Pub Etiquette: This ain’t no American bar

Pubs are a cornerstone of English life. Most English people go to them and many are regulars at their “local.” Because of this, pubs are a great way to meet and learn about the English. Even if you don’t drink, go ahead and order a juice and soak up the atmosphere. I’ve been to pubs in London and Oxford that are four hundred years old! Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese in London and The Turf in Oxford are two of my favorites.

While much has been written about English reserve, this doesn’t seem to apply to pubs. Generally people seated or standing at the bar are open to conversation with strangers, in fact they may be seeking it, while those tucked away in a corner table either alone or in groups aren’t looking to make new friends.

Pubs have their own rules and etiquette. There are no queues, unlike everywhere else in England, but the barmen are adept at remembering who’s first. When you walk in, catch the barman’s eye and he or she will be with you shortly. When ordering, don’t forget to say “please.” Politeness is de rigueur in all aspects of English society, but to barmen especially. If the folks behind the counter aren’t swamped, feel free to ask for advice about what beer you should try. I highly recommend the rich, flavorful real ales.

Tipping is not required but is appreciated, and one nice tradition is tipping your barman with a drink. Once you’ve been served and given the amount, you can ask, “And one for yourself?” at which point he or she will add on a pint or half pint (usually a half) to your bill. If they’re busy they might not get to your drink immediately, but once they do they’ll be sure to thank you again. If they’ve been given too many pints already, or have a stern manager, they might politely refuse. Don’t take it personally, they may work at a pub but they’re still required to be sober!It used to be the law that all pubs had to close at 11 p.m., a rule dating from the First World War when Parliament worried about the hazards of having hungover workers at munitions factories. Just before 11, the barman would ring a bell and shout “last orders!” The law remained in place until 2005, when pubs were allowed to apply for permits to stay open longer. The permit is a pain to get and is not always granted. Sometimes pubs are refused as it would disturb the neighborhood. The closest pub to the Prime Minister’s residence at 10 Downing Street didn’t get a late license for this reason, even though Tony Blair was the one to push the law through. The tabloids had fun with that one! Even if your pub closes at 11, you might experience a “lock in,” in which the pub closes and nobody is allowed in. Those already there can stay in and keep on drinking. I’ve generally seen lock ins only at local pubs where the barman knows most of the customers.

Even though everybody’s drinking, most pubs are friendly and orderly places. There are some rough establishments, however, so you should beware. It’s usually pretty obvious which ones are bad by the shoddy look of the place and the large number of snaggle-toothed guys wearing hooded sweatshirts, the current fashion for lowlifes in England. Avoid these places. Some English people get drunk only to fight, and their sort of pubs serve crap beer anyway.

So get out there and try a few good pubs. you’re sure to have a fun time.

Do you have a favorite pub? Is pub etiquette different in Scotland and Ireland? (I’ve never been to Ireland, and the closest I got to Scotland was seeing it from Hadrian’s Wall) Drop us a line in the comments section.

Real Ale–the way beer ought to be

A trip to the pub is a quintessentially British experience, and if you’re a beer snob like me, you’ll insist on drinking real ale. The term “real ale” is reserved for beer that’s brewed using traditional ingredients and secondary fermentation.

“Traditional ingredients” means there are no artificial clarificants, preservatives, or other additives. “Secondary fermentation” means the yeast is still alive in the cask, so that fermentation continues, providing a fuller, fresher taste. Don’t worry about getting the microscopic little guys in your glass, because the yeast settles to the bottom and never comes out of the tap. Because they’re still fermenting in the cask, such beers are often called “cask conditioned” or simply “cask” ales.

The British take their beer so seriously that they have a full-time lobbying organization to ensure real ales don’t disappear under the onslaught of tasteless lagers. The Campaign for Real Ale is a national organization that promotes the brewing, selling, and drinking of real ales. They support traditional pubs too, on the basis that they’re an important aspect of British culture and need to be preserved in the days of theme pubs, big chains, and plasma screen televisions.

One of CAMRA’s campaigns is for an honest pour. A pint glass is only a full pint if the contents come to the bottom of the lip. While this makes it a little hard to carry back to the table without sloshing it on the ground, you will be getting what you paid for. Some people take a sip before leaving the bar, but a real Englishman can carry a three or four pints at the same time through a crowded pub without spilling a drop. Legally, up to 5 percent of the glass can be head, so don’t threaten to sue if you see a bit of white at the top.

CAMRA sponsors real ale festivals across the U.K. These can be a great way to sample lots of different styles. Their website has an up-to-date calendar.

While constant vigilance is the price of good drinking, traditional brewing is actually enjoying a heyday. There are more than 600 breweries in the U.K. brewing an estimated 2,500 ales. Many of these are small, local operations that only distribute their product to a few nearby pubs as a guest ale. Others have national distribution.

Another important organization is Cask Marque, a body that reviews how pubs serve their cask ales, rating them on variety, serving temperature, and overall quality. Those that get high marks are awarded a Cask Marque sticker on their window, shown here. You can rest assured that within there are quality ales served the proper way.

If you’re headed to England, Scotland, or Wales, the folks over at Real Ale Pubs have done your homework for you and have made an extensive list of pubs serving a variety of real ales. If the article I did on gastropubs whet your appetite, then check out the site Dining Pubs, which lists not only gastropubs, but pubs that serve more traditional yet still excellent fare.