Getting a Handle on the English Pub
Pubs used to shut tight in the afternoons but the law has been changed in recent years. Pubs can now open from 11:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Sunday hours are 12 noon to 10:30 p.m. But publicans may choose to close to suit the demand of individual houses.
While most pubs in towns and cities will stay open all day, rural pubs often close in the afternoon between, say, 3:00 and 6:00 p.m. Rural pubs tend to open some afternoons in the summer, especially at weekends, but will close in the winter when there is less trade. Pubs may get weekend “extensions” when they are allowed to open later, until midnight or 1:00 a.m.
The government is currently discussing proposals to allow pubs to open 24 hours a day.
Don’t ask the bar staff for “a beer.” They may serve you the most expensive, probably an imported lager. There’s tremendous variety in most pubs.
“Real ale” or cask-conditioned beer is normally served by a hand pump, a tall lever on the bar that operates a beer engine, or suction pump, that draws the beer from the cask. Each pump will have a clip telling customers the beer it serves.
Sometimes (often in rural pubs) beer is served “by gravity,” straight from a cask. In some areas of England, real ale is served by an electric pump operated by a switch on the bar behind an illuminated box. However, the overwhelming majority of pubs that serve real ale use hand pumps.
Keg beers and lagers⎯processed and pressurized beers⎯are served by a variety of founts, triggered by switches. Increasingly, pubs are using the “T-bar” fount, a tall pillar with half-a-dozen small name badges and switches arranged horizontally at the top.
Cask beer comes in a variety of styles, ranging from mild ale (now largely confined to the Midlands, Yorkshire, and Manchester and Liverpool), bitter, best bitter, old ale, barley wine and such seasonal offerings as summer, autumn and winter beers. Many brewers produce a beer they call India pale ale, or IPA, though few have much in common with the original, 19th-century style.
Beers are increasingly being given exotic names to boost sales potential: it’s best to consult the Good Beer Guide to work out which style particular beers fall into. The guide also states the strength of all cask beers.
Beer comes in two sizes of container⎯a half pint glass and a pint glass. Prices vary from one part of the country to the next. In London, expect to pay around £2/$3 for a pint. Manchester is famous for its good value beer: Holt’s brewery serves Mild at £1.10 a pint, Bitter at £1.20.
You have to pay for each beer as you order it, usually at the bar. Table service is rare. You cannot “run a tab.” If, however, you have a meal in a restaurant area of a pub, you will normally pay for food and drink when you leave.
If you go in a group, you may pick up the English habit of “the round” or “the shout,” in which each drinker takes it in turn to buy all the beer for the group. This system is in decline as a result of the high cost of beer. A group of six people may split up into two rounds of three to keep down costs.
English beer tends to be comparatively low in alcohol as a result of the habit of drinking pints in rounds: the average strength is 4 percent alcohol by volume.