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A new bar has recently opened in Nottingham called the Tap House where customers are allowed to pour their own beer. It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that this is basically a gimmick rather than a glimpse into a brave new world, but it does raise a number of issues. One obvious one is whether customers are entitled to a fresh glass each time they want to pour a different beer, as they now expect in conventional bars. This would increase the staff workload and make the process less streamlined than it might at first appear, as they would need to visit a glass exchange point and then the actual tap.
There would also be a need to guard against serving alcohol to minors, and on providing it to people who were already drunk. The first presumably can be achieved fairly easily simply by restricting entry to over-18s. However, the second may be more challenging, especially as the bar allows you to build up a tab on a card and settle at the end of the evening. It is much easier to assess whether someone is drunk by looking them in the eye when ordering a drink, than from observing their general behaviour. And people can always serve beer to their friends and not just themselves. I’m not sure what the answer is, but clearly it will require a level of staff supervision that erodes any potential savings from self-service.
The most important issue, though, is that of the measures served. The report says “Customers can select a range of drink sizes from a sample of around 50ml to a schooner (three quarters of a pint).” On the face of it, this would appear to be illegal, as the law only permits draught beer to be sold in thirds and halves of a pint and multiples thereof. Indeed, there’s an example of pub in Stockton-on-Tees using the same model being compelled to restrict themselves to the prescribed measures.
Some people have commented that “surely their operating plan will have been checked out by the council before they opened”, but that reflects a very optimistic assessment of how much time hard-pressed staff have to review such things. Anyway, it seems that they have received a visit, although it’s not made clear what the outcome was.
That didn’t take long...
— Brew Cavern (@BrewCavern) November 13, 2019
(Click on the image to read the text)
It’s conceivable that there is an exemption for cases where customers are serving themselves using a measured flow, as with petrol pumps, rather than the bar offering specific quantities for sale. I have my doubts, though. In any case, clear guidance would be useful. This would also apply to the growing number of single-price “all you can drink” craft beer festivals which often use a standard measure that is less than a third of a pint. As with several other examples in different areas, it suggests there is a need for clearer national standards on trading standards issues.
Some people have gone on from this to argue that it is time for the complete deregulation of measures – shouldn’t pubs and bars be allowed to serve beer in whatever measures they deem most appropriate? I suspect that much of this comes from those who simply object to the use of Imperial measures and would prefer metric ones. I’d hazard a guess that such people don’t tend to be Leave voters.
However, it’s important to remember that standardised measures were introduced for reasons of consumer protection. They make price comparison more straightforward and allow people to keep track of consumption of an intoxicating product. Deregulation of measures would lead to confusion amongst customers and open the door to all kinds of rip-offs. While there is a strong identification with pints, as soon as this was relaxed bars would be selling beer in all kinds of sizes, and it wouldn’t be long before people were simply asking for a large or a small one. Who would benefit if bars were able to define “a whisky” as 22ml, or 18ml, or whatever, and only declare this on an obscure sign somewhere?
We already see this on the price boards in some craft bars such as BrewDog, where a single price is given for each beer, with the quantity it relates to being shown beside it in smaller print. How often in practice does this lead to customers ordering a specific beer by name without stating the desired quantity? Not “a half of Elvis Juice” but just “an Elvis Juice”.
Whether the measures are Imperial or metric is irrelevant to the argument for standardisation. A comparison is sometimes drawn with petrol, where customers are free to dispense any quantity they choose. However, this doesn’t really stand up, as petrol is bought for consumption over a period of time rather than as a single serve to be used immediately. A bar is, in effect, serving “a drink”, not x amount of a particular product. Sheer practicality, such as the glassware required, would require a bar to define which were the normal quantities of beer it sold to customers. And petrol is in any case always very clearly priced per litre, so there is never any doubt about the actual unit price.
There is, perhaps, a case for allowing a smaller measure of beer for outlets, typically festivals , that operate effectively on what is a “sample” basis. But this could easily be accommodated within the current system by legalising measures of a quarter or a sixth of pint. It’s not a proper drink to my mind, though. It’s also doubtful how much take-up there would be. After all, while thirds have always been legal, and two-thirds was permitted a few years ago, they’re still rarely seen in the generality of pubs and bars. Try asking for two-thirds of Carling in Wetherspoon’s and see what response you get. But if you do want more flexibility without upending the whole system, this is what you should be arguing for.