The “traditional” pint

It seems it will be a while before we are able to return to the pub and enjoy our favourite tipple while socialising with our friends. In the mean time, Metric Views points to a paradox that some may wish to ponder over their pint.

Following on from our previous article about the opportunities missed in the Government review of weights and measures 200 years ago, it is interesting that, in 1819, the “First Report of the Commissioners Appointed to Consider Weights and Measures” included a recommendation for a new gallon (and pint).

The report noted that at least three different gallon standards were used, and recommended the introduction of a single new standard gallon which would be defined as the volume containing exactly 10 pounds avoirdupois of distilled water at 62 °F, an amount that could be divided decimally if desired. This had the knock-on effect of defining a new standard pint, which, being equal to one eighth of a gallon, would henceforth be defined as the volume occupied by 1¼ pounds, or 20 ounces, of distilled water at 62 °F.

The report speculates that the consequent introduction of a new standard measure for beer would cause “very little inconvenience” to the public “especially when it is considered that the standards, by which the quart and pint beer measures, used in London, are habitually adjusted“.

It is ironic that, 200 years ago, the Government lacked the courage to take a radical approach in their efforts to rationalise the country’s weights and measures, but were unconcerned about making changes to the “pint” of beer.

Nowadays the “pint” has become a cause célèbre for opponents of metrication, and decades after food and drink went metric, some politicians continue to resist efforts to switch the measurement of draught beer to metric units, because of the pint’s supposed ancient heritage. Whereas in fact it was historically quite recently that the current size of the pint was defined, and if there is any tradition at all, it is that the pint is a measure that has been subject to frequent regulatory change. The current imperial pint is actually a newer unit than the litre and millilitre.

It is also worth noting that this change ensured that the measures for volume used in the British Isles and later the British Empire would diverge significantly from those used in the United States of America.

For further reading see

23 thoughts on “The “traditional” pint”

  1. I’m sure that back in 1824 the pub owners were not too happy with the change as they had to not only give the customers 100 mL more beer, they had to buy all new glassware. The customers were happy because they were getting more, but I’m sure the price increased to compensate.

    Today enemies of the metric system claim the pint is a perfect size for the dispensing of beer and Im assuming it is the 570 mL size that is “perfect” and not the old 470 mL size. So were the customers who ordered pints before 1824 and only getting about 470 mL being cheated and not getting a perfect pint?

    In Australia back in the ’70s, many products once sold in pints were up-sized to 600 mL. If this happened in England, would this size become the new perfect or would customers insist the pub give them 30 mL less in the glass so they can continue to have the old ‘perfect” pint?

    I for one don’t feel sorry for those who now have to get their beer from a 500 mL bottle. If the pubs stay closed indefinitely 500 mL will soon be the new pint and public will get use to it.


  2. The Aussies have done some interesting things with the word ‘pint’. In Perth in Western Australia I remember being asked in a restaurant if I wanted a ‘pint’ of a certain beer. I was quite surprised to be asked that, but answered ‘yes’. When the glass arrived and I took a sip, I could clearly see ‘570 ml’ etched into the bottom of the glass. So their ‘pint’ measure is the same as in the UK, 570 ml. Just having googled beer measures in Australia, I see there is also a ‘schooner’ of 425 ml (which seems to be 15 fl oz) in Western Australia, while Sydney also has a ‘schmiddy’ of 350 ml (12 fl oz). These are just a few examples. I believe other Australian states use other names too. They are all metric, if not totally rounded numbers. The ‘pint’ is arguably just a name for a 570 ml glass. But is that made clear to the buying public? Is the price shown ‘per pint’ or ‘per 570 ml’?


  3. After metric conversion expressions like “give them an inch and they’ll take a mile” could very well continue to live, but they will have only their metaphorical meeting with no connection to actual units.

    That is perfectly harmless. What is harmful is continuing to perpetuate the metric muddle in the UK (by not converting road signs, for example).

    So, let the Aussies have their “pint”. It does not change the fact that they are a metric country. And a 570 mL glass of beer that everyone calls a “pint” would be harmless as well so long as the government ditches the muddle and finishes conversion.

    Cheers! 🙂


  4. @Ezra is it not ironic that even that saying isn’t in its original form, it was once ‘give him an inch and he’ll take an ell’. One source I found stated that the the switch to the ‘mile’ version happened around 1900.


  5. There is of course a downside to my argument that a ‘pint’ is just a name for a 570 ml glass. With the UK, like most other countries, in lockdown because of Covid-19, there were reports in the news recently of so many millions of ‘pints’ of beer having to be thrown away as pubs in Britain are currently shut. I suppose this is a way of describing how many glasses of beer are not going to be sold. But the article went on to talk about the beer being in 11 gallon casks. It appears to be the case in fact that the beer is put into standard 50 litre kegs which just ‘happen’ to be a smidgen less than 11 imperial gallons. Gallons are not used for measuring quantities of beer (or motor fuel) but the name lives on in the beer trade, it would seem, because of its close approximation to 50 litres. Gallons are also prevalent in motoring of course because of miles on road signs, hence mpg. These things are all interconnected. If road signs go metric, then mpg will no longer be needed. The imperial gallon might then, around half a century after the unit was last legal, be relegated to the history books.


  6. @Jake

    Totally agree with your comment.

    Witness the BBC4 report on Boris Johnson’s newspaper interview where he described his brush with death from COVID-19 (he had better back the NHS full bore after that!) where he said he needed “liters and liters of oxygen” to survive. This, followed by the news reporter talking about social distancing of “two meters”. And all the reports I’ve seen using only “Celsius” for temperatures (when talking about fevers) or using “kilograms” for mass (aka weight).

    This just shows that the UK could finish converting to metric with government backing. The lessons from Canada and Ireland after they converted their road signs to metric is to my mind nothing short of astonishing and very telling. That one single act in all of the UK would definitely hasten the relegation of Imperial in daily measurement use to the dustbin of history (where it certainly belongs).

    Then maybe here in the States we could point to our glorious ancestor country for our language, laws, and traditions and say: “If they can ditch Imperial, so can we!” 🙂


  7. @Ezra, Alex

    I was aware of the Ell of a mess we are in. Interestingly ‘the other side’ use the phrase ‘give them a millimetre and they take a kilometre’, used of course in a derogatory vein. I for my part fully accept what I consider a compliment!
    Quite common now is the phrase ‘millimetre perfect’, first heard by me on my late dear wife’s card making TV programmes a number of years ago (7 or so), but now in (maybe not so) common usage, but I hear it now and again.
    The world moves on, phrases change, but changing takes a lot of time and it would help if the powers that be moved in the right direction.


  8. @BrianAC

    I think I know who you mean by ‘the other side’. But, in a derogatory vein or not, I’m surprised they can even bring themselves to write the words ‘millimetre’ and ‘kilometre’. There’s hope yet!


  9. @Lee Kelly
    I remember the late, great Tony Hancock.
    If only the civil servants responsible for controlling Britain’s weights and measures were as talented.


  10. One of the downsides of using pints in pubs is that those who wish to keep track of their alcohol consumption find it more difficult to do so. If you half the number associated with the alcohol content of draught beer or cider, you have the number of units in half a litre (500 ml), if you take a third of that value, you have the number of units of alcohol in a third of a litre (330 ml). For example, if you are drinking 4.8% beer, then a 500 ml glass will contain 2.4 units and a 330 ml glass will contain 1.6 units of alcohol.


  11. @Ezra Steinberg

    The saying “Give them an inch and they will take a mile” was originally “Give them an inch and they will take an ell”. An ell, which was a measure used for cloth, was 45 inches. It was phased out in 1824 when Imperial Units were introduced.

    The saying originally came from the cloth-selling trade – give the customer an extra inch of cloth and he will take a whole ell.


  12. The Change of “Give them an inch and they will take an ell” to “Give them an inch and they will take a mile” shows that even old sayings can be updated and don’t have to be kept as they are as terms in the sayings become obsolete or lose meaning. There is nothing lost with saying “Give them a millimetre and they’ll take a kilometre” or “I wouldn’t touch that with a 10 m pole”. Changing feet to metres shows a desire to stay even further apart.

    In the era of the covid-19 virus and 2 m social distancing the new version of this could give rise to 2 m being the new distance in the saying.

    A lot of these old sayings only seem to surface in metric vs imperial/USC discussions but among the population they are seldom heard and falling out of use especially among the young.


  13. @Ezra,
    In China there is a similar saying of “getting a cun (3.3 cm) and ask for a chi (33 cm),” or “getting Sichuan (a province) and planning for Gansu (a neibouring province).” It seems that currently students in China are only required to learn the ranking of most common old units (which one is larger/smaller), but not their values or ratios.


  14. China along with a number of other countries metricated by setting their old units to rounded metric values. Knowing that people weren’t going to just give up their old units or the unit names made it possible to accommodate both the old and new at the same time. This basically eliminated any open resistance. Does it matter if someone uses a “pound” if the pound is 500 g?

    The Chinese jin today is still used but it has been set to 500 g and the kilogram is called the gongjin. The Chinese li is also exactly 500m. I believe the word gong means legal or official.

    The English could have prevented a muddle and minimised the effect of any resistance simply by removing legal status for all pre-SI units and redefining all of the common units for colloquial use. If the pound was recommended to be equal to 500 g, and the inch to 25 mm, the muddle would be reduced to near zero. Prices appearing in pounds would just be 5 x the 100 g price. There also would be no need for dual measuring tapes or dual/switchable scales.


  15. Daniel:

    Some models simply aren’t transferable between different countries and cultures. I can imagine what the headlines would have been and I can hear the howls of indignation in certain quarters of the population if it had been announced that the ‘pound’ was going to be metricated, that it would be bigger than the imperial pound and that that would put the price of a pound of goods up. There would be no mention of getting more for your money. Then there would have been arguments with customers saying they didn’t want a metric pound, they wanted a ‘proper’ one. There was some resistance to decimalisation of the currency, but the old coins were withdrawn and you simply had to get used to it. Leave the old names in use and people would never get used to thinking in metric, which after all is what a proper metrication programme should be about.


  16. Jake,

    I disagree. Those countries that kept and continue to keep their old units with odd relations to metric units are in either a muddle or failed to take the leap. Those that have metricated their old units had a much smoother transition.

    Keep in mind that in most of the world, the metric system is taught and used incorrectly. In fact it is used as a parallel to former units. It is basically a 1:1 unit exchange. You use millimetres for short lengths, centimetres for intermediate lengths and kilometres for long lengths with counting words along with the prefix kilo. In proper metric, centimetres would be disposed of and large values greater than 1000 km would use megametres, gigametres, terametres, petametres, etc. The same is for dimensions smaller than 1 mm.

    The base and prefixed units are treated as independent units. This is wrong. The prefixes don’t create new units, they just scale the one unit for that particular measurement, whether it be distance, mass, weight, energy, power, etc.

    Redefining the old units to simple ratios of metric units would not be needed if metric units were used as intended, but since they aren’t, the only way to make metrication acceptable to the masses is to make the conversions easy.


  17. Daniel:

    I think we’ve been over this ground before, but to me you are going from the ordinary person who would use metres and kilometres as well as millitres and litres on an everyday basis to the expert who uses metric units on a professional engineering or medical or scientific scale. The latter would indeed know and use those very large and small prefixes correctly. For the former, the ordinary user and consumer would be confused and probably irritated if he or she were to find that imperial units had a new meaning and a different value. In the UK, we are past the point where that would have been a possibility anyway. What needs to be done now is for there to be that final push to get road signs changed and to get the media on board. The trouble is that for all the talk we hear of ‘one UK’, one nation, the country is split along all kinds of competing lines and it is very easy to manipulate people and whip up their emotions on just about any subject. It’s not easy trying to have a rational conversation about a straightforward subject in that kind of atmosphere. That for what it’s worth is my point of view.


  18. Again, I disagree. There should be no separate means of instruction for elites versus common man. Especially since everyone starts out young going to the common man schools. Everyone should learn the metric system the correct, most efficient way and that is to learn the correct pronunciations of the units, their spellings and symbols and all of the prefixes with examples of their usage. You get everyone on the right track and then everyone is prepared and ready for a technical career whether they take that path or not.

    I’ve never heard of any technical courses offing additional studies in SI usage at a later date to introduce students to the high prefixes and correct units symbols. Instead, the muddled bad habits of instructors is passed down. Proper education of SI units will reduce this muddle.

    Road signs like paper/coin currency are soon to be obsolete. Driver-less cars won’t need road signs at all and states will not see the need to erect them nor maintain them. Driver-less cars won’t even need a visible speedometer. The Covid-19 virus may just accelerate the implementation of some of these concepts.


  19. Daniel:

    I think I can meet you at least half way and broadly agree with you, though my point in no way had anything to do with ‘elites’ versus the ‘common man’ ( or woman, presumably). Yes, SI needs to be taught properly. How well or not it is taught is something others might like to comment on. You may or you may not be right about road signs becoming obsolete and hence the issue of units becoming obsolete too, but we are not there yet by a long chalk. We part company on the subject of driverless cars. I don’t think that will happen any time soon. Theoretically, planes can fly without pilots but the human passengers need the re-assuring face of a pilot and first officer in the cockpit. And I think human being feel the same about about driverless cars. But I am a long way from the original subject of this thread, so I will leave it there.


  20. @ Daniel Jackson
    Prior to 1824, the UK had multiple gallons, at least wine, corn (grain), ale and coal. See Wikipedia article. And these various gallons had changing definitions over time.

    It seems likely that beer and ale used the “ale” gallon prior to the introduction of the “Imperial” gallon. The former “ale” pint was around 577.6 mL, so Imperial “downsized” a little, probably delighting pub owners. The wine gallon (living on as the US liquid gallon) was substantially upsized.


  21. John Steele,

    Shame on them for downsizing the precious pint. The BWMA use to hand out Metrickery Awards to companies that downsized a round imperial product to a round metric product. Maybe the imperialists need to be given a special reward for downsizing the pint. At least the metric glass makers up size a little by making 570 mL glassware instead of 568 mL.


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