Vince Capano is a two time winner of the Quill and Tankard writing awad for humor from the North American Guild of Beer Writers.
Vince's column is now a regular feature of beernexus.com
The Beer Glass Shuffle
The first ever winner of a Hugo Award for sci-fi movies was billed as an “adventure into the unknown” and it was. Audiences were stunned as the film’s hero, played by B-move star Grant Williams, slowly, inevitably, became smaller and smaller and smaller. And for the record it was a good thing he did otherwise the title of the film would make no sense – The Incredible Shrinking Man. People flocked to their local theaters to see this mortal male mite battle assorted spiders, cats (complete with fleas) and get totally waffled on a single thimble full of beer. Well, he might have if the script was a bit more honest. Eventually the ISM, as it read on his monogrammed shirts, reached a height that enabled him to easily stroll through the wires of a screen door or get blown over by the rush of air from a miniature golf windmill. This 1957 film has a cult following today and it seems clear that one of the types of people who make up that cult are bar owners.
They likely saw the film one day and immediately recognized its application to their very own industry. Rumor has it that their plan was created at a clandestine meeting in the back room of an inconspicuous, out of business bakery that long ago served as a speakeasy during Prohibition. It was most appropriate location since they were hoping to disprove the adage that you can't have your cake and eat it too.
Their idea for doing just that was pure genius as it invoked P.T. Barnum’s oft proven tenant that you can never underestimate the intelligence of the American public. Their inspiring battle cry told it all: “let the shrinking begin!” Begin it did with glassware. And the specific glass in question was the ubiquitous American shaker pint.
Long ago, to the increased profit of bar owners everywhere, a true English pint –20 ounces – was mystically was downsized to an American version that held only 16 ounces. Bar patrons yawned and kept drinking. Being bright blokes, bar owners concluded if shrinking worked once it surely would again. Ok, folks, watch the pea under the shell carefully – the shaker pint was about to shrink to 14 ounces in a way that even a sharp eyed cerevisaphile might not notice. Yes, what looks exactly like the standard 16 ounce pint glass now only holds 14 ounces.
Adding injury to injury, many establishments then began training their bartender on how to deftly substitute an extra inch or two of foam on the top of the glass. Now what looked to be 16 ounces of beer but was really 14 ounces was in actuality 12 or less. Harry Houdini would be proud.
No less authority than the Wall Street Journal corroborates it all. In analyzing the prospects of two of the giants in the glass making industry, Libbey and Cardinal International, the Journal wrote that "one area of major growth for both companies was in the increase in production of smaller beer glasses". Ah, but these hot selling glasses were not just smaller ones. No, these vessels were designed to “not be smaller in perceived size”.
Taking a cue from the magician’s handbook the full pint you were seeing wasn’t in fact real. These glasses were the same height and shape as the traditional shaker pint but were made with a thicker bottom so less liquid was needed to fill it up; a most simple yet elegant deceit. The customer gets 12% less beer for the same price and doesn’t know it. Perception clearly trumps reality every time. If it looks like a pint and the bar calls it a pint, there’s a good chance it’s not a pint.
The Wall Street Journal went on to identify a few restaurant chains that have admitted to the shrinking glass shuffle. Damon’s Grill Restaurant chain quietly did the switcheroo with the reasoning that “people don’t want a big glass of beer when they come in.” Huh? Needless to say their spokesperson forgot to mention that they charged the same price for the reduced amount. Even an august chain like Hooters did likewise. Well, okay, they get a pass. Hey, we’re talking Hooters here.
Now just why would your local friendly pub join these uncaring chains? Well, the new glasses will reward the establishment with around 20 extra “pints” out of a barrel. With prices for some craft beers up to $7 or even $8 a glass that’s a compelling reason. Besides in talking to bars that do this I’m told that many customers don’t really care. After all, they can also order another faux-pint if they’re still thirsty. It’s a bar’s version of the no harm-no foul rule. Actually it’s more like the referee missed the call. Less beer in your glass, or anywhere else for that matter, is never a good thing.
The rise of craft beer has only accelerated the glass conundrum. Yes, there is a science in glass design to maximize beer flavors – and trust me I want my beer in the appropriate glass - but the bottom line is still the amount of beer you get for your dollar. Nowadays, going into many a craft beer bar is like being on Jeopardy with a buzzer that doesn’t work. Does the snifter hold more beer than the goblet? Will you get more in that pilsner glass or in the tulip one? Does the chalice hold…..ah, I’ve already gotten a headache.
Now for those of us who get a bit uneasy over a bar’s glassware sleight of hand the bad news is that the Beer Police have an unlisted phone number. You could of course move to England where the peoples’ advocate CAMRA has helped make the full pint pour a legal requirement. Or you could just drink up and lament the decline of civilization as we know it – which seems to be what most people do. Unfortunately that proved to be a mistake since once bars realized that was the dominate reaction all bets were off. Their next move - attack the 14 ounce faux- pint glass.
Recently I checked the beer menu at a well known bar in Parta NJ that proudly lists 36 different taps. Impressive yes; it truly is a beer lovers’ paradise. To their credit they also listed serving size since they probably thought no one would read it. Not one of the 36 beers was being served in a pint glass. Not one of the 36 beers was being served in a pint glass. I had to say that twice since you might not believe me if I said it just once. Every one of their standard craft offerings comes in either a 12 or 10 ounce glass. Needless to say they haven’t lowered prices which average nearly $8 a glass. The place is still packed by the way. Surely you too can hear Mr. Barnum laughing from the realm beyond.
A newly opened place at the other end of the Garden State duplicates the no pint format for their 30 lines of beer with one exception. They proudly offer Coors Light in a 16 ounce glass. Gee, thanks guys. If ever there was a beer that can justifiably be served in 8 ounce (or less) glass it’s Coor’s Light. I once heard of a contest that gave away two cases of that “fine pilsner” from Colorado for first place. Second place got four cases.
Interestingly some iconic beer bars from the NY-NJ metro area like The Blind Tiger, The Gingerman, and Andy’s Corner still are pint centric. Don’t worry, these bars and many like them are not losing money by continuing to serve beer in 16 ounce glasses. Even at reduced Happy Hour prices those full pints are a nice profit maker. In general most bars have a beverage cost of about 20 to 30 %. This means that a drink costs the owner somewhere around 25 % of the selling price. Of course that’s just a guideline, but it often works to set base prices. Specifically when it comes to beer, most operators are satisfied if their cost is in the neighborhood of 20% on drafts and 25% on bottles. That’s most operators, not those provocative purveyors of puny pints.
My solution to all this is the supermarket one. In the early 1970s unit pricing was implemented into North American and EU markets. Australia made it the law of the land in 2009. The concept is simple- the retail establishment must provide a price that compares the quantity of product by a unit of measure, in this case, ounces of beer. If every beer menu had cost per ounce information the consumer could make an informed decision. Needless to say all this is for the same beer.
The good news is many pubs now put their beer menu online, sometimes complete with price and serving size. In those instances it's easy to become a homegrown Ralph Nader without much effort. Case in point - a quick look at the menu of a new pub in White Horse NJ showed that they are serving an 8 ounce glass of Chimay Triple (White) for $9.75 while a bar in Verona NJ is serving the exact same Chimay Triple for $9 in a 16 ounce glass. No advanced math degree needed to figure that one out.
Repeat to yourself three times quickjly - caveat emptor, caveat emptor, caveat emptor. Ah, I think that’s Latin for either the King’s tie is in the cabinet, or buyer beware.
Now before I get a ton of angry e-mails from bar owners let me say that even if my cost per ounce proposal becomes law you too can learn a lesson from the supermarkets in how to comply without compliance. The last time I went grocery shopping I saw that the store had posted the unit price for assorted flavors of Lipton Tea by the quart on some stickers, by the pound on others and per 100 tea bags in still others. At the same store, the unit price for some ice cream cartons was calculated by the quart, but on others it showed prices per pound.