Pubs are central to the British way of life, with some estimates suggesting 15 million people visit them each week. Although they can be a great place to hang out with friends, the unwritten rules of the pub often cause problems for non-Brits. This six-step guide should help you.
1. Finding a Pub
Finding a pub shouldn’t be too difficult, because most pub entrances look the same and there is a lot of repetition with names – The Red Lion, The Crown, and The Royal Oak being the three most common names according to the Daily Mail. Although it isn’t hard to find a pub, finding a good one is a different matter. Ask your British friends “Where’s your local?” and they’ll tell you which pub they normally go to. The local is the pub near your house that you visit the most.
2. Getting In
Apart from the busiest nights like New Year’s Eve, pubs rarely have bouncers (security guards) on the door, so anyone can walk in (note: bars and nightclubs are different and almost always have bouncers). Some pubs are child friendly, but you have to be 18 or over to drink alcohol. Having said that, not all pubs are strict when it comes to asking for ID, and it’s not uncommon for people under 18 to drink in pubs, although it is illegal.
3. Sit or Stand?
One of the biggest surprises for many foreigners is that Brits commonly drink while standing up. Seats can be rare in a busy pub, and quite often younger drinkers prefer to stand and drink, so don’t walk out if all the seats are taken.
4. Buying Drinks
Table service doesn’t exist in British pubs, so if you stand around waiting for a waiter or waitress, you’re going to get thirsty. If you want to buy a drink, you need to go to the bar to get served, but unlike Australia, there’s no queue (line). On a busy night, patrons have to jostle to get to the bar then try their best to make eye contact with the bartender. In theory, the bartender should know which customer is next, but this doesn’t always happen, so it can get frustrating on busy nights.
In the UK, there is something called the round system. Among Brits, it’s rude to go to the bar and buy a drink just for yourself, so before going to the bar, it’s common to say, “My round,” then ask people what they want to drink. This means that you will buy the next round (order of drinks). In theory, everyone should buy an equal amount of drinks, but you have to be careful of people who try to avoid buying their round.
5. What to Drink
The most commonly drunk beverage in the British pub is beer. Beers that are on tap are most popular, with famous brands like Carling, Stella Artois, and Foster’s widely available. Beers on tap are usually lagers and served cold. The other kind of beers are on pump – traditional British bitters that are served cool rather than cold. They have stronger flavours than lager but are not nearly as popular. Most pubs will sell at least one locally produced bitter.
Beer is most commonly served in pint glasses (568cc), but bottles (more expensive) and half pints are also available. Half pints are rarely drunk, and if you order one, your British friends will probably make fun of you for being a weak drinker. It is normal to tell the bartender what container you want, so you should ask for:
- “Two pints of Carlsberg, please.”
- “Two bottles of Carlsberg, please.”
- “Two halves of Carlsberg, please.”
Spirits (liquor in North America) are also popular, with all the common international spirits available. Vodka, gin, and whisky are widely drunk, with some pubs in Scotland having so many whiskies that they have their own whisky list. Spirit measures come in either singles (one shot) or doubles (two shots), and bar staff are trained to ask, “Do you want a double?” because most people say yes. Some people drink spirits neat (on their own), others prefer to drink them on the rocks (with ice), but they are most commonly consumed with mixers. Jack Daniels and coke, vodka and orange, and gin and tonic (fizzy water) are three of the most popular pairings. When drinking spirits, they should be ordered in the following order: size-spirit-style. For example:
- “Single whisky neat, please.”
- “Double vodka on the rocks, please.”
- “Single gin and tonic, please.”
It’s up to you whether you want to specify the drink (e.g. gin and tonic) or the exact brand (e.g. Tanqueray and tonic).
Other drinks include shots, which are served in small glasses and meant to be drunk in one go. They are generally consumed by younger people wanting to get drunk, with Jagermeister and Sambuca among the most popular. Wine is also sold in all pubs, but don’t forget to specify whether it’s a “small wine” or a “large wine.” Lastly, cider is apple beer and is available in most pubs. A popular student drink is snakebite and black, which is half lager and half cider, with a dash of blackcurrant squash on top. It gets you drunk quickly.
Tipping is not the norm in British pubs. Some places have tip jars, but most customers don’t put anything in them. If you’re feeling generous, say to the bartender, “And one for yourself,” at the end of your order. This means that you will buy the bartender a drink, and s/he should add the cost of his/her drink to your bill. If you go to the bar often enough to become friendly with the staff, they might tell you your drink is on the house (free), but this is not common.