- Travel Home
- Travel News
How to drink beer like a Brit
Banish all thoughts of warm suds and join us for a speedy lesson on the world's best pub culture
So, you’ve arrived in the Sceptered Isles and you’re thirsty for some local culture. No use looking in the Tower, the Globe or the British Museum.
Forget about Piccadilly Circus and the London Eye, too: they’re all full of tourists.
To rub shoulders with the folks who actually live there, head for a pub.
For centuries, the pub (short for “public house,” as opposed to a members’ club) has been the heart of the United Kingdom’s social life. People gather for gossip and banter, chatting and flirting or just to drink, whether solo or in groups.
You’re free to sit or stand, talk or contemplate, people watch (careful with that, though) or just mind your own business. All for the price of a beer.
That, however, is where it gets a bit complicated: it’s hard to order when you don’t know the terminology or how things work.
If you want to drink the drink, you need to talk the talk. Here’s a quick primer in basic beer-speak and how to go about slaking your thirst.
Rule 1: You can’t just walk into a pub and say, “Give me a beer.” No matter how politely you ask.
Even the humblest pub will have a minimum of four of five beers on tap -- sometimes a dozen or more -- and they’re each going to be different. More on that later.
Rule 2: The standard serving size is by the (imperial) pint -- permitted by the European Union, this is one of the last pre-decimal measures used in Britain.
However, half-pint glasses are always available, and they offer a convenient way to sample plenty of different styles without getting too rat-arsed (one of the politer English pub slang expressions for “inebriated”).
Rule 3: Don’t ask for warm beer, even as a joke.
Most beer is stored in cellars that remain cool all year round, even in an English midsummer “heat wave” (25 C is considered hot, FYI).
Few styles are chilled, as the flavors are intended to be appreciated, not obscured.
Rule 4: Draft beer is dispensed in two different ways.
Hand pumps are used to draw the beer up manually from casks. This beer is often called “real ale,” as it is made in the traditional way, without pasteurization.
The beer poured from standard taps comes from kegs and comes out with greater “carbonation” (in fact, nitrogen is used). Most pubs also stock some bottled beers as well.
Rule 5: Don’t be afraid to consult the bar staff (don’t call them bartenders). Unless they are extremely busy, they will be happy to explain and give suggestions; often a sample as well.
However, it helps if you know the basic terminology, and the differences between lagers and ales, bitters and stouts. Here’s a simple rundown.
Britain’s traditional tipple is a golden-amber ale that is typically smooth and non-carbonated.
Most British brewers produce two or three styles, varying in strength (usually between 3.5 and 5.5 percent alcohol) and flavor.
As the name suggests, bitter tastes, well, bitter -- it comes from the hops added during fermentation.
Most pubs offer a choice of different styles of bitter, often including “guest beers” from different parts of the country that change regularly.
While Bass is perhaps the best-known ale -- it was the first registered company name and logo in British history -- it is not the most prevalent name.
In the capital, one of the best brews is London Pride, from Fullers, both on tap and in bottles.
Darker brown and with a rounded, maltier flavor, this style is found more commonly in the Midlands and northern England than in London.
As the name suggests, it is milder in taste than bitter (fewer hops are used) but not necessarily lower in alcohol.
When bottled, it is usually called Brown Ale: look out for the ubiquitous Newcastle Brown Ale.
The thick, black brew produced by Guinness is sold worldwide and in nearly every U.K. pub.
In recent years, it has had more competition, especially from smaller companies making more complex (and often milder) versions.
One of the best is Samuel Smith’s Oatmeal Stout, brewed in Yorkshire but widely sold in bottles.
Using dark-roasted hops gives these ales a dramatic dark-brown or black hue, but they are not as rich and filling as stouts.
Although more common in bottles than on draft, they are starting to make a comeback, especially from smaller independent breweries.
Definitely worth trying if you spot them.
The light, fizzy, thirst-quenching lagers consumed by most of the rest of the world are now widely available in U.K. pubs, even though they’re not traditional.
The U.S. boom for small, local microbreweries has now taken root across the Atlantic.
Often sharply bitter and as much as 10 percent alcohol, these extreme styles of beer can be found in some pubs that are starting to stock or even specialize in them.
The Scottish Brewdog label (Punk IPA and others) is one to look out for.
And if you’re peckish
For the peckish (Brit-speak for “hungry”) drinker, things have been looking up for some years now.
A growing number of pubs serve food, ranging from simple ploughman’s (cheese and pickle) sandwiches at lunch to gourmet multi-course menus, served in dedicated dining rooms.
Usually the options are far more limited, though.
There will be basic snacks such as salted peanuts, or crisps -- that’s British for “potato chips” in such flavors as salt and vinegar or cheese and onion. Remember, if you order “chips” you’ll get a plate of French fries.
More exotic snacks include pork scratchings -- fried pig skin and fat -- and Twiglets, sticks seasoned with salty, savory yeast extract.
For many people these odd snacks are an acquired taste, but one -- like the beer and the whole pub culture -- that is quintessentially British.
More on CNN: London’s superb street food culture