Socialisation is an important part of any successful academic meeting, and social drinking (usually of alcohol, though this is by no means obligatory) is integral to English social life. The map above shows our staff and students’ recommendations for local drinking establishments. Like our restaurant guide, it doesn’t claim to list every good option in the area, and strongly reflects the personal prejudices of those involved – which is probably why it leans so heavily towards pubs. For the international visitor, however, the pub is undoubtedly the place to be.
The mysteries of English pubs explained
“Foreign visitors often find it hard to come to terms with the fact that there is no waiter service in English pubs. Indeed, one of the most poignant signts of the English summer (or the funniest, depending on your sense of humour) is the group of thirsty tourists sitting patiently at a pub table, waiting for someone to come and take their order.
“My first, callously scientific, response to this sight was to take out my stopwatch and start timing how long it would take tourists of different nationalities to realise… the fastest time – two minutes, twenty-four seconds – was achieved by a sharp-eyed American couple; the slowest – forty-five minutes, thirteen seconds – was a group of young Italians, although to be fair, they were engrossed in an animated debate about football… A French couple marched out of the pub, muttering bitterly about the poor service and les anglais in general, after a twenty-four minute wait.”
Kate Fox, Watching the English: the hidden rules of English behaviour (2005)
The English pub is very much a national exception, with customs and conventions all its own – so much so that the anthropologist Kate Fox created a guidebook, Passport to the Pub, designed to help international drinkers to negotiate its challenges and understand its peculiarities.
That said – and although Passport to the Pub is a fascinating read – it’s not crucial to understand most of the detail it presents unless you are planning to settle in the UK. Visitors, particularly in a cosmopolitan university city like Manchester, can manage by observing just a few simple points.
The first crucial item is to understand where pub rules apply. This is important because although pub rules are very distinct from restaurant rules, there are now hybrid pub-restaurants, pubs with separate ‘bar areas’ and ‘restaurant areas’, and pubs that serve full hot meals but are resolutely still pubs.
A reasonably reliable guide is to look for the presence of table-settings (table mats, cutlery, etc). If vacant tables are set for dinner, with glasses and cutlery, you are in a restaurant area, and familiar international restaurant etiquette applies. There is table service; you will usually order at the table; you pay at the end of the meal, and tipping is expected (10 to 15%).
If the tables are bare, or strewn with cardboard beer-mats, you are in a pub area (even if food is available), and the rules are as follows:
- There is no table service. To get drinks, go up to the bar and give your order to the person serving. You may have to wait until others are served.
- When you collect your drinks, pay the person who served you immediately.
- You should then take the drinks to your table yourself.
- There is no tipping, but polite drinkers remember to take their empty glasses back to the bar.
This arrangement – which, on first inspection by outside eyes, appears to hand most of the traditional staff responsibilities to the customer – is not an ingrained centuries-old perversity: it’s an evolution from the table-service convention, which it fully supplanted some time in the first half of the twentieth century. It’s actually a very efficient and smooth system when the bar is not too crowded. (The bar is often too crowded.)
Food in pubs
Historically, pubs were places to drink. Food offerings were limited to crisps (potato chips) and the occasional sandwich or pickled egg. The past two decades have seen the rise of ‘gastro-pubs’, essentially restaurants serving good beer and with other high-class pub trappings; and many (non-restaurant) pubs have begun serving a range of hot meals at lunchtime, evenings or both. At its best, ‘pub food’ is unpretentious but distinctive, carefully prepared from fresh ingredients; at worst, it is mass-produced and microwaved, but usually cheap and adequate to the primary task of soaking up drinks.
Most pubs accommodate most kinds of drinking. If you don’t drink alcohol, you will find the usual international range of sugary carbonates plus mineral water, fruit juice, and usually hot tea and coffee. Wine-drinkers – who were desperately poorly served until the 1990s – will now find a reasonable selection, usually leaning to the New World. The typical range of spirits is much as it is in most of the world; occasionally, though, you may be lucky enough to stumble upon an extensive and lovingly maintained collection of single malt whiskies.
Then there is cider, whose very name is a trap for unsuspecting North Americans. All cider, so called, is ‘hard cider’; the non-alcoholic version is merely apple juice. Cider’s heartland is south-west England, where it was once the staple drink; but its presence is felt in the north-west.
But the staple drink of pubs throughout the UK is, was and shall remain beer. Like all the great beer-drinking countries of the world, Britain has its share of good beer and bad beer; but it has something particularly distinctive in cask-conditioned beer, otherwise known as real ale.
This is beer produced and served as it used to be throughout the world until the mid-nineteenth century: unpasteurised, without artificial carbonation, and generally served from a traditional handpump. Surviving in most countries only as a tiny niche speciality, the method is thoroughly mainstream in the UK: you will see handpumps on the bars of nearly all the pubs we recommend. It is vigorously defended by the Campaign for Real Ale, sometimes called the most successful pressure group in the UK, with over 140 000 members.
Not all good beer is ‘real ale’: there has been friction recently between CAMRA traditionalists and proponents of ‘craft keg beer’ (as the more flavourful forms of pasteurised/carbonated beer are known). Craft keg’s inspiration is global, however, and it can be enjoyed across the world; real ale is a local speciality, and should be a priority for beer-drinking new to this island.
Traditional English beer is often referred to as ‘warm beer’. Truly warm beer would, of course, taste disgusting, but the ideal temperature is cool rather than cold – around 9° or 10° Celsius – to allow the flavour to shine through. Another signature feature is the lack of fizz: the beer’s much gentler carbonation comes entirely from the live yeast in the product.
There are many different styles, of which the staple is ‘bitter’. As the name suggests, this has more hoppy bitterness than the average international lager – but it is usually well-balanced rather than aggressively challenging. Most bitter, too, is not particularly strong, being designed for ‘session drinking’ (social rounds of drinks, often unaccompanied by food). Typical strengths are between 3.6% and 5% alcohol by volume (ABV), although much higher values are known: check the ABV figure on the handpump if you are uncertain. The CAMRA webpages on beer styles address some of the rarer, interesting styles you will sometimes find on the bar.
We’re delighted to announce that, in a new departure for the Congress series, iCHSTM 2013 will have its own cask-conditioned beer range, brewed to order by a number of breweries in the region. These will be available at the Jabez Clegg pub, on the main Congress site, which will also be the venue for most of the iCHSTM Fringe activities and our beer talk on the public programme. We look forward to seeing you there.