Drinking in Pubs
(How to Drink in Pubs)

22 July 2011
Slightly out of order as Chelsea Pensioners are at the bottom

I never thought that I would be writing instructions on how to order a drink in an English pub, but things are done differently between the US and the UK. A friend of mine went to a pub for the first time and sat at a table. She noticed that nobody was coming around to take orders but all the customers were ordering at the bar. She quickly caught on. Hey, when in Londonium…

Beer Measures

As the UK is part of the European Union all trade is transacted in the metric system. Not everybody in England has gotten into the spirit of this I think because the metric system was a French invention. Wines, spirits and almost everything sold in the UK are in the metric units. Beer (and milk) continues to be sold by the pint. In the states a pint is 16 ounces but the UK pint it is 20 ounces.

Following in the footsteps of American craft brewers, UK brewers are making more beers with elevated alcohol content. Many are finding this to be too much when being served in a full pint glass but not enough when served in a half-pint, which also calls into play a lad’s manhood as explained in Women, below.

Unlike American law, English law specifies that beer and ale must be served by the measure, and not by the container. Measures are by the full pint being 20 Imperial ounces or by half that. One third of an Imperial pint is permitted but no other derivative of a pint is permitted. A proposal is being considered to allow servings by two-thirds of a pint. This will allow drinkers to consume the high alcohol brews without having to drink too much in a session. The US does not have laws specifying what size glass draft beer is to be used other than what is advertized. Many placed in the states serve by the glass without indicating the size other than pints or mugs. Typically it is 12, 16 or 20 ounce glasses and you don’t always get full measure. Cut a beer short in the UK and you will get an argument.

As a part of the European Union, England is obligated to trade goods in metric measurements. Certain weights and measure that have long been a part of English tradition have been allowed to continue. Milk and beer are permitting to be served by the pint under the good grace of European bureaucrats, but that’s no commentary on my part.

Drinking Age

Whereas the minimum age permitted to drink in the states is 21, one can legally drink in the UK at the age of 18. Be prepared to show ID if you look young. There are circumstances in which a 16 or 17 year old can drink. Basically they need to sitting at a table and not standing at a bar. They must be with a parent and they must be having a meal. I would not allow this to happen just to on the safe side.

Licensing Act of 2003, which took effect on November 24th 2005. This law only applies to England and Wales.

I have read news reports in which students with American school groups were allowed drink by their instructors. Although perfectly legal in the UK the instructors were disciplined back home for allowing “under 21’s” to drink.


This is the English term for drunk driving. Should you be driving in the UK please be aware that the penalty if caught driving drunk is very severe. UK rules are must worst than those in the States. I would suggest American tourists think twice about drinking and driving in the UK. Being a tourist will not help you and could go against you.

How to Order a Beer & Drinks

Bartenders and staff do not take orders from tables except is very rare occasions. You need to go to the bar and order from a bartender. Say what you want (followed by please) and they will give it to you. You pay for your order with cash or credit. You cannot run a tab as we do in the states. Anything you buy is paid for when delivered. You can buy a round of drinks and pay by cash or credit, but no tabs.

You can drink at the bar or a table. To order another pint you return to the bar and repeat the above. You do not have to take your empty glass with you as somebody will come around to clean the table but they will not take you order. I try and take my empty back to the bar as this makes for a happy bartender. Happy bartenders make for a happy life. Should you take your empty back to the bar place it off to the side and away from the taps. You should place it on a bar towel or a brass drip pan.

Beer is ordered by the pint or half pint if not in a bottle. Patrons will ask for a “pint of…” or “a half of…” when ordering a beer. The Women paragraph below may be of interest as well.

One can pay for a bar order with cash or credit but each order must be paid with each order. Running a tab is just not done. Whenever you order food or drink in a pub you must pay in full each time. Groups usually order by rounds, in which each member in a group buys a round. Also be aware that there may be a minimum order is paying with a credit card.

Fun Fact: The Brits drink by the pint but a long time ago they drank by the pot. A pot is the equivalent of two pints and the ale was stronger than it is now. This made for a festive tailgate party at a public hanging, no doubt.

How to Order Food

There are several ways to order food in a pub. If there is no printed menu look for a menu board. Some pubs have a service counter displaying the grub. You order from the person behind the service and they will give it to you. Just like buying a pint you pay for it on the spot. Some up-scale pubs will bring your food to you at a table but you still order and pay at the bar. They will come to clean up after you but they will not ask if everything is fine or if you want more. Look at your tabletop. If it has a number on it then you will need to tell this to the person so they can bring the food to you. Other times you just point to where you are sitting.

Wines & Spirits

Wine is served by the glass or bottle and spirits are served by the measure. Having a bottle of wine at a table is common and really nothing more needs to be said about this. Spirits are another matter. Unlike the states where the bartender can pour more or less they are strictly controlled in the UK. You will see spirit bottles hanging upside down on the back bar. At the mouth of the bottle is a glass vial known as an optic. It is filled with a measured amount of spirit and it is released when the bartender pushes up on it with a glass. When the glass is removed the optic is filled once more. Straight or mixed all spirits are served in a measured amount of 25 or 35 ml. Actually wine by the glass is also served by the measure.

Good Manners

Please and thank you is always good when dealing with bar staff. Wait your turn and don’t cut in front of others. When paying with cash always remove your change from the bar. One of the first times I ordered a pint I left my money on the bar as I do in the states. My friend quickly and nicely (he still is my buddy) told me that this just isn’t done over here. The bar staff may also mistake it as belonging to somebody else. Leaving packages o a bar can sometimes bring a response by the bartender. I was with a group of Londoners in a nice pub when one of them placed a bag containing new shoes on the bar. He was asked to remove them. Apparently the bartender knew of an old superstition that said having shoes on a bar as bad luck.

I have found that American tourist can have pleasant conversations with the locals in a pub if they mind their manners. Loud talking and a demanding tone should be avoided. Once engaged, a pub-talk can become a highlight of your trip and perhaps lead to a friendship. Try to avoid being designated an ugly American.


In the UK you are not expected to give a bartender a tip. They are paid a wage that should compensate them for their work. I have given a cash tip at times and they never say no and always say thank you. However, the English do have a way of allowing you to be nice to your bartender. You can buy him, or her, a drink. When you order your drink simply say “and one for yourself?” If accepted they will pour a beer and drink it with you or wait until they have finish their shift.

The word tip comes from the Old English word
tip. It means, “Help us as our boss gives us nothing”. It originated in an old London coffee shop when a staff member placed a plate on the service counter with a note scripted with “To Insure Promptness”.


Pubs were a male haven and women were not permitted unless they worked in one. Once it became acceptable for women to enter a pub they still could not stand at the bar. How times have changed but old traditions die-hard. An American friend of mine was at university in London in the ’70’s. Some evenings she and her girl friends would pop into a local for a pint. One evening she ordered a round of pints from a new bartender. After some time she noticed that he was waiting on others. She politely inquired why she wasn’t being served and was told, “Women don’t drink pints”. It was common for women to drink ale by the half pint. Yes, this still occurs t this day. Gentlemen also can get the odd look from a bartender for ordering a half as the smaller glasses are for the ladies. A bartender once called out to a male buddy of mine that he was drinking half-pints. Other male patrons at the pub also gave him the eye for what he was doing.

Time, Gentlemen

When the pub is going to close the owner will flicker the lights and go about placing towels over the beer engine handles. He (or she) will call out, “Time, Gentlemen”. This gives notice that it is now drinking up time. Usually this entire performance is precluded with a last orders call. In any event, you have time to finish your drink and head for the loo and bus stop.

Chelsea Pensioners

These gentlemen are retired military men, over the age of 65, and live in the Royal Hospital, Chelsea. They get out and when travelling away from the hospital they wear their scarlet coats and tricorne hats. You can spot them in pubs around London and are a delight to talk to. Remember that they served their country and continue to wear their uniform with honor. Women have admitted to the RH since 2009. They are approachable and not shy when offered a drink. Wiki has a nice entry on the Chelsea Pensioners.