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English beer measures and the liberal French state.

On Wednesday evening, for reasons too complicated to explain (which partly have to do with the disaster that is transport in London), I found myself walking down the high street of Clapham in wonderfully multi-ethnic south London. (This is not the same place as Clapham Junction, which is some distance away). This area seemed to have more nice bars and restaurants than it did the last time I was there, and half way down the street I saw a place called the “Bierodrome“. Despite this slightly silly name, I looked at the menu beside the door and saw a vast number of fine Belgian beers listed. As I am a little partial to fine Belgian beer, I walked in and sat down. Most of the beers were bottled, but they had around ten on tap. I ordered a Grimbergen Blonde. This is not an especially obscure beer, but it is certainly a good one.

When you go into a bar in Belgium, every beer has its own special glass. These have the name of the beer on the side, and vary in shape depending on the kind of beer, as (it is claimed) different styles of beer taste best in different shaped glasses. Some of the weirdly curved glasses also look kind of cute. The size of the glass also varies from beer to beer. This definitely makes sense, as beers differ greatly in texture and alcoholic strength. It also gives Belgian bars some of their character. Walk into a good bar, and there will be hundreds of different glasses on the shelf behind the barman. Belgian beers are often 7%, 8%, 9% alcohol, and these are best consumed in relatively small quantities. The Grimbergen Blond was at 7% only moderate by Belgian standards, but rather strong by English standards.

When I ordered the beer, I didn’t specify a size, as I just expected that I would be given a size appropriate to the beer in question, as happens in Belgium. However, I was given a cute, curved, Belgian style glass, but very big. I asked the barman, and he explained that it was a pint. You see, I was in England. If you are in England and order a beer without specifying the size, a pint is what you get. With English beer this is excellent. In fact, it is superb. English beer is usually (but not always) weaker than some continental drinks, and lends itself to larger glasses.

That was fine. It had probably been my intention to drink two smaller glasses of different beers rather than one big one of one, but that was no problem. The one beer was excellent, although perhaps a little much on an empty stomache. I could have also ordered some food (the food seemed more Dutch than Belgian, although I am not sure if there is a big Indonesian influence on food in the Flemish areas of Belgium the way there is in the Netherlands. Some research is in order, clearly).

So, I got talking to the barman. After we did a little reminiscing about visits to Belgium, he told me that there is a law in Britain that says that beer on tap must be served in measures of one third of a pint, one half pint, or one pint. Beer in bottles can come in any size, because given that bottled beer is imported from all sorts of places, any other rule would be silly. (This may be a “condition of licence” rather than a law, but either way bars do not have the option of legally selling other sizes).

Thus the arrangement in this particular bar. They had half pint and pint glasses for those beers they had on tap. These glasses were different in size than those used in Belgium and other countries, because they had to be made to hold English measures. Belgian beer on tap for the English market has to either be poured in made to order glasses or served in generic pint and half pint glasses. (Almost invariably it is sold in made to order glasses, the same shape as the glasses used in Belgium but a different size). However, for those beers that come in bottles, they have the same glasses used in Belgium, because the bottles come in the sizes of Belgian measures. In the event that they have the same beer both on tap and in bottles, they need both Belgian and English glasses for the different cases. Got that?

In effect, though, the law decreases the diversity of Belgian beers available on tap in Britain, and encourages those that are sold to be served in inappropriate sizes. In itself it isn’t a big issue or a major obstacle, but it is a real one. Impose lots and lots and lots of small insignificant regulations like this, and you reduce the freedom of consumers and businesses considerably.

The intent of this law is presumably to ensure that British people can get beer in traditional (pint) measures and that pubs do not pour people smaller measures than they think they are getting. However, I don’t see how it is not covered by laws that deal with simple business honesty. If you ask for a pint, and you are served something that is not a pint, then the barman has to inform you of this fact, or he is clearly being dishonest. However, there should be nothing wrong with other sizes being available. The majority of British pubs will continue to serve pints because that is what people want, but in some circumstances (eg bars specialising in foreign beers) this may not be appropriate.

I don’t know how old this law is. It could be proclaimed in the Magna Carta for all I know. Clearly, though, it is something the British have managed all by themselves. Why do I say this? Well, I have to confess that the French are more liberal. And of course we here at Samizdata don’t like to say this when we don’t have to.

When I was in Paris a few months ago, I walked into an English theme pub near the new Bibliotheque Nationale. This pub sold excellent (locally brewed) English style real ale. It was fairly expensive, but no more so than a Belgian theme bar in London. On the menu, the glass sizes were listed as 568ml and 284ml, the metric equivalents of a pint and a half pint. (The word “pint” was also used on the blackboard behind the bar). Although the standard French measure of beer (250ml) is much too small for people used to British sizes, their law appears to say that they can sell beer in whatever measure they like, as long as they say what it is. And this, dare I say it, is much more sensible and more liberal than the situation in England.

Update: I messed up a couple of links when I posted this. They are now fixed.

37 comments to English beer measures and the liberal French state.

  • Martin Adamson

    The French measure beer in pints, but the standard French “pint” (they use the English word) is 500ml – when you order a draught beer, you generally order a “demi” – that is, a half pint ie 250ml.

    Similarly for weights – in a street market, for example, you will often see things prices in livres (pounds) where a livre = 500 grams.

  • In Australia, we can’t agree what a pint is. In Sydney, if you ask for a “pint” of beer you will get an English pint. In Adelaide you will get a smaller glass (15 ounces or 475ml). (Australian beer measures vary from state to state and all have local names. The full mess can be found here). On the other hand, if you ask for a pint of milk, you will get 600ml.

    Australia actually uses the metric system very consistently, and there are only a few somewhat archaic uses of imperial units that are still in use. However, the pint is one of them.

  • Dave

    If you ask for a pint, and you are served something that is not a pint, then the barman has to inform you of this fact, or he is clearly being dishonest.

    Weights and measures is a problem over this. The question is not so much being served a “pint” but on the definition of that pint. Once defined it gets more complex still, is that 20 fluid ounces of liquid, or 20foz including the head? A subject the government dodged a few years back. Weatherspoons, at least, have larger glasses.

    Personally I see no problem as long as the weights and measures are clearly defined. 500ml is as near to an imperial pint as needed by most people, and a 1lt stein can be fun too.

  • G Cooper

    Michael Jennings writes:

    “Australia actually uses the metric system very consistently…”

    Consistently, or cravenly?

    Listening to an Australian cricket commentator trying to remember to distort the game with French measurements is a pretty excruciating experience.

  • I’m not sure of the merits of measures for units of alcohol. In the UK, you ask for a vodka and coke and you get exactly 25cl of vodka. Here in Dubai, you ask for a vodka and coke and the barman just tips a load of vodka in until it “looks about right” – and this is normally half way up the glass. If you know the barman, he tips even more in. You end up with about four shots in a glass when in the UK you’d only get one. I get hopelessly drunk on very few drinks as a result. I’m guessing that if the barman tried to sell you short, people would just abandon his club for one where they don’t – market forces at work.

  • Lisa

    My impression of the English is that they are preternaturally obsessed with measurements, especially when it comes to alcohol (but certainly get their knickers in a twist about virtually anything measurement related). How terribly quaint – seems to be a national trait. 😉

  • Dale Amon

    Except among engineers. Some tech lists I subscribed to in the ’80’s had long running humor threads about calculating velocities of things in Furlongs per Fortnight and the like.

    For engineering purposes, I’d no more consider using English measures than I would Roman Numerals. Both are old, difficult to use technology. Either is fine if all you have to do is read a label or order a beer; but just try a year as an engineering student with them in your homework! I guarantee you’ll have a lifelong hatred of them by the end of the first semester.

  • Kodiak


    This unexpected obduracy, of yours, aiming at showing how regulation-free the French State can be wins you a superbly deserved cybermagnum of Champagne, not a miserable pack of beer.

    A ta santé, Michael !

  • G Cooper

    Dale Amon writes:

    “Except among engineers…”

    Amazing how our ancestors achieved anything at all really, isn’t it? Whitworth, Brunel, Gooch, the Stevensons, McAlpine, Whittle… all the countless shopfloor enineers taken on at at 14, happily building ships, trains and aeroplanes, working in tens of thous within a few months…

    Just think what they might have achieved had they only had the good sense to use metric instead.

    Or, of course, not….

  • Chris

    Amen to that! After three years spent studying chemical engineering I had developed a life long hatred of the btu.

    I know in Italy if you ask for a beer they serve you with 500ml glasses.

  • Craig Bryant


    As an occasional traveler to the United Kingdom, and a devoted student of beer, I must share with you my painstakingly researched opinion that the imperial pint of beer represents one of the pinnacles of British civilization, if not of all human history. We’re talking at least as important as Shakespeare here, and possibly the same level as fire, the wheel and the opposable thumb. I realize that this may make for you the occasional hassle relative to fine Belgian products or in other areas, but, believe me, it’s worth it. You’re talking about a national treasure here.

    Best regards,


  • Michael Sullivan

    I am reminded of the section in Orwell’s 1984 where an old man bemoans the adoption of 1/2 liter and liter instead of the old pint.

    Although forced by the government, at least its not metric.

  • mCrane

    It could be worse. You could have all the American beer you wanted in any size glass. Not that you would actually NEED a glass if the tap were handy, if I recall my College years correctly.

  • – Michael Sullivan

    I was reminded of exactly the same scene, where Winston goes trolling about amongst the Proles and tries to shake out a bit of history from the old man, who of course in only really interested in getting his pint.

  • Jim

    I salute your erudite explorations into the tasty subject of beer around the world. A toast to Michael Jennings!

    mCrane dismissed American beer, but not all American beer is tasteless tan water topped with foam — sure, the big nationally advertised brands are not worth drinking at all — but there are many micro-breweries that produce very good beer.

    Having said that, I must admit that a couple of years ago, in preparation for the 4th of July holiday, I was purchasing appropriate supplies in my local package store and had to laugh when I realized I had a 12-pack of Bass Ale, a 12-pack of Harp Lager, and a 6-pack of Guinness. I explained to the salesclerk that it was just my way of saying to England “No hard feelings.”

  • Omnibus Bill

    Ahh, the joy of being an American. I drink Belgian beer in size & shape appropriate glasses at a couple fine establishments in Washington – The Brickskeller and RFD (the Brick’s upscale restaurant at 7th & H). They have many many bottles, about 30 taps (including at least 10 Belgians) and usually have a couple casks on weekend nights.

    Best of all, I often drink at a place up on Eye Street where the bartender pours liquor in front of me – asking “howzat?” to determine exactly what constitutes a shot, or a double of bourbon.

    Generally speaking, he pours me a “rough day, huh?” measure on the first pour. That works out to about three and a half fingers of Maker’s Mark. Later measures include the “hava nother”, which is about 2 fingers, and the “you vada bouty nuff” measure, which runs about a finger. I don’t recall ever feeling shortchanged.

    Reckon that would get the EU & UK weights & measures folk after me?

  • S. Weasel

    Mmmmm. Beer.

  • Liz

    Jim – What does Guinness etc have to do with England?!

  • David Jaroslav

    God bless the Brickskeller, Omnibus Bill: DC would be that much less pleasant without it.

  • To whomever commented about engineering in metric.

    I’ve done both and mildy prefer metric for engineering, but what’s really painful is MIXING the systems. That will drive grown men to strong drink, and make geniuses humble.

    On the other hand when I build a house, furniture, or similar task, give me imperial measurements *ANY* day.

    It’s just easier to specify stuff, it’s backwards compatible, and everyone ELSE knows what your on about when you wave your hands about and say: about 8 inches in 2 by 3 ft opening.


  • Ernie G

    Chris, I can sympathize with your feelings about BTUs. Some people understand them even less than we do. I heard about a man who was in a store shopping for air conditioners, and commented to his wife, “It looks like just the cabinets on these were made in the United States. See here, it says they’ve got British thermal units.”

  • Hmm. As a consequence of what I posted this morning, I have just been out drinking with David Carr in an entirely different Belgian beer bar in Camden. (This one was not quite as good as the one in Clapham, but really not bad).

    Craig: As an occasional traveler to the United Kingdom, and a devoted student of beer, I must share with you my painstakingly researched opinion that the imperial pint of beer represents one of the pinnacles of British civilization, if not of all human history.

    I agree completely, which is why people will always continue to use it of their own free will. There is so no need for it to be mandatory.

    Dale: Just look at what Google can now do.

  • I just checked one of my 12oz. imported beer bottles to see if it had a milliliter measurement on it to compare to this notion of a 250ml French beer bottle. Then I found my measuring cup to confirm.

    Egads, that is small. Just over 8oz. Most college bars I’ve been to serve their well drinks (mixed drinks made from inexpensive liquors) in cups that size…and perhaps it’s due to the Texas climate, but I find anything less than 12oz. to be inadequate. Regardless of the alcohol content. 🙂

    Craig, I echo your pro-pint comments. Let’s also not forget the nifty correlation of a 16oz. pint and one pound, also 16oz. I like buying my beer and my beef in similar weights! *lol*

  • My favourite thing about the English system is that every glass used in pubs has a seal saying it is Royally approved. Does this mean that Queen is sampling each glass and seeing if it has the right amount of booze? I always wonder about that.

    I also was quite amazed when I learned that a pint of beer in England is 20 oz. A standard pint of beer in the US is 16 oz (which I think is the usual pint in the “english” system, which is the one thing that we did not get rid of along with King George). Anyway, that combined with the fact that beer is about 50% stronger in England than the US answered all my questions about why I was staggering home after “only” four pints.

    I do continue to be disappointed though by the insistance on measuring out the booze in each mixed drink. Only a few private clubs I have been to in England allow the bartender a free hand on this…Perhaps this has something to do with the limited tipping that goes on in English bars.

  • Dave O'Neill

    Perhaps this has something to do with the limited tipping that goes on in English bars.

    No, sadly that’s a weights and measures thing too. Obviously there is the government angle but it also works for the breweries who run many of the pubs.

    It means that you can account for things down to the last drop – makes life miserable for publicans too, especially with the introduction of EPOS cash registers.

  • Omnibus Bill

    Rich, I don’t think beer is stronger in Britain than in America – at least when you are referring to mass market stuff.

    Light beer in the U.S. is generally around 3.0 – 3.5% alcohol. The regular stuff like Bud is usually around 4.0 – 4.5% alcohol, and some (Coors, perhaps?) is up around 5%; Malt Liquor often runs well upwards of that.

    British beers generally run 3.5% or slightly above – bitters for example are in the 3.5% – 4% range.

    Two things may make them seem more intoxicating or power-packed. First, American mass market swill is typically brewed with 30% – 40% rice malt – opaque sugars made from rice. This malt is exceedingly light, and nearly clear when it is dissolved in water in the brewing process. It ferments into alcohol, but doesn’t leave a lot of taste behind, so you get little flavor from it. (In contrast to dark brown chocolate malt, which turns into roughly the same amount of alcohol, but which turns the beer dark brown and gives it a chewy texture).

    Second, you get your American mass market beers in 12 ounce, or perhaps 16 ounce servings. British pints come in 20 ounce imperial pints. So if you have four Brit beers in a pub, it’s like drinking 6-7 of your 12 ounce Millers…

    So no, American mass market swill beer isn’t literally as weak as horse piss. It only tastes that way.

    – Jaroslav, you need to check out a beer tasting at the Brick if you haven’t; and if you haven’t already been, RFD is a pretty good restaurant. So is Franklin’s brewpub in Hyattsville…

  • A_t

    “No, sadly that’s a weights and measures thing too”

    wo… so does this mean the barman in my favourite establishment is actually breaking the law by pouring arbitrarily large amounts of spirits straight from the bottle into my glass? wow… didn’t realise our laws were *that* anal!

  • Perhaps this has something to do with the limited tipping that goes on in English bars.

    If you tip in an English bar, then you are walking into the minefield that is the class system. The fiction is that in an English pub, everyone is equal, including the barman. There is a practice in English pubs akin to tipping. You order a round of drinks, and at the end you say “…and one for yourself”. The barman says “Thank you sir. I will have a half of bitter”, and he charges you the cost of an extra half pint. He either pours himself the drink at that time, or if he is busy, he does so later on. (If you are still in the pub when he does, he will likely catch your eye and raise his glass to you when he does). This way you are buying a drink for the barman just like you would one of your mates, and the class related aspects of tipping are not raised.

  • A_t

    hmm… so what if the barman & the people buying the drinks are all working class?

    Personally i think we just don’t tip just ‘cos we dont’ tip… i reckon it’d be seen as a bit crass by all involved, and I don’t think it’s much to do with class. Agree about the “and one for yourself” tho’ 🙂

  • Jim


    Oops… well, technically, in 1776, all of Ireland was still under King George… but actually the association was in my mind because Guinness would be my first choice in a pub in London and Guinness brews Guinness and Harp and Bass so it just felt as if I were contributing to the U.K. balance of payments… in expiation of my sins, on St. Patrick’s Day I will make a similar purchase and make a depricating remark about the English oppressors. In addition, just a short distance down the street from that package store is a bar that has Whitbread on tap, so next 4th of July I could stop and hoist a glass of Whitbread to toast our independence.

  • A_t: Well, I am an Aussie. I find the whole class thing incomprehensible. Yes, it seems a bit crass. As to whether this is class related or not I don’t know. However, one nice thing about English pubs is that people who wouldn’t meet or talk to one another otherwise do. My local is a nice friendly place: much more than most pubs are in Australia.

    British beers generally run 3.5% or slightly above – bitters for example are in the 3.5% – 4% range.

    I have written about this in more detail on my own blog. Loosely, though, traditional British beer is cask conditioned, which means that the beer is made and shipped to pubs unfiltered in a non-pressurised cask. The beer undergoes a secondary fermentation in the cask, which is how it gets its bubbles. The beer is then poured into glasses using a hand-pump. This type of beer is known as real ale, and it comes in various colours and flavours (for instance porter, bitter, and stout). It is typically 4.5%-5.5% alcohol, although examples both weaker and stronger than this do exist. It is also often wonderfully good beer. However, it was not well suited to mass-produced brewing, as it has to be kept at a proper temperature and must be served fresh, otherwise it will go off. Therefore, the bulk of the British brewing industry over the last 50 years has switched to keg beers. These are shipped in a pressurised keg, carbonated, and served in a pub using a pressurised pump. These come in lager, bitter and stout, also, but are mostly lager. Often these have the same name as a foreign beer (eg Fosters, Carling, or Heineken) and are supposedly “brewer under licence”. Typically, these are about 3.5% alcohol, and are made under a different recipe to the original with a lower alcohol content. (They have been probably made this way because the lower the alcohol level, the lower the tax rate). In my opinion, these are normally awful. In recent years, the mass produced Belgian beer Stella Artois has steadily gained market share in British pubs. This is a lager brewed under licence in England, but to the same recipe as the original (and with about 5% alcohol). It is more expensive than most lagers sold in Britain, but is also a better beer, and beer drinkers seem to have figured this out. The weaker beers have been losing market share Recently, Heineken have stopped brewing their weak British market beer and have started brewing beer in England under the same recipe they use in Holland, with a significantly higher alcohol content (around 5% I think). So yes, a fair amount of English beer has had fairly low alcohol content, but this situation is in decline.

  • Dave

    so does this mean the barman in my favourite establishment is actually breaking the law by pouring arbitrarily large amounts of spirits straight from the bottle into my glass? wow… didn’t realise our laws were *that* anal!

    You didn’t? 🙂

    Although like with openning hours if the barman can claim its a non-cash transaction or the like they could be covered.

    I can’t see how they could do that and charge based on the displayed tarrif.

  • R. G. Newbury

    I do not remember where I found this, but regarding engineering, read and heed!


    nnals of Engineering: Equine Posterior Gauge:

    Ever Wonder Why?…The US standard railroad gauge (width between the two
    rails) is 4 feet, 8.5 inches. That’s an exceedingly odd number. Why was
    that gauge used? Because that’s the way they built them in England, and the
    US railroads were built by English expatriates.

    Why did the English build them like that? Because the first rail lines were
    uilt by the same people who built the pre-railroad tramways, and that’s the
    gauge they used. Why did “they” use that gauge then? Because the people who
    built the tramways used the same jigs and tools that they used for building
    wagons which used that wheel spacing. Okay! Why did the wagons have that
    particular odd wheel spacing? Well, if they tried to use any other spacing,
    the wagon wheels would break on some of the old, long distance roads in
    England, because that’s the spacing of the wheel ruts.

    So who built those old rutted roads? The first long distance roads in Europe
    (and England) were built by Imperial Rome for their legions. The roads have
    been used ever since. And the ruts in the roads? Roman war chariots first
    formed the initial ruts, which everyone else had to match for fear of
    destroying their wagon wheels. Since the chariots were made for (or by)
    Imperial Rome, they were all alike in the matter of wheel spacing.

    The United States standard railroad gauge of 4 feet, 8.5 inches derives from
    the original specification for an Imperial Roman war chariot. Specifications
    and bureaucracies live forever. So the next time you are handed a
    specification and wonder what horse’s ass came up with it, you may be exactly
    right, because the Imperial Roman war chariots were made just wide enough to
    accommodate the back ends of two war horses. Thus, we have the answer to the
    original question.

    When we see a Space Shuttle sitting on its launch pad, there are two big
    booster rockets attached to the sides of the main fuel tank. These are solid
    rocket boosters, or SRBs. The SRBs are made by Morton Thiokol at their
    factory in Utah. The engineers who designed the SRBs might have preferred to
    make them a bit fatter, but the SRBs had to be shipped by train from the
    factory to the launch site. The railroad line from the factory had to run
    through a tunnel in the mountains. The SRBs had to fit through that tunnel.
    The tunnel is slightly wider than the railroad track, and the railroad track
    is about as wide as two horses’ behinds.

    So, the major design feature of what is arguably the world’s most advanced
    transportation system was determined over two thousand years ago by two
    horse’s rears.

  • Jesse Crawford

    Maybe someone can help me.
    I am interested in hearing some opinions on importing glassware from the U.S. as opposed to Europe. Especially in the case of the 16 oz. American pint VS. the 20 oz. Euro pint.

  • 20 oz is a pint, in America not every where but most places serve the 16 oz glass, this is not a pint, it is just a cheap beer glass. There are places that serve 20 oz pints in America but know America is cheap and greedy and they want a tip always where the rest of the world, tips are not necessary.

    If you want to go to England, France, Germany and Russia for cheap, I found super cheap fares on this site called Anyfares.com

  • 20 oz is a pint, in America not every where but most places serve the 16 oz glass, this is not a pint, it is just a cheap beer glass. There are places that serve 20 oz pints in America but know America is cheap and greedy and they want a tip always where the rest of the world, tips are not necessary.

    If you want to go to England, France, Germany and Russia for cheap, I found super cheap fares on this site called Anyfares.com

  • The Munich Germany fest os coming up too.

    If you want to go to England, France, Germany and Russia for cheap, I found super cheap fares on this site called Anyfares.com http://www.anyfares.com