Campaign for Real Ale has been alleging for years that bars pinch pence by pouring short. In March, the British government energized the movement by slapping a new tax on alcohol. About 23,000 people have signed a petition in favor of government regulation of the size of the foam head on a pint of beer.

Pubs that don’t scrimp are undercut by pubs that do, says Nick Laver-Vincent, who owns The Royal Oak in Big Bury, England, and who signed the petition. “It is cutthroat,” he says.

Beer drinkers feeling shortchanged can take immediate action: They can ask for a “top-off” after the foam on the profit pour settles. That’s what George Collentine did when he was served a beer with almost two inches of foam at an Italian restaurant this month. “I just waited,” says the 38-year-old chemical-company manager from Danbury, Conn. The bartender gave it to him.

Write to Nancy Keates at nancy.keates@wsj.com4