How to Order a Beer in a Pub

Unlocking the Mysteries of the British Boozer

The bar at London's Cockpit pub
••• Brent Winebrenner/Getty Images

Ever wondered how to order a beer in a pub? You're not alone. Visiting a new pub for the first time can be confusing - even if you're British.

On the next few pages, I'll help you figure out how to have relaxing fun and a tasty meal in a British pub. Here you'll find what to expect, how to find a pub you'll like, what you can order, how to order and how to make the most of this British institution - even if you don't like beer and never touch a drop of alcohol.

 

Forget the Stereotypes

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 brochures and old movies, I think 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.

If you know what sort of place you're about to wander into you've got a head start on what to expect:

  • The City Pub - Pubs in city centers 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 subspecies of City Pubs, rarely found outside of cities and bigger towns. Goth pubs, jazz pubs, comedy pubs, rock pubs like The Cavern Pub in Liverpool (across the street from the Cavern Club made famous by the Beatles), 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.
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  • The Local - Locals are just that - very local. Often 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.
  • 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, standardized 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.
    • 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.

    What Else Can You Drink in a Pub?

    British pubs are as much about socializing as they are about drinking. In many rural communities the local pub is the focal point of village social and civic life, a place where everyone drops in, including families with children. To cater for all tastes, and ages, a wide variety of both alcoholic and non alcoholic beverages are available. You'll probably find:

    • Cider - Cider (at least one brand) is usually on tap. British cider is more like a beer made with apples than the sweet ciders you may be used to. It is also stronger than beer with an alcohol content of between 4.2 and 5.3%. Strongbow, Bulmers and Magners are popular brands that are widely available on tap.
    • Perry is similar to cider but is made from pears. A few commercial brands used to be available as "ladies" drinks before wine was available in pubs. They are no longer popular and perry is not widely available. You may come across it in country pubs, particularly in fruit growing areas.
    • Wines - Pub wines used to be dreadful, served in stingy, 125 ml glasses and hardly fit to cook with. That's all changed. Most pubs now carry one or two reasonable quality red and white wines in small (175ml) and large (250ml) glasses. Some pubs even cross into wine bar territory, offering a good selection of high quality wines by the glass.
    • Spirits - Pubs serve brand name whiskies, vodka, gin, rum and brandy along with specialty alcohols like Avocaat, Ginger and English fruit wines. Mixers readily available include fizzy water, tonic, orange and tomato juice. If you ask for a mixed drink - a gin and tonic for example, you'll get a measure of gin in a glass, a small bottle of tonic water and a slice of lemon or lime. You then mix in as much tonic as you like and add ice cubes from the bucket on the counter. Pubs aren't bars and publicans and barmaids aren't mixologists so don't ask for fancy cocktails. You'll be disappointed and you might even be the butt of some sarky jibes.
    • Soft drinks,coffee and tea Pubs serve bottled juices,cola and a small selection of sodas. Some especially British soft drinks are lemonade - a carbonated beverage in the UK, and St. Clements - a carbonated mixture of orange and lemon flavors. It gets its name from an old nursery rhyme about London's church bells - "Oranges and lemons say the bells of St. Clement's." Most, but not all, pubs can rustle you up a cup of coffee or tea.

      How to Order in a Pub

      One of the most mysterious aspects of pub behavior for many first timers is how to actually order and get served. Pubs don't have table service, as a rule, and at busy times, with people crowded around the serving bar four or five deep,getting the attention of the landlord or the bar staff can seem virtually impossible. Don't worry, though, because by some mysterious trick of pub server's magic, they do see you and they seem, in their chaotic way, to serve people, roughly, in order. Here's how to ensure you get service with a smile.

      • Be patient - By all means have your five or ten pound note ready and visible, but don't wave it about to get the server's attention. That is one sure way to be ignored in a busy pub. So is shouting for the server. Make eye contact, when you can, and smile. Pub servers work their way up and down the bar and, remarkably, no one ever goes away thirsty.
      • Know what you want and ask for it - Dithering at the bar of a busy pub annoys everyone. Before you get up to the bar, have a rough idea of what you want and how much. Beer and cider are served in pints and halfs (half pints), so ask for the beer or drink you want in the quantity you want, along with any snacks, all at once. "Two pints of lager, a half of bitter and three packets of crisps (potato chips) please."
      • Know what to expect
        • British people don't like a big foamy head on a glass of beer (it makes them feel that they're being cheated out of a full pint or half), so don't be surprised to be served a glass that is full to the brim without any head. The exception is Guinness which is valued for its creamy head.
        • Draft beer is served slightly cooler than room temperature. Cold beer comes from bottles.
        • Ice for soft drinks is usually available but rarely offered. If you order a Coke or an orange juice, ask for ice if you want it. You may get one or two cubes, or you may be directed to a bucket where you can help yourself.

      Pub Manners

      Keep track of just a few rules of pub etiquette and you'll be pub crawling like a native.

      • Be nice to the barman or barmaid - that way they'll remember you and you may get served with more alacrity later. Thank them with a breezy, "Cheers" and tell them to keep the change. If you have a large order for several people, you might leave a little bit more money - perhaps the price of a beer - and say, "have one on me." By the way, this is a throwaway line, don't make a big deal out of it. And if you are served by the pub landlord or landlady, being nice is enough of a tip - you don't need to leave any money. Find out more about tipping in general and tipping in pubs.
      • Don't hog space at the bar. Particularly when pubs are busy, space at the bar is at a premium. Once you've got your drinks in hand, move off and find another spot. On the other hand, if a pub is really empty, the bar staff might not mind a bit of conversation.
      • Take your turn buying rounds. In Britain it's customary when groups of people meet up in a pub for each person to take a turn buying a round of drinks for everyone in the group. People who never seem to buy a round get noticed and commented upon. If you can't afford to take a turn buying drinks for everyone in this way, then at least offer to pay for your own drink when someone else buys a round.

      Food

      Bar Snacks Even pubs that don't serve meals have a few salty bar snacks available - crisps (potato chips) in a range of flavors, packets of peanuts, and pork scratchings - and sometimes big glass jars of pickled eggs and pickled onions.

      Bar Food or Bar Menu Some pubs that serve lunch and dinner may also have a bar menu of sandwiches through the day. Bar food is only prepared once and is only available as long as it lasts.

      Pub Meals Better pubs serve lunches and dinners during set hours. These range from basic, acceptable food to the highest reaches of gastronomy. Several gastropubs, so called,have even achieved multiple Michelin stars.

      Pub meals can be cheaper than traditional restaurant meals but whether they are better value depends on your taste. You may love a Sunday Roast - meat, potatoes, Yorkshire pudding and three veg - for under £10. Or you may find it overcooked and tasteless - depends on the pub and depends on you. Nevertheless, there are some pub dishes you can usually count on including:

      • Sausages and Mash using locally made, butcher's sausages
      • Steak and ale or steak and kidney pies
      • Ploughman's lunches - salad with a hunk of local cheese and bread. Ham or chicken may be included.

      Beware of:

      Super-sized menus If the pub menu seems to offer a huge selection of all different kinds of food, including lots of different ethnic choices, it's probably all coming out of the freezer and straight into a microwave.

      Steer clear and order a ploughman's instead - it's pretty hard to freeze and microwave lettuce and tomatoes.

      Burgers Unless you can be sure that burgers are freshly made from ground beef, chances are pub burgers may be made from preformed and often frozen patties - dense and dreadful.

      Pickles British pickles are not the pickled cucumbers and vegetables you may be familiar with.

      Instead they are intensely sour and dark chutney-like condiments which are acquired tastes. Branston pickle is a common brand.

      Service in a Pub

      Not many pubs have table service. Even at very smart gastropubs, you may have to order your food at the bar and pay for it before it's brought to your table. When in doubt ask.

      Before you go up to the bar to order, check your table to see if it has a number or letter. That's how the server will find you to deliver your food, so make a mental note of it.

      These pubs serve food of a high standard:

      • The Sportsman, near Whitstable, with a Michelin star and prices to match.
      • The Hand and Flowers, Tom Kerridge's 2 Michelin star pub in Marlow
      • The Pipe and Glass Inn, an East Yorkshire pub with a Michelin Star

      Pub Hours and Closing Time

      Pubs used to be open at strictly fixed hours. Closing after lunch until reopening again in the evening and then closing for the night at 11 pm. Licensing laws have changed and pubs can now negotiate with their local licensing authorities for a variety of opening arrangements. There are, for example, pubs that serve breakfast for night workers and pubs that stay open all day and into the evening. Many smaller country pubs still keep to traditional opening hours, closing after lunch and until mid day on Sunday.

      Even if a pub is open, it may not be serving food outside of fixed hours. The best way to find out is to simply ask if they are still serving food.

      Whatever hours a pub keeps, it will still have a closing time, signalled by a ringing of a bell, or the shout of the landlord, "Last orders!" or the more old fashioned, "Drink up gentleman, it's time." That's your signal that you can order one more drink before being turfed out.

      About Children and Pets

      If you are traveling with children or with the family dog you will probably be able to bring them into the pub. While there are age limits to drinking, no hard and fast rules apply to whether children can be present where alcohol is served. It is left to the local licencing authority to decide what conditions regarding children to apply to the licence.

      Generally children, accompanied by adults, are allowed in pubs that serve food. Some pubs restrict children to rooms out of sight of the bar itself, or only allow them in the beer gardens. As I mentioned earlier, pubs are not bars but are social centers of their local communities. If the local authorities allow children, you can feel secure that the environment will be suitable. Some pubs even have playgrounds and game rooms for children.

      Whether dogs are allowed is down to the pub landlord. Most allow well behaved pets. But if the pub has a resident dog or cat, your own pet may not be welcome.

      How to Find the Best Pubs

      Word of mouth from people you trust and friends you've made in your travels is always a good way to find nice pubs. This is one case, though, where asking a local may not be such a good idea, as he or she may not want to share a favorite place with you. For a comprehensive listing of British pubs, try The Good Pub Guide or the CAMRA Good Beer Guide, both well established and popular guidebooks used by Brits and visitors alike: