Monday, July 7, 2014

Shit Storm in a Beer Glass

This past weekend there was a shit storm that hit the Vancouver craft beer community.

Draft beer consumers, fed up with their belief that they are systematically being mislead about serving sizes, collided with liquor licensees who pour, in a way they feel is acceptable, the craft beers we so love. This collision had social media buzzing as folks weighed in on the differences of opinion which I will get into below.

I learned something during the course of the discussion that, naively, I had never thought of before; consumers and licensees define draft beer serving sizes differently.

Somewhere along the way it has become somewhat of an industry standard in Vancouver for licensees to use the size of a serving vessel as the serving size they post on serving size/price lists and/or convey verbally to consumers while many, if not most, consumers consider that actual amount of beer that arrives in the glass to be the serving size.

And this fundamental difference of opinion is causing some great unrest in some quarters of the tight-knit Vancouver craft beer community.

What is the difference you ask?

Well, consider if a bar uses 14-oz sleeves for their draft beer and post 14-oz as their serving size.

That glass would have to be filled to the brim, without any head, to achieve the advertised volume and would be so full it would be impossible for a server to carry without spilling all over the place.

No craft beer lover wants their beer served without the appropriate amount of head and no craft beer lover wants to see their favourite brew end up on a serving tray or the floor. And no craft beer licensee wants the spillage that accompanies filling a glass to the brim.

Realistically, that 14-oz sleeve, if poured properly, will arrive with about 12 oz of beer in it. In this example, approximately one/seventh, or  a little over 14%, of the advertised serving is not being delivered to the customer, which for a $7 sleeve works out to $1, before tax, being paid by the consumer for nothing more than foam and air.

If you take into consideration the 15% alcohol tax and a modest 15% tip you are looking at $1.30 vanishing into thin air for each beer you order using the above example.

Measurement Canada, who police this type of thing, told me in an e-mail a few weeks ago,
"Vendors are required by the Weights and Measures Act to deliver, within the applicable limits of error, the quantity of product they are claiming to sell.  This includes individual servings of beer sold in restaurants, pubs, bars, etc." 
The "applicable limits of error" mentioned in the e-mail is 2.5%. That is only 0.5 oz of error allowed for a pint and 0.35 of an ounce for a 14 oz pour.

It seems consumers legally, if they care about such things (and not all do), do have a legitimate beef.

In contrast, licensees, especially in Vancouver, are feeling pressure to do all they can to compete and attract customers in a highly competitive market.

I have been told by more than a few licensees that because using the glass size has become the "industry standard" in Vancouver for serving sizes, they are feeling compelled to advertise the glass capacity as the serving size is, even if they know that full measure is not arriving at the customer's table. They are feeling forced, they tell me, to make the decision to serve the way they are in order to compete with the next bar next door who is doing so. Being ethical and saying you serve 12 oz in a 14-oz glass for the same price as the bar next door who say they serve 14 oz in a 14-oz glass means the possibility of lost customers.

I don't think for the majority of licensees are dishonest and maliciously set out to cheat their customers - they are just doing what everyone else is doing in the Vancouver marketplace. I know some bar and restaurant owners very well; some are my dear friends, welcome in my home any time, honest and well-meaning and I support the Hell out of them and their businesses any time I can.

Unfortunately, the widespread practice, that has been adopted by even the most honest of folks out there, is illegal. It is not acceptable that consumers should be expected to donate money, from 15-20% at times, for goods they do not receive, to businesses so those businesses can compete in an industry that has little margin for error.

And it sucks that we have such a screwed up "industry standard" that forces honest, good-intentioned licensees to have to make this kind of ethical decision just to feel they can compete in the marketplace with unscrupulous types who operate with impunity due to government disinterest and consumer apathy.

Last Saturday a few craft beer consumers, including CAMRA Vancouver president, Adam Chatburn, who does care about getting what he pays for, headed out to a few of Commercial Drive restaurants and bars, armed with a calibrated glass and their cell phones, and proceeded to find out the posted or verbally conveyed serving size for beers, ordered those beers, measured the volume of beer they received, videoed the results and tweeted these videos and the numbers.

They found that most establishments- only Tangent Cafe was commended for their perfect 12-oz pour - served glasses of beer that fell short, well outside the legal margin for error, compared to the serving sizes promised. In one establishment they found a 20% difference between volume promised and volume delivered when the pint they ordered came in a sleeve.

The posting of these results initiated the above mentioned shit storm.

Some applauded, others booed. Some heaped praise on those posting, others called them down and got personal. I am not here to talk about the process, the reactions, the exact results or whether what these consumers did was right or wrong. You can go here to read CAMRA Vancouver President, Adam Chatburn's explanation of what went down, why they did it and what they found out from his perspective.

This whole thing has come to a head because of CAMRA BC's Fess Up to Serving Sizes Campaign (FUSS) which is nothing more than trying to get licensed establishments to accurately provide their draft beer serving sizes then deliver on that promise as required by both federal and provincial law.

That is what FUSS is - nothing more, nothing less.

I know because FUSS was an idea I came up with a little over 2.5 years ago.

I didn't just pull FUSS out of my ass; I came up with the idea when I was in the president of CAMRA Vancouver after receiving a bazillion complaints from members and non-members alike who believed they were getting much smaller measures in their glasses than they were being promised when they ordered. I thought it would be great for Vancouver craft beer consumers to get CAMRA friendly bars and restaurants to provide a list of their draft beer servings sizes, as required by law, and then lead the charge by producing said measures in hopes that craft beer consumers would be satisfied and these establishments would see increased business due to their transparency regarding what they were serving.

Easy, right? A win-win situation.

Well, not so much as this has turned into a mess with legal and consumer expectations conflicting with the need for licensees to compete in a very cut-throat and often dishonest market. There was, in fact, considerable push back from some on the industry side of the craft beer community, although I will say, most of the feedback was positive and in support of the campaign.

So how do we clean up this mess?

The best way would be for all bars to have marked glassware - glasses with plimsol (fill-to-here) lines so that both those serving and those being served could see that the promised volume was in the glass. CAMRA BC proposed this to John Yap during the liquor policy review and suggested it be phased in over two years so glassware could be replaced slowly when needed via attrition. BC used to have these types of glasses - I can remember them in my early days of going to the pub - but they have long since disappeared.

The government are not interested in legislating the requirement for marked glassware and I have been told by licensees that there is a problem with finding marked glassware and that these glasses are expensive.

The simple solution, which isn't perfect, but which could work, is for licensees to buy glassware that is larger than their planned serving size - i.e., a 16-oz sleeve for a 14-oz serving - leaving room for foam and eliminating the need to fill the glass to the brim.

It would mean eye-balling the amount going into the glass but it shouldn't take long for the bartenders of the city to figure out where on the glass they have to be to hit the mark.

Bars and restaurants who did this could then be uber-supported by CAMRA BC, CAMRA Vancouver, who could run campaigns lauding these places for their transparency and ethical choice to serve it right and be 100% honest about what they are serving. CAMRA could also continue to push the provincial government and Measurement Canada to nail places that do not comply with the law. The craft beer consumers and us who write about such things could support these places by tweeting, posting, writing and talking about them and more importantly, frequenting them over those establishments who choose the status quo.

I have heard that one of the bars called out on Saturday has, as a result of the incident, decided to go this route and order 16-oz glassware to properly fit the 14-oz pours they advertise. Good for them. I hope they follow through, I hope they get the recognition they deserve for turning a negative into a positive and I hope consumers and CAMRA BC support the Hell out of them to both reward them and encourage others to follow suit. I know when I find out they have followed through I will be giving them my support.

Something has to give as this issue is not going to go away and CAMRA BC and CAMRA Vancouver are not going to go away. It is a mess, caused by consumers not standing up for their rights for decades and government not giving shit, and it needs to be fixed.

Let's work together as a craft beer community, consumers and businesses together, to find a workable solution instead of pointing fingers at each other. It really sucks that friends are finding themselves on the opposite side of the fence on this issue when all can be on the side of fixing the problem.

I know some of you out there are going to bash me for this post...give er. This is how I see it and I think it is important. I don't like being expected to accept a situation that is fundamentally wrong and I won't.

If you don't care about this, good for you. Carry on paying for foam and air. But remember, that payment for nothing could be going towards your next, already-expensive sleeve.

This, at its core, it what CAMRA BC is all about. CAMRA BC is a consumer advocacy group, not a beer club or a kiss-industry's-ass club.

If you are a member and feel FUSS is misguided and wrong, get involved, get elected and change the course of your society.


  1. I think the twitter storm was what happen's when drunk people argue over something like this, I saw many posts from people that were unusually angry and likely full of liquid courage. I applaud the CAMRA effort to continue the campaign, however I was dissapointed in the way some people, including the president of CAMRA YVR, got very defensive and engaged in the silliness that followed. It's best to not give the hater's the time of day, they want the attention and they were given many opportunities to have it.

    I encourage people to have a read through the CAMRA Vancouver update you posted, it clarifies a lot of things. Quite frankly, I also believe people need to calm down a little on social media, huge public aggressive twitter arguments always turn out bad for everyone involved. My advice for CAMRA and anyone involved in this is to ignore the attention seekers and sift through the feedback to pick out the actionable items.

    Now, back to enjoying the amazing craft beer we have and hoping that we get it at a fair price and knowing what we are paying for.

  2. Good advice...something we all need to remember. Don't take the bait! cheers for your comments

  3. on the lighter side... we tried to do some "pint" evaluations in New West a couple of years ago, with predictable results:

  4. Over a year you end up paying for a lot of beer that you haven't consumed (depending on how much you drink), perhaps offering to sample other beers available on tap would satisfy the clients just as much as having an exact 12.000 oz. I've never been denied a sample/taster. Good read!