On my first trip to the UK, I wandered cluelessly into a country pub, on my own, expecting some friendly conversation and an ice cold beer with a frothy head spilling down the sides of a chilled glass.
Of course, I got none of those things. Having misinterpreted decades of British tourist publicity and old movies, I suppose I was expecting "Cheers" with an English accent. The experience put me off going into pubs on my own for years.
Nowadays, I find British pubs altogether less intimidating. Could be they've changed, but probably I have as well.
If you're a pub beginner, this guide will:
- help you find a pub you'll really like
- tip you off on what to order and how to order it
- explain how Brits order and drink their beer
- fast track you through the mysteries of British Pub etiquette
- ensure that you enjoy your experience of the Great British Pub.
What Kind of Pub?
Different kinds of pubs attract different kinds of crowds. First off, know what sort of place you're planning to amble into.
The City Pub - Pubs in city centers tend to attract people who work nearby. At key times during the day - lunch, right after work - they'll probably be very crowded with groups of workmates unwinding from their jobs or meeting up with friends after work. Noisy and bustling, they are places where people gather to drink and have a laugh. Depending upon where they are, they may close when the last of the office workers head home, or stay open for the busy times before and after shows and movies.
Theme pubs are a sort of subspecies of City Pubs, rarely found outside of cities and bigger towns. Goth pubs, Jazz pubs, comedy pubs, rock pubs like The Hydrant in Brighton can all be found in the local listings magazines or town websites. Name your special interest and there is probably a theme pub that caters to your crowd.
The Country Pub - The "heritage pub" that glows in all those tourist authority pictures really does exist. But what a pub looks like on the outside doesn't necessarily match what you'll find on the inside. Visitors looking for the warm glow of firelight, and a cosy seventeeth century interior could be disappointed by the presence of a one-armed bandit (called a fruit machine in the UK)and a microwave menu of packaged burgers and lurid orange fish and chips.
Country pubs come in all varieties but visitors will most likely warm to what I like to call destination pubs, the sort of pubs people will travel for miles to visit (even plan a day out in the country for) because of the food, wonderful beer garden, character or history. Destination pubs come in city and country varieties.
You might like these:
- The Local - Locals are just that - very local. And as such, they aren't the most welcoming of places. As a visitor, don't expect a friendly welcome, unless you've been introduced by another local. And even then, everyone will be sizing you up to see if you deserve their attention. How can you tell if you've stumbled into a local? If conversation stops and everyone looks you over before turning back to their drinks, you're in a local. Time to move on.
- The Freehouse - Nowadays most pubs are tied to breweries through outright ownership or through various financial arrangements with the landlord or publican. This means they can only serve beers and other beverages made or distributed by the parent company. Freehouses are independent pubs that can serve whatever beers and drinks the landlord and the punters (paying customers)like. Though rarer, freehouses can still be found. The Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) is a big supporter of freehouses and you can find them, along with tied pubs that offer a good selection of guest beers (like the Anchor in Walberswick) in the CAMRA Good Beer Guide (Buy Direct).
- Chain - You're likely to find them in big train stations, shopping malls and town centers. Some have themes - like O'Neill's Irish Pubs - and some are just gigantic eating and drinking mills, like Wetherspoons. They offer mass market, standardised fare and like anything mass produced, there are good ones and bad ones. One thing they don't offer is real character.
So how do you choose? The easiest way is simply to walk in and see how you feel about it. If you find a pub uncomfortable or below par for any reason, find another. With more than 50,000 pubs in the UK, you're bound to find one nearby that suits you.
What to Order in a Pub
Pubs sell beer, wine and spirits (whisky, gin, etc), along with soft drinks (usually at least Coke and Diet Coke), bottled fruit juices, cider and perry (more on these last two in a minute). Fizzy water from a pump is usually free.
A variety of beers and ales, including bitter, and pale ales are available on tap. There may be a few lagers on tap as well, but lots of pubs have a greater variety of lagers in bottles. If you want a cold beer, you'll have to order lager. Brits don't think you can appreciate the flavor of a beer if it is icy cold so they drink beer at cellar temperature. It's not warm, but it's not very chilled either.
Ask the bar staff about local beers. Some regional breweries, such as Adnams in Suffolk, Fullers in London and and Shepherd Neame in Kent, bottle special seasonal brews. Check out a run down of British beer styles to help you choose.
- Porter and Stout Except for the popular Irish stout, Guinness, which is widely available on tap, porters and stouts are high alcohol, specialty beers often available in bottles. Just be aware, if you decide to experiment with these, that some have an alcohol content of 7 to 9 %. Draught Guinness has an alcohol content of about 4.2%, Murphy's and Beamish are Irish stouts that may also be available in some pubs.