The Magna Carta is hailed as the foundation of the British legal system, but few of the clauses in it have any relevance to the modern world. One which does concerns weight and measures. For as long as there has been recorded history people have been determined to receive value for money, and I guess there have always been merchants who want to shave a little bit off your order and pocket the difference. In the modern world it is easier than ever to check the quantity of what you purchase. True, there are some who will try to confuse you by putting a small amount of product in a large packet, or reduce the size of your chocolate bar, while keeping the price the same, but the weight or volume will be on the packaging and if you wish, it’s not that difficult to check. All except for beer. When you go into the pub and buy a pint, the glass must be the correct volume, but that doesn’t apply to the contents. Until recently your pint mug should have been stamped with the crown mark, showing that it has been checked against the standard, although this requirement was dispensed with a few years ago in favour of checking samples from each batch that was produced, which might be nearly as good.
The problem comes when the barman pours the pint. Perhaps seduced by advertising, many customers prefer, or are willing to accept a large head on their beer. Every inch of foam is an inch less of beer (I guess metric units are now frowned upon), and consequently more profit for the publican. It is acceptable in law for a head to comprise up to 10% of beer, but the customer can ask for the pint to be topped up. Many customers are happy to accept short measure or are too embarrassed to ask the barman to fill up their glass, especially if the pub is busy, and in my view, they lose out. Sometimes the server is unaware of the regulations. In a smart pub in the centre of Norwich recently I was served a pint that was ridiculously short, so much so that I thought it might be an oversized glass with a line to indicate a pint measure. I asked the guy serving if this was the case and he assured me that it was. A few sips proved to me that he was mistaken, and that I had paid for, maybe 15% more beer than I received. Discussing this with him as I left, it became clear that he had no grasp of what I was talking about and basically was happy to agree with everything put to him. I guess it was a lack of training for the role, something that may have been common in the establishment judging from the majority of drinks that I observed being dispensed.
So what to do? CAMRA has for many years called for mandatory oversized lined glasses and if you visit an approved beer festival, you should be served in one of these. Some pubs use them voluntarily, for example the Kings Arms at Shouldham but many landlords resist them as it is easy to overfill them and they lose the margin rather than gaining it. We could use electrically metered pumps, but real ale is now so identified with the hand pump that this would not be popular with either landlords or customers.
So 800 years after the Magna Carta, the onus is still on the drinker. Be pleasant and polite, but ask for a full pint.