We all know what a pint is, it’s the biggest measurement of beer you can typically find at the pub before you order a pitcher. While this may be true, in many cases, it’s becoming increasingly confusing depending on your understanding of the concept of a pint. I do mean concept, since “pint,” when referencing beer specifically, means anywhere from 425 ml in South Australia to 1.137 litres in Canada (if you specifically ask for a pint of beer in french “pinte de bière”). Just to help lessen the confusion as we take this winding path of measurements and volumes, we’ll be exploring pints in the UK, US, and Canada. Also, all liquid volumes will either be in metric units or have the metric equivalent in brackets beside it.
How the Pint Came to Be
In this day and age, we all have access to the tools and knowledge to measure something precisely, within reason. Couple this with the fact that all but three countries in the world have adopted the metric system, and it seems silly, almost downright impossible, that most can’t agree on measurement a pint is.
The pint started, very simply, as 1/8 of a gallon in 1215 when the Magna Carta provided the right for each citizen of the empire to have your alcohol served in a standard measurement. However, for the simplicity of that statement, figuring out a pint was horrendously complex. There were so many gallons in use throughout various regions it was a tedious task at best.
In 1707, the wine gallon, 231 cubic inches (3.79 liters), was introduced to keep some consistency in measuring it. All other liquids were still measured using the confusing array of gallons still floating out there. At this point, America decided to base their liquid gallon on the wine gallon, which is still in effect to this day, and equals 8 US pints. A little over a century later in 1824, the British decided to lay down the law on the gallon and set it to 277.42 cubic inches (4.56 liters). This gallon replaced all other forms of the gallon, that is, except, in North America. America decided to maintain their system based on the old wine gallon and, for the time being, so did English Canada. During this time, French Canada was measuring who knows what and maintained their traditional French “pinte” at about 952.1 ml.
Once Canada became a country in 1867, after confederation, it began to transition to the current English Imperial system, which was completed by 1873. While all of Canada converted to the Imperial system, French Canada was legally given the right to maintain their “pinte” as 1 quart (1.137 litres) or 2 imperial pints. The traditional French unit of measurement “chopine” was used in place of “pinte.”
If that was all too much to take in at once, take a look and click on the timeline below to summarize the changes in pint sizes.
So, where does all of this leave us with the pint exactly? Well, in legal terms (as defined by the weights and measures act in each country):
England & Canada (Except Quebec)
1 pint = 20 imperial ounces = 568.26 ml
1 pinte = 2 imperial pints = 1.137 litres
1 pint = 16 US fluid ounces = 473.18 ml
Metric Pint (used in mainland Europe mostly)
1 pint = 500 ml
Societally, it’s a bit of a different story. England maintains, to this day, the imperial pint in all liquid measurements, whether it’s beer, milk, water, etc. When you head to the pub and ask for a pint, you receive 20 imperial ounces of that wonderful liquid. Similarly, the US maintains their version of the liquid pint based on the 1707 English wine gallon, though they represent their beer in millilitres when sold in stores. This use of the metric system is likely due to the heavy trade relationship the USA and Canada have.
Canada, as it usually does, has managed to get caught in the middle somewhere. Although the “weight and measures act” states a pint in Canada is the same as the English imperial pint, most people are unaware of what an imperial pint is. Quite often, even those serving alcohol won’t know the difference between pints or what pint Canada should be serving. This uncertainty has allowed the US pint to creep in and become the predominant measurement of a pint. However, due to the illegal nature of calling anything less than 20 imperial ounces a pint in Canada, most restaurants and pubs now label menus with the measurement in ounces and refrain from using the term pint altogether.
Does it Really Matter?
In the end, does the size of your pint really matter?
That all depends on you and to which pint you’ve become accustomed. Most, if not all, critical beer snobs and purists believe that the only true pint is 568.26 ml, and anything else is some other form of measurement that doesn’t warrant or deserve the name pint. If you’re one of these people living in Canada or the US, I wish you luck; most of North America leans towards the US pint, and your sanctuary is now limited to the UK and parts of Canada. Realistically, I’d bet most of us are less rigid than that. Regardless of our preferred size, we’re happy to have whatever the local pub offers, so long as it stays consistent, and the price reflects the size.
The cynical side of society may argue that serving an American pint is an excuse for bar owners to charge the same for less. However, a more optimistic approach may suggest that due to Canada’s geographical proximity to the US, and the slow decline in any close attachment to the old country (other than perhaps the Queen) Americanisation of the old fashioned Imperial pint is inevitable?
If you have an opinion, leave in the comments below and tell us what kind of pint you prefer: American, Imperial, or do you even care?