They say Britain and America are two nations divided by a common language. But while this statement might be true, one thing that truly unites us, is beer. Or does it? In this post we look at a handful of subtle, but big differences in our drinking culture – feel free to add to this list in the comments below….
Ordering at the Bar vs Table service
The ordering process is one of the biggest differences between British and American – or even Canadian – pub culture. Forget about table service when you’re in a British pub – it doesn’t exist. Instead, drinks are ordered at the bar, round by round.
To American or Canadian visitors, this might sound slightly inefficient, or even inconvenient. Some of it is purely cultural and historical, but a lot of it is also down to venue size. Many British pubs are very small; so small in fact that table service would be more of an inconvenience than anything.
Although, similar attitudes also tend to carry through to larger pubs; so perhaps, in some circumstances, it’s merely down to customer expectations. Either way, it’s just the way things are.
“Your round mate” – that’s your cue to get the drinks in – if you’re in the UK.
Instead of ordering your drinks round by round and splitting the tab at the end, friends will typically lock into a rounds system for the night. It’s partly born out of convenience to avoid unnecessary trips to the bar, but parallel to this – it’s like your way of saying “I’m in this for the long game – I’m out for the night”.
It has it’s pluses and minuses (someone often ends up short-changed) but when all’s said and done – that’s just part of going to the pub and the camaraderie that comes with it. If anything, it sure beats going to the bar every time you want another beer!
Ah yes, it’s a classic; the “tight” (mean with their money) Brit leaves little or no tip; what can I say? Our reputation precedes us. In all seriousness though, the cultural etiquette around tipping in UK pubs is very different – practically non-existent, in fact. As we covered in point one, table service in British pubs is rare, and instead of tipping the barman – or lady – as you would in a typical US bar, a more common gesture is to offer them a drink. This kind of transaction is not mandatory, but it is more common than a tip:
“One for you too love” – you might say (In my head this is said with a northern accent, for some reason).
So called ‘Session beer’
Good pubs in the UK are at the heart of their community. They’re a social hub where you go for great company, conversation, and lots of beer! For this reason, the typical ABV of a British pint in a pub is much lower than those found in US bars. Many beers are below 4%, which means you can drink more of them before your ability to socialize is impaired. This kind of drinking in a pub is often referred to as a “session” – hence the term session ale.
Remarkably, many of the lower ABV UK beers still manage to retain great flavor. In fact, British brewers are revered for crafting great tasting session beer, with less risk of a hangover the next day!
It’s all driven by the culture of going to the pub, with many bottled editions of the same beers brewed slightly stronger for drinking at home; a little treat, if you will.
Beer samples on wooden panels
One of the great things about craft beer bars in North America is the option to order samples of three or more beers – usually served in 1/3 of a pint glasses – for the sheer joy of sampling a wider variety of styles.
Tasting samplers are available in the UK – usually in ale houses with many cask beers – but, to be honest, they haven’t really caught on. It’s hard to pin down exactly why, but my suspicion is this:
In the UK, the idea of “going for a pint” is iconic, it’s a symbol of British pub culture that’s so ingrained many people see the idea of sampling beers in small quantities as “strange” or “snobby,” somehow. It’s often the reserve of Camra members (that’s the Campaign for Real Ale for those outside the UK) and for this reason, sample slabs have a real image problem in Britain.
It’s a shame really because they’re a great way to get started with beer styles, or even just to try lots of new beer. Maybe one day, we’ll get over it – but culture can often take generations to change: It’s how people define themselves. It’s how they see the world. And that, is no small thing – the world stops for no man.