Thursday, May 15, 2008

Mine's a Guinness: Your British Drinking Guide

Let's face it. People drink all over the world, and you'd be hard pressed on your travels to find a place that doesn't drink alcohol in some shape or form. But nowhere else in the world will you find drinking as well known as the British institution of the pub.

But what are pubs like and what do you drink there? For the unselfish sake of investigative reporting, my liver and I decide to sacrifice ourselves to bring you this drinking guide. It's a tough job, but someone has to do it.

Down Your Local

Beer, well, ale, has been around in Britain since Roman times, where it was brewed mostly from home. By the Middle Ages, however, pubs were beginning to take root in the form of taverns and inns which brewed their own. Pubs in their familiar shape and form really started to come into their own in the 18th century, when people stopped at coaching inns on their travels and needed refreshment after their day long journeys.

Today's pub, short for "public house," tends to be a social focal point for communities. In fact, for every five pints consumed in Great Britain, four of them are sold in a pub! Nearly everyone in Britain has a "local," that is, a pub which is close to their home or work which they frequent often and are well known by bar staff and other regulars.

Pubs vary in size, clientele, and decor from the oak-beamed stone buildings with brass and roaring fires to the working man's dark and no-nonsense drinking hole where porn tapes and other no-nos are sold and swapped between clients in a hushed, underhand manner (nods to the my late father-in-law's local), to the trendy pubs which offer loud music and a disco atmosphere.

No matter what kind of pub you stroll into, you will need to order and pick up your drink at the bar. Tipping is generally not expected, but in some pockets of the north, saying "and yours" when you pay allows the bar staff to round up your tab by 10p, which is gracefully appreciated. Unfortunately, there are no clear rules to this. Saying "and yours" in some areas will get you confused stares!

Pubs in Great Britain are generally open from 11am to 11pm, although some will close during the afternoon in quieter areas. Popular movements to allow pubs to set their own hours are underway in Britain, so this may change soon. Last orders will be called by the bar staff around twenty minutes before closing time, usually announced by a shout of "Last orders, please!" or a ringing of a bell. Customers are expected to finish their drinks by around 10 minutes past 11pm, as bar staff will circulate to collect glasses. You may also hear an exasperated "Time gentleman, please!" or "Glasses please everyone!" shortly thereafter.

Although the legal drinking age in Britain is eighteen, tourists often ask whether children are allowed in pubs, to which the answer is yes, and no. Pubs vary on their policies on children, but in general, if there is a family area with food being served, or a beer garden, children are usually welcome when accompanied by their parents. Although illegal, if older children are sitting with their parents supervised, pubs will generally allow minors to drink in moderation.

Quenching Your Thirst

Now that you are at the bar, what do you order? Generally, most beer is sold on tap. Many of the pubs are owned and operated through brewing companies, and you will find a selection of their beers on taps with sometimes a "guest" beer on offer. A small selection of imported or designer bottle beer is also usually available.

So the first thing that needs to be decided is how much beer do you want? A pint of beer is a little over a half litre, so you may order a pint, or half a pint. In general, men tend to drink their beers in pints, and women drink half pints, although this isn't a hardfast "rule." There are exceptions everywhere you go, so if you don't want to feel uncomfortable, take your cue from others in the pub.

Okay, so you've figured out how much you want. Now, what kind of beer? Let's cover the basics:

Lager (that's Lah-gur) is the beer closest to American beers, and is a light, golden yellow carbonated brew. It is usually served chilled.

Bitter is the most traditional of British beers. It is a reddish-orange colour, and is allegedly best drunk at room temperature, although it is served slightly chilled.

Stout is a strong, very dark beer, usually dark brown or black in colour. It is served slightly chilled with a creamy head and has a bittersweet flavour. Guinness is a popular stout beer, and if you just can't face a room temperature stout, try the very tasty Guinness Extra Cold! Murphy's is a good introductory stout for newcomers.

When ordering any of these beers, simply ask for "Pint of bitter, please," or "Half a lager, please." In some cases, for example when more than two stouts are on offer, you will order by brand name, "Pint of Guinness, please." It's important that you just don't order a "half," because in many places, this will get you a small whiskey (which may not be a bad thing, come to think of it!).

British Beer 201

Now, sit down with your pint and enjoy passing British Pubs 101 while I discuss your other options.

Porter is a heavy, dark brown, strong flavoured beer. Steady on with these, are porter is usually has a much higher alcohol content than lager and its cousins.

Mild is typically, but not always, a darker and sweeter beer. You will not discover it easily in England, but it is still quite common in Welsh pubs. The most popular beer in the early decades of the 1900s, it was developed as a cheaper and less alcoholic version of porter.

Ale is a strong, bitter drink that has a colour that varies from almost translucent to a dark yellow. Brown ales are a sweeter, stronger version of ales, typically having less bitterness and more of a nutty flavour. I highly recommend trying a bottle of Newcastle Brown Ale, which is widely available.

Cider is made from pressing the juice from fruit (typically apples), and is referred to as "sweet," which is cider before the fermentation process, or "hard," which is after. Cider can range quite a bit in alcohol content, but is typically very high. In pubs, cider is usually served in bottles...but beware the cider hangover!

Shandy is often jokingly referred to as a minor's drink, as it can be bought at alongside soda at newsagents. A shandy is a half beer, half lemonade (that's not American lemonade, but the lemon-lime carbonated drink) mixture. Sometimes this is made with ginger beer in place of the lemonade.

Lager and Lime is just what it is...lager with a bit of lime juice added.

A Black Velvet is stout (usually Guinness) mixed with champagne.

A snakebite, when consumed with moderation, is not as dangerous as it may sound. Snakebites are a combination of cider (or bitter) and lager, typically served in a pint glass. A Black Snakebite is the same drink with a bit of blackcurrant liqueur added in for an extra kick, as if you really need one!

Other Tipples

If you don't fancy a beer, the usual range of spirits can be purchased in any pub. In Scotland, whisky is the drink of choice, often drunk in pubs with a half-pint of beer on the side (known as a "nip and a half"). You'll find single malted whiskeys, and the more popular blended whiskeys. In clubs and around the larger cities, the "hot drink" seems to be Red Bull (an energy drink) and Vodka.

Wines in pubs are generally abysmal, although the trend is changing to offering better wines. If you want to drink wine in Great Britain, you can try some of the clubs or more upscale pubs (All Bar One is one chain of note), or wine bars, but be prepared to pay through the nose.

Graduate Work

If you are serious about your beers, watch out for pubs with CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ales) stickers, which indicates that the pub in question offers unique and individual beers in addition to traditional offerings. For extra credit, CAMRA puts out an annual "Good Beer Guide," and you may want to pick up the "Good Pub Guide," which rates pubs by their atmosphere, food and beer.

For CAMRA's web site, head to:

To search the online Good Pub Guide, head to:

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