How do you feel about ordering shapes or adjectives? What am I talking about? Ordering a tap beer. In New Zealand, there is little to no transparency on poured beer volumes sold – a phenomenon that stretches across all kinds of venues from restaurants to sports bars.

Legislation on beer (and wine for) sold by measure is defined by the ‘Trading Standards’ governed by the Ministry Of Business, Innovation & Employment (MBIE) which states on its website: “Beer and cider are traditionally sold by description — that is, by the glass or the jug — rather than by measure. However, if they’re sold by measure this must be done using a metric unit of measurement.”

What does this mean for the consumer? Beer is sold in a “glass” — large or small — or in “handles”, “jugs” or … here I will consciously avoid the use of the term “pint”. I do not want this article to be misinterpreted as “anti-pint”. I love a pint – but the “measure” pint is not defined in New Zealand. It’s as much a descriptor as “glass”.

In short, there is no way to compare volumes consumed and prices per measure across different venues. It’s a complete lack of transparency supported by legislation.

Venues that attempt more transparency by selling beer in advertised millilitres expose themselves (probably inadvertently) to violations of the Weights and Measures Act 1987. Why is that? Glassware used in New Zealand is largely imported, which means that even beer served in glasses that have a capacity/volume embossed — for example “425ml” etched on the bottom of the glass — will (unless the beer is poured without a head and the glass is filled up to the rim) not give you the that volume of fluid. With the odd exception, bars and restaurants that advertise beer in volumes matched to glassware are simply referring to the maximum capacity of the glass instead of the actual pour size and hence perpetrate false advertising.   

After requesting the MBIE’s stand on this, the answer was straightforward: “A business purporting to sell 250ml of beer when the consumer only receives 240ml, would be an offence under the Act. If a measure is stated, it must be accurate.” 

The variation between maximum capacity of the glass and the actual pour size can be a lot more than in the MBIE’s example. I did some random measures using scales. Depending on the glass shape and froth allowed, the pour can easily be 10-20% lower than the advertised capacity of the glass.

Most beer glasses in New Zealand do not have fill lines that clearly indicate the advertised pour line. Glasses common in mainland Europe do show a fill/pour line which allows space on top of the glass for a frothy head that will eventually settle to, or just above, the fill line.

In New Zealand this type of glass is the exception though some premium European lagers are often poured in their own merchandised glassware (e.g. Stella Artois). Here you get (and can see) what is advertised and charged.

When requesting feedback from the Ministry on why most aspects of the sale of alcohol are strictly regulated (minimum purchasing age, liquor licenses, opening hours, etc.) but why there are no stricter rules on what volumes the consumer gets when they order draft beer the feedback was: “There are no proposed amendments to the weights and measures legislation, which would introduce prescribed measures for beer and other alcoholic beverages. However, your comments have been noted and will be raised during future opportunities we have to review the legislation.”

I am astonished that the regulated alcohol market:

  • supports the sale of ‘shapes’ (handle, jug) or ‘adjectives’ (large, small, half);
  • puts businesses in danger of breaking the law if they try to provide transparency by indication of volume sold;
  • and, has no intention of creating transparency by enforcing the use of actual poured volumes.

Unless the Act changes, ordering draft beer means we will have no idea how much we will get (volume), what the price per millilitre is (transparency) nor a calculation of alcohol consumed (how many standard units are 2 ‘adjectives’ plus 1 ‘shape’?).

With no proposed amendments to the weights and measure legislation in sight the Ministry suggested for me to followed up and discuss my concerns with my local MP.

I will.