Pint rights: How to make sure you get the pint you paid for

Summer's upon us, and for me there are few better ways to enjoy the sunshine than by supping an ice-cold pint while kicking back in a pub beer garden.

But I also like to know I'm getting the most beer for my brass, and I'm not afraid to say if I feel my pint's a bit big-headed. But that's not the case for everyone.

Some drinkers sadly put up with under-filled pints as they don't know that they can ask for a top-up. So to help, I've done some digging into your pint rights – and how to make sure your glass is way more than half full.

Update 30 June 2020: This blog was first published back in 2018, but we've checked it over and the principles all still apply.

Coronavirus and pubs

Pubs in England and Northern Ireland will be allowed to reopen from Sat 4 Jul and Fri 3 Jul respectively, over three months after they were required to close to reduce the spread of coronavirus. They will have to meet Government criteria on keeping staff and customers safe in order to do so, such as providing table service instead of bar service.

In Scotland, beer gardens can reopen from Mon 6 Jul and pubs from Wed 15 Jul. The Welsh Government is yet to announce when pubs in Wales can reopen.

What does the law say?

Pint of beer and the scales of justice

Well, when it comes to the humble pint, the law is unfortunately about as clear as a cloudy cider.

Let's start with the basics. The Capacity Serving Measures (Intoxicating Liquor) Regulations 1988 state that pints can be measured by the brim of a pint glass or a line measure – that's the line you get on larger glasses which indicates where a pint comes up to.

So if you buy a pint, you should get a full pint – but sadly these regulations don't say whether that pint should include the head. And that's the real question. The debate over whether a pint measure includes the head has been raging for decades, if not centuries – it was even discussed in the House of Lords at one point.

There's some law on this too – when the Weights and Measures Act became law in 1985, part IV, section 43 declared that "in ascertaining the quantity of any beer or cider... the gas comprised in any foam on the beer or cider shall be disregarded."

That seems to suggest you're entitled to a full pint of liquid plus head – but confusingly, this section was then repealed in 1994, so the legislation no longer stands.

The industry body the British Beer & Pub Association (BBPA) told me this was because while some drinkers don't see the head as an important part of a pint, others see it as essential and also a sign of how good (or not) it is.

Since the 1960s, various legal cases regarding short measures of beer have borne this out, with the decisions reached doing little to clarify whether the head is intrinsic to a pint or not.

So unfortunately while the law's clear that you should get a pint of something, there's no definitive answer on whether that should be just liquid or head too.

What are the industry's rules?

Glass of beer being poured.

Due to the lack of clarity on pints rights provided by the law, the BBPA introduced its own guidelines – as agreed with the Department of Trade and Industry (since replaced by two newer departments) – in 1993. And while only the 20,000 pubs represented by the BBPA are obliged to follow these rules, it says they represent industry best practice and are intended as guidelines for bars and pubs outside its membership.

The Guidance Notes on the Dispense of Draught Beer by Free Flow and Hand Pull (yup, they're a thing) state: "A measure of a beer served with a head must include a minimum of 95% liquid."

Now, if like me you like a good head on your beer, that's fine. But if you don't, then for every, say, 10 pints you buy, you're actually only getting nine and a half.

Or to put it another way, if you pay £3.79 for a pint – the UK average according to the Good Pub Guide – you're losing 19p in beer.


But there's good news, too. The guidelines also state: "Requests from customers for top-ups should be received with good grace and never refused, subject to avoiding spillage of liquid."

That sounds more like it.

Your pint rights in a nutshell

Pint of beer

So here, at a glance, are your pint rights:

  • You're entitled to a pint filled to the brim, or the line if your glass has one.
  • You should get at least 95% liquid.
  • If you don't want up to 5% to be head, you can ask for a top-up.

If you're not satisfied, simply head back to the bar – before taking a sip, smart guy – and ask for your glass to be filled up.

As the BBPA's guidelines say, pubs should be happy to top you up, so don't worry about bar staff thinking you're causing a fuss – you're only asking for what you've paid for, after all.

If you're refused, the BBPA says you can try talking to the management. City of London Trading Standards, which ran a campaign on asking for top-ups, says as a last resort you could even complain to your local trading standards office. But before going that far, remember that social media can be a powerful tool when it comes to consumer rights – though try to be polite and stick to the facts, even if you're frustrated.

One last thing. If you're not sure whether your pint meets the 95% liquid to 5% head ratio, you can use the width of a standard Biro pen as a rough yardstick for what 5% looks like – though of course, it'll depend on the size and shape of your glass.

So there you have it. Enjoy your (full) pint and, of course, as we always say, please be Drinkaware.