How to keep up with British drinking habits


The UK is noted for its pubs (an abbreviation of public houses), which are a British tradition going back to Roman and Saxon times (drunkenness isn’t a new phenomenon – the British have been sots for millennia), when inns were established to meet the needs of travellers. A pub is one of the most welcoming places in the UK (particularly on a freezing winter’s night when many have inviting open log fires) and represents the heart of local communities.

According to research by Datamonitor, every Briton over 15 drank an average of 240 pints of beer in 2006, although of course in reality some drank noticeably more than others. This compares with the 336 pints drunk by each Czech, whose country topped the international beer consumption league, and the Australian average of a mere 182 pints per head. Statistically, the average British male spent £1,144 on beer in the same year. Despite heavy marketing, the British have proved resistant to the scourge of mineral water, drinking far less than the European average. (It’s interesting to note that despite the UK’s reputation as a nation of drunks, the country has more teetotallers – people who don’t drink alcohol – than any other European country).

According to licensing statistics, there were over 82,000 pubs in the UK in 2006, and every town and many villages have at least one, although the tendency for rural pubs to close down is continuing. A pub is the local meeting place for business and pleasure and, if you arrange to meet a stranger anywhere in the UK, it’s invariably at a pub (even in an unfamiliar town you can always find a pub). However, in recent years they’ve been under increasing pressure, with margins on beer cut to the bone and falling sales (beer consumption is declining), and few pubs could survive without serving food. The new laws banning smoking in pubs came into force on July 1st 2007 throughout England and Wales (following earlier bans in the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and Scotland).

There are excellent pubs in most cities, towns and country areas, many occupying beautifully restored historic buildings. Frequently, many have fascinating names which date back centuries, although the modern ‘theme’ pubs currently popular may change their themes and therefore their names every few months.

Most traditional pubs have two bars: a ‘posh’ bar called a ‘lounge’, ‘saloon’ or ‘private’ bar, and a public bar for the riff-raff and those in dirty working clothes (who aren’t usually allowed into lounge bars). The public bar is usually where the darts board, slot machines and other games are to be found. Many modern pubs have only a single large lounge bar. Some pubs have a jukebox and pubs with a young clientele often play continuous loud pop music (which can be a nightmare) or feature discotheques and live rock bands on a number of nights each week (places to avoid if you want a quiet drink). Karaoke is popular in many pubs, where frustrated would-be pop stars get up on stage and perform their favourite songs (taped backing music and words are provided).

Most pubs provide reasonably priced hot and cold food at lunchtimes (usually self-service from the bar) and some have excellent à la carte restaurants in the evenings. An increasing number serve decent wines and imaginative meals with change from £15 (but, alas, still far too few). However, the quality of food is extremely variable, so ask around. Country pubs usually offer the best value for money. Pub restaurants operate in the same way as any others and credit cards are usually accepted. Lunch is usually served between noon to 2pm and dinner from 7pm to 9.30pm.

Many pubs also provide accommodation. Traditionally these were called inns, although nowadays they’re usually referred to as hotels or pub hotels. Many pubs also have an off-licence, which is a small room from which they sell alcohol for consumption off the premises (off-licences are shops that sell alcohol and which are governed by special licensing hours).

Drinks for sale

British pubs serve a multitude of beers and alcoholic beverages, from continental lagers to traditional British ales, with a total of over 1,000 brands. In the last few decades, there has been a revival in traditional or ‘real ales’, brewed from fresh barley, hops and oats. The British produce the widest range of beers in the world, including many draught beers (on tap) drawn from casks or kegs, such as the ever popular bitter, stout (e.g. Guinness), mild and a wide variety of continental lagers (many brewed in the UK under licence). In addition to draught beers, numerous bottled and canned beers are also available, including brown ale (Newcastle is the most famous brand name), pale ale, light ale and many more.

Although the UK pays lip service to the metric system, beer is still sold in pints (568ml) and not litres (a small beer is half a pint). Wine is sold by the glass (there’s no law regarding the quantity) and spirits by one-sixth of a gill (24ml) in England and Wales (in Scotland and Northern Ireland they’re larger). One big difference between the UK and other countries is that in the UK you always order drinks and bar food at the bar and pay in cash when you order. You cannot ‘run a tab’ and pay when you leave (or when you fall off your chair), as is common on the continent. Receipts aren’t usually given unless you ask for one (which would be considered very unusual in any other establishment).

Some British pubs are owned by brewery conglomerates and therefore sell beer produced only by their owners. Most, however, are now owned by operating chains, and even those still brewery-owned must, by law, offer ‘guest beers’. If you want a pub with a wide selection of the best beers, choose a free house, which is a pub with no brewery ties and therefore free to sell whatever beer it chooses (which usually means the pick of the most popular brands). Most pubs sell an average of around 20 different draught and bottled beers. A large variety of spirits, cocktails and a (usually limited) selection of wines is also available. Pubs also sell non-alcoholic soft drinks and usually tea and coffee.

On public holidays, such as Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Year’s Eve, pubs are often granted an extended licence until midnight or 1am. (Although Christmas Day closing is becoming more prevalent). The new 24 hour licensing law allows Britain’s pubs, clubs, bars, supermarkets and service stations to apply for the new longer opening licenses. Critics of the new law fear the extension of the licensing hours will create a breed of drunken yobs bringing havoc to quiet residential areas. In contrast, some areas of Wales and on some Scottish islands, pubs are closed on Sundays. Bars in restaurants, hotels and other buildings, are generally governed by the same licensing laws as pubs, except when a special licence has been granted. Pub landlords have the right to refuse to admit or serve a customer and cannot by law serve anyone who’s drunk.

Many traditional games are played in pubs, including darts, bar billiards, pool, skittles (nine pins), dominoes, and cards. Pinball and similar machines may also feature. You aren’t permitted to play games for money, as gambling is illegal in pubs.

The legal age

The legal age for buying and consuming alcohol in a pub is 18, although children over 14 are admitted at the discretion of the landlord and can consume non-alcoholic drinks. Children under 14 are admitted to beer gardens, family rooms, pub restaurants and an increasing number of pub lounges. Pubs can apply for a ‘children’s certificate’ until 9pm or 9.30pm to allow children to join their parents in the bar for a meal.

The law with regard to driving and drinking is strict and the police are particularly active over Christmas and the New Year. If you have more than a couple of drinks, you would be well advised to hitch a ride with a sober friend or use public transport. Most pubs sell a variety of low-alcohol beers and wines and a wide choice of non-alcoholic drinks, including coffee.

Wine bars can be found in most cities and towns and have become increasingly popular in recent years. Most wine bars serve food, and the atmosphere usually resembles that of a smart restaurant, rather than a pub.

Books of interest to pub buffs – including those who like to eat before getting drunk and rolling into bed – are Great Food Pubs (Ebury), Time Out’s Eating and Drinking in Great Britain and Ireland, The Which? Guide to Country Pubs, Roger Protz’s Britain’s Best 500 Pubs, The AA Pub Guide, and Pubs for Families (CAMRA). No serious beer drinker should ever be without the CAMRA Good Beer Guide and The Good Pub Guide (Ebury Press), edited by Alisdair Aird, which contains details of over 5,000 pubs (a L-O-N-G pub crawl), including the type of food served, its quality and price, atmosphere, service, facilities for children and much more. For dog lovers there’s Dog Friendly Pubs, Hotels and B&B’s (Ebury).

This article is an extract from Living and working in Britain. Click here to get a copy now.

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