British Drinking Etiquette

Closeup view of a row of ornate brass tap handles in a pub.

A row of tap handles in a London pub. Photo © Birgit Lücking, licensed Creative Commons Attribution No-Derivatives.

The one exception (and it’s a big one) to the British obsession with queuing is in the pub (short for “public house”). There is no table service at pubs, so getting a drink is a free-for-all at the bar. Drinking with friends is done in “rounds,” with each person (or couple) taking it in turns to get drinks from the bar for the whole group of friends. It is considered very poor form to leave before you have gotten a round in (or at least offered to get one). Unless it promotes itself as a cocktail bar, don’t expect to get American cocktails in a pub. So if you want a screwdriver, ask for a vodka and orange.If it’s a really big group—of say 10 or more people—the group may be split into smaller groups so that the “buying round” isn’t too big. If it’s your turn to buy a round and someone in the group is finished or nearly finished, you need to get the round in, even though you are not ready. It is considered poor form to keep them waiting for you to catch up. This can be difficult if someone drinks like a fish and you do not. The best solution is to try to go to the pub with those who imbibe at a similar rate to yourself…though this is not always easy.

Men tend to drink pints of beer, while women may stick to “halves” (a half pint)—though students may all drink pints regardless of their sex. It is worth noting that a British pint is 20 ounces, not the standard American 16, so be sure to pace yourself. Spirits such as whiskey, vodka, or gin may be referred to as “short.” Unless it promotes itself as a cocktail bar, don’t expect to get American cocktails in a pub. So if you want a screwdriver, ask for a vodka and orange.

If you want to try British beer, ask for “bitter,” which is served at room temperature and has a stronger, slightly sour taste and dark amber color. Traditional beers and ales are not carbonated and are served using traditional hand-pulls that suck the beer from the cask in the cellar. The pale cold fizzy beer served in the States is called lager. Another traditional British drink is cider, which is made from fermented apples. This has become increasingly popular in recent years—especially amongst the young as it can be strong and sweet to drink.


Excerpted from the First Edition of Moon Living Abroad in London.

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