On the walk up Putney High Street, my toes turned to little frozen nubs. It was the first of many pub nights I’d share with two friends I made through our semester exchange program in London—Kayla from Oregon, a left-wing blonde with a lip ring, and Sissel, my hall-mate from Stockholm with old Hollywood curls. We were 20 years old. Unable to drink in the United States, we were eager to have our first legal sips of alcohol. The pub, we were told, had great drink specials and cheap plates of bangers and mash and fish and chips, among other dishes. In London, everything is expensive. But you can get a pint for 3 pounds, sometimes less.
The door swung open, and I knocked the snow from my boots. It was a Wednesday, and the place was alive. Two men stood by the entrance, eyes fixed on a screen above the bar. They had long tattered hair and teeth that hung over their bottom lip. “Another,” one called out to the bartender. I figured they were regulars, as the guy behind the bar quickly pulled each another pint.
The bar was packed with locals, and I was nervous to order, but soon found myself wedged between gents at the bar, examining what was on offer. Some of the taps looked familiar—Fuller’s, UBU, along with staples like Heineken, Stella and the ubiquitous Guinness.
I’d spent the previous summer interning at this very magazine and had picked up a few bits of knowledge along the way, so as I stood there mulling over the choices, the bartender made his way over to me and asked to see some ID.
I handed over the little plastic card. As his finger traced over the photo, the birthday, he looked up at me, then back down at the picture. I spoke up and asked what local beers were on tap.
“A Yank? Here, let me get you something,” said the short man. “You can call home to Mummy and tell her you had a real ale.” He had a tone that suggested he wasn’t taking my business seriously.
“No need,” I snapped quickly, “I’ll have a London Pride. You know, it’s funny. Maybe I’ll call my boss at the beer magazine I work at and tell him I had a real ale instead.”
He stopped, wide-eyed, and smiled. My clenched fist on the bar to show him I wasn’t taking his condescension. We conducted the transaction; I took the pints and walked back to the table, enraged and ready to move on to the next pub. The only thing that stopped me was the London Pride. It was the best first beer I could have had. It was golden, crisp and tasted a little like caramel. My glass had a web of lace where it had been emptied. As we drank, we talked about women’s rights, and by the end of the night Kayla had me convinced I needed to move to Oregon, both for the beer and for the politics.
By the third round, whether it was true or if the beer had gotten to my head, the bartender softened, realizing that we were serious about good beer. I was feeling kinder as well and ordered a Wychwood Hobgoblin. Our conversation turned to Stockholm, where, according to Sissel, people are so shy they stand five feet apart at the bus stop. As I sipped the Hobgoblin, she talked about her summers on an island off the coast of Sweden. The beer was heavy on the malt compared with the London Pride. It was a little bitter on the finish. It was thick like winter, and the three of us dreamed of summer in Sweden.
On the way out, I thanked the bartender. He was pouring another beer for the men with gnarled teeth by the entrance. He set down the pints and waved.
The sun had been down for hours by then, and the wind cut through our coats. My lips froze together, but my belly was full and warm from the Hobgoblin. As we huddled together at the bus stop, I faded out of the conversation. Suddenly, on the still sidewalk, the night sky clear and the river Thames running cold and smooth under Putney Bridge, I understood the name of my first beer in London, Pride.
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Izzy Hughes is studying English literature and creative writing at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. In the Winter of 2013, she studied at Roehampton Universtity in London, where she explored English pub culture.