Let’s call him Dave (that was, after all, his name). Years ago, when my friends and I were on the cusp of legal drinking age, we’d go to the pub every Friday and Saturday night, simply because we could. Standing there self-consciously holding our pints, trying to grow wispy moustaches, we were a bunch of boys who together became men.
Nearly twenty years later, when life events draw us back for a rare reunion in the village where we were raised, the only one of the old gang who is missing is Dave. None of us have been in touch with him for about fifteen years. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that, within our circle, his full, official name is Dave-Who-Never-Bought-His-Round.
In the world’s pubs, round-buying is one of the most important parts of beer drinking. Wherever people drink alcohol in the world, there are complex rules surrounding it, and people stick to them rigidly. Not the government regulations – which drinkers often challenge – but social norms that everyone just kind of knows. The main one is that drinking is a first and foremost a social activity. As beerheads, we may be jealous of the gastronomic associations of wine, or the connoisseurship of spirits, but beer has something far greater. When people come together over beer, they put aside the stresses and hierarchies of the outside world and commune as friends. As equals. Which is why we drink beer in rounds.
In Britain, “Fancy a pint?” is arguably the most important phrase in the language. Whether we’re talking about a quick drink with a colleague after work, or a big night out with a group of friends, it’s a suggestion that we go and drink some beer, but it’s also saying “I’ll buy the first one.” If we only have one tonight, that means we have an excuse to go out again some time, so you can buy me one back.
In Ireland, the rules are a little tighter. The obligation has to be satisfied in the same session it is created. If there are seven guys drinking, then those guys will be drinking seven pints each. If someone buys another one and starts the round again, you’re there until you make it to fourteen pints. It’s not unusual to see someone asleep at a table having a fresh pint pushed in front of them by a friend who will let nothing stand between him and his duty to get his round in.
Drink in an Australian pub on your own, and you’re “drinking with the flies”. It’s not a good look. Even if you’re a stranger in town, the correct behaviour is to start up a conversation with the guys at the bar, and quickly get your “shout” in. If you’re a Yank or a whingeing Pommie bastard you’ll be treated with suspicion at first, but once you’ve “shouted”, you’re alright. You’ve got a new bunch of friends who are going to insist on repaying you your shout before you’re allowed to leave.
Not everyone thinks rounds are a good idea. Round-buying, or ‘treating’, was banned in England in the First World War. One man even received a stiff fine for buying his wife a drink. Today, temperance campaigners argue that round-buying encourages binge drinking, because the whole group has to drink at the pace of the fastest drinker. But as with most temperance arguments, this only applies to the small minority who haven’t quite mastered yet what beer drinking is all about, who think that the fastest drinker is the one in charge. Most of us grow out of that after a few years.
If I buy a round, it creates a social bond between us. It comes with the expectation that you’ll buy the second one, if not today, then next time we’re out. I’m showing generosity, but also putting you under an obligation to show me the same generosity in return. In any country where rounds or shouts are customary, if you repeatedly fail to meet this obligation, it doesn’t just mean you’re tight with money; it means you don’t respect the bonds that hold our society together. There’s something shifty about you. You can’t be trusted. I’ll remember this about you and tell everyone else who knows you. I might even write a magazine column about you. It won’t be pleasant. Just ask Dave.
Pete Brown is a drink writer and marketing consultant who lives in London. He is the author of Man walks Into a Pub: A Sociable History of Beer. His new book, Three Sheets to the Wind : a Global Odyssey in Search of the Meaning of Beer was published in 2006.