The legal age to buy and consume alcohol is 18, but many teenagers younger than 18 have seemingly little problem in purchasing alcohol in smaller pubs and from off licences. Nevertheless, if you're over 18 but lucky enough to look younger, expect to be asked to prove your age when buying alcohol also, in certain places if you look under 21 or 25, you have to prove you're over 18, known as "Challenge 21(25"), especially in popular city spots. However, supermarkets tend to ask everyone regardless of looks. Some premises will require proof of age for all drinks after a certain time of night due to restrictions on the age of people who can be on the premises. The most trustworthy form of ID is a passport or driving licence which shows both your photograph and date of birth. ID cards are likely to be accepted providing there is a photograph and proof of age cards are available which must be applied for by post and take several weeks to issue. Any other form of ID willl not be accepted. In private residences the minimum age to drink alcohol is 5 years old, although it is likely that if a 5 or 6 year old etc. were getting drunk, the matter would be brought before the courts as child neglect.
Getting drunk is acceptable and often it is the objective of a party, though the police often take a dim view on those causing alcohol-related trouble. This applies to all levels of the British society - it may be worth remembering that the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, had to collect his son Euan from a police station after he had been found drunk celebrating the completion of his GCSE exams taken at the age of 16. Nevertheless, Britons have a great sense of humour and everything is forgotten after a hangover, at least until the next time. Drinking is an important part of the British culture and, even though it is frequently complained about, it is as popular as ever.
Urinating in public is illegal unless pregnant, and classified as indecent exposure, technically a sexual offence and quite difficult to explain when applying for a visa. You should try and use the facilities where you are drinking.
In cities, in additional to traditional pubs, there are more modern wine-bars and café-bars often known simply as bars, though the variable weather means that there is not as much of a 'street scene' as in other European cities. However, depending on the weather, there are more and more pavement cafés in the UK than in the past. Parts of London, Manchester and other up-and-coming cities are good examples of this change of scene.
Prices in bars tend to be higher than in pubs, with less focus on beer, and more on wine, spirits and cocktails. Customers are often younger than those of traditional pubs, though there is much crossover and some bars are more "pubby" than others.
The pub or public house is the most popular place to get a drink in the UK. Even small villages will often have a pub, serving spirits, wines, beers, cider, and 'alcopops', accompanied by crisps, nuts and pork scratchings. Many serve snacks or meals. The greater volume of drinks served are various kinds of beer, mainly lagers, bitters, and porter / stout ie Guinness. People not looking to drink real ale are free to choose a pub just on the basis of location, and character, because most national "smooth" bitters or TV-advertised lagers are available in any non-real-ale pub; however, even non-real-ale drinkers often find that they prefer the types of pubs with a range of real ales, because they tend to be more "traditional", with a more individual character and less oriented to juke boxes, games machines, fruit machines and large crowds.
Across the whole of the United Kingdom there is now a blanket ban on smoking inside pubs and restaurants, though many pubs have areas outside, often known as "beer gardens", where smoking is usually, but not always permissible. However if you are lucky or unlucky enough to be able to stay after the formal closing hours this is called a "lock-in" and smoking may be ok if the pub landlord allows it. This will often occur only in the later hours after 11PM and these lock-ins can last any amount of time. As they are classed as a private party, they happen in only a few pubs, and often only pubs with more regular customers, although this is not always the case. Once at a lock-in, you cannot leave and come back in again.
British real ales, championed by the Campaign for Real Ale CAMRA (http://www.camra.org.uk/), are amongst the best in the world - though people used to colder, blander, fizzier beers may find that the taste needs to be acquired. People looking for real ale will need to select the right pubs, because although a wide range of pubs serve one or two real ales, only a "real ale pub" will have a wide selection.
British ale has a limited shelf life compared to most foreign beers, and as some pubs have only a "token" cask with low turnover, it's often well past its prime and has a strange vinegary taste: often, unfortunately, people's first and understandably only experience with "real ale". If you do receive an 'off' pint, ask for a replacement at the bar, which will usually be forthcoming.
The phrase "free house" was usually the main indicator for people looking for a good choice of beer, because this indicated that the pub was not owned by a particular brewery and served whatever beer its landlord thought would appeal to their customers. However, this is no longer a significant factor, because most national pub chains are now owned by large conglomerates who deal centrally with brewers and serve the same mass-market brands in all their pubs: these conglomerates not being breweries can still call their pubs "free houses".
If you want to be certain of the quality of the real ale in a pub, look out for a "Cask Marque" plaque outside the pub. This is a stringent quality standard, and you can be sure that any pub displaying this plaque will serve good quality ale. Pubs serving a wide variety of real ales will usually be willing to pour small quantities for you to try before you decide to buy, so feel free to ask if you can taste the beer first.
Cider is available in most pubs, and is usually clear and sparkling. In the West Country, especially Somerset, Devon and Cornwall, a still, cloudy cider known as "scrumpy" is often available. Proper scrumpy will come from a wooden barrel, rather than the metal kegs used to serve the more common variation.
Scrumpy is often exceedingly strong, but is deceptively easy to drink. Thus it is easy to inadvertently consume large quantities of scrumpy, which can quickly rob the unwary of the power of speech and interfere with co-ordination, balance and fine motor skills. It should be approached with extreme caution.
Scrumpy can also be bought very cheaply direct from cider farms, so if you are travelling in the West Country, look out for signs advertising cider or scrumpy for sale. The person selling you the scrumpy may be difficult to understand, because of their regional accent and due to the effects of long-term scrumpy consumption. But don't worry - most British people can't understand them either.
British people usually follow a kind of unwritten code of conduct when in pubs, though types of venue can vary dramatically, ranging from a 'local' pub, usually a quiet place consisting of one or two rooms, to a chain pub such as J.D. Wetherspoons which are very large rooms capable of holding hundreds of people.
Don't tap money on the bar surface to attract the barman's attention.
Tipping is not a tradition in most pubs and you should take all of your change. Regular customers who have a relationship with the staff will offer to buy the landlord, or bar worker, a drink. They may say something like this: "A pint of Best, landlord, and one for yourself." The landlord will often keep the money rather than have too much to drink. However, you are not obliged to do this yourself.
Especially in a 'local' pub, keep your voice down and avoid drawing attention to yourself.
It might be best to avoid heated debates about controversial subjects in pubs and bars; if others get involved these can escalate.
If you require extra chairs, you may want to take one from another table. If someone is already seated even if it is only one person seated at a six-person table you must ask if you can take the chair.
Waiting patiently at a bar is imperative. Pushing in line will not be tolerated and could lead to confrontation. If someone cuts in line before you, feel free to complain - you should get support from other locals around you. Bear in mind that pubs are amongst the few places in Britain which don't actually have formal queues -- you just crowd around the bar, and when everyone who was there before you has been served you can order.
In the male toilets, especially in big pubs or clubs, don't try to strike up conversation or make prolonged eye contact. UK pub toilets are very much "get in and get out" places - some drunk people can take a casual remark the wrong way.
Pubs with a good choice of real ales may exhibit almost any pattern of ownership:
By a real-ale brewery in which case the pub will serve all of the beers made by them, and perhaps only one "guest beer".
By a national or local pub chain who believe it is possible to serve a range of real ales at reasonable prices their chain buying power can force down a brewer's margins in a pub that non-real-ale-fans will be willing to patronise.
By an independent landlord committed to real ale usually the ones with the most idiosyncratic beers, and the hard-core "real ale type" customers.
Many pubs are very old and have traditional names, such as the "Red Lion" or "King's Arms"; before widespread literacy, pubs would be identified by most customers solely by their signs. Recently there has been a trend, strongly resisted in some quarters, towards chain-pubs such as the Hogshead, Slug and Lettuce and those owned by the JD Wetherspoon company. Another recent trend is the gastro pub, a smartened-up traditional pub with a selection of high-quality food nearly at restaurant prices.
Beer and cider in pubs is served in pint and half-pint measures, or in bottles. A pint is slightly more than half a litre 568ml to be precise. Simply ordering a beer on tap will be interpreted as a request for a pint, e.g. 'a lager, please'. Alternatively 'half a lager, please' will get you a half-pint. If you ask for a "half-pint of lager" in a noisy pub, you will almost certainly get a pint, because no-one asks for a "half-pint" and the bar person will have thought you said "I'll have a pint of lager, please". Prices vary widely based on the city, the pub and the beer, but generally pints will be in the range £2 to £4.
Spirits and shorts are normally 25 ml although some pubs use a standard 35ml measure, in all cases it will be clearly indicated on the optic, in England, Scotland and Wales. In Northern Ireland, the standard measure is a 35ml measure. A dram in Scotland was traditionally a quarter of a gill measure now 25ml.
Pubs often serve food during the day. Drinks are ordered and paid for at the bar.
When applying for a licence, pubs can specify any opening times they wish; this can be challenged by neighbours, etc. Closing times are typically the 'last order' time - the pub can sell drinks before this and customers have to drink up and leave within 20 minutes of the licensing hours.
Until the recent change in licensing laws, closing times were 11PM and 10:30PM on a Sunday, and this is still quite common. The most common closing times at the weekends in towns are between midnight and 1AM, and some larger pubs may apply for a licence until 2AM and clubs 3AM or 4AM. It is not unheard of that some bars have licences until the early hours 6AM although this is rare as many who are out until this time are likely to go to nightclubs and then home. Theoretically, a pub can ask for a 24-hour licence, though few have done so.
The British drink a lot of tea; usually black tea rather than green tea, often with milk and sometimes with sugar. In cafés and restaurants, tea is usually served with milk and sugar on the side for you to add to your taste; in private houses, particularly in more domestic and less posh settings, you may be asked to specify whether you want milk and/or sugar before the tea is made. In Britain 'black tea' is likely to be understood as by analogy with black coffee as 'tea without milk' rather than 'black tea as opposed to green tea'. In the south and south-west of the country — Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Hampshire — and sometimes beyond, there is a traditional light afternoon meal called a 'cream tea': this is not tea whitened with cream, but tea served with milk and sugar, together with scones, jam and clotted cream.
As noted below it is common to be offered a choice of tea or coffee when visiting someone's home. If you don't want either, appreciatively declining should not cause offence. Although some British companies trade on the country's international reputation for tea-drinking to sell premium tea, many British tea drinkers' relationships with tea are remarkable more for their scale of consumption than for their connoisseurship.
Coffee is also drunk widely. In homes it is usually made simply, and whitened with milk rather than cream. Coffee shops serving more complex ranges of coffee alongside other soft drinks are now common in cities and towns, and very common indeed in more cosmopolitan urban areas. Starbucks is fairly ubiquitous; Costa Coffee and Caffe Nero are two notable British coffee shop chains.
In the UK, 'lemonade' is usually a carbonated, sweetened, lemon-flavoured non-alcoholic drink. 'Ginger beer' can mean either a carbonated, ginger-flavoured soft drink and therefore not really a beer at all, or a brewed alcoholic ginger-flavoured drink.
Clubbing is popular in most large towns and cities, and many have world-renowned venues as well as many alternative venues. Great clubs can be found in London, Glasgow, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield, Leeds, Edinburgh, Newcastle and Brighton to name just a few places. Prices in clubs tend to be considerably higher than those charged in pubs, and opening hours may not be the attraction they once were, as pubs can now open late too. Almost all clubs will only admit persons aged 18 and over. ID may be asked for at the door, but ID checks at bars are less common. Dress codes are sometimes applied by doormen or bouncers before entry, sometimes none-too-consistently. Common dress codes are simply to dress smartly and avoid wearing sports wear, including trainers. However "fashion" trainers, especially dark coloured ones are increasingly accepted when part of smart attire. That said, some upmarket clubs will still insist on shoes and if in doubt, wear shoes to avoid being turned away. It is far easier for women to get in than men, and on many occasions under-age girls will "doll up" to appear older.
Clubs are often cheaper during the week Mon-Thu as many of these nights are designed to cater for students; however, you usually have to pay an entrance fee. For a club in a small town capacity 250-300 this will usually be £1-£2 on week night, £2-£3 on weekends, and seldom more than £5 on special occasions. Conventional clubs in bigger towns and alternative clubs in cities will cost anywhere between £5 and £10. Large clubs, especially those in cities, that cater for a "dance" crowd will almost certainly cost over £10, though seldom more than £15. For towns with a large student population, it is often much cheaper to go clubbing during week nights Monday-Thursday, as many clubs advertise towards students on these nights, offering discounted drinks and cheaper entry.