Generalisations about beer culture pubs

Beer, Beer Everywhere…

Last week, we watched with interest as an American customer tried to buy a beer in a British pub.

The pub in question had a slightly larger than usual selection of bottles and (self-declared) ‘craft keg’ along with several cask-conditioned ales in very good condition.

Behind the bar was a twenty-something with a sleepy manner bordering on off-hand.

Enter the American, white-haired and friendly: “I gotta get a beer. What IPA’s have ya got?”

The twenty-something blinked, recalling staff training, and pointed at a keg font. “Uh… This one’s new in, from… uh… the US–”

“Oh, that’s a great beer, but I didn’t come all this way to drink something made 20 miles from where I live! What else have ya got?”

The twenty-something looked startled. “Well, on cask–”

“Oh, I can’t drink that flat beer! I need the carbonation, know what I mean?”

At this point, what we’d thought was a pretty decent selection started to look rather narrow, like a Guess Who? board in the final stages of a game.

The twenty-something was struggling and stretched out a hand, hesitantly, to the font for a kegged pale ale. “This is from London, it’s quite hoppy–”



“How bitter is it in international units? Yeah, gimme a taste,” he said, realising the twenty-something wouldn’t be able to answer. On sipping, he screwed up his face.

“What else have ya got?”

“We have another pale ale from a local brewery–”

“Lemme  taste it.” Clearly unimpressed by its flavour, he nonetheless shrugged in resignation. “Yeah, OK, I guess I’ll take a small glass of that — a half a pint.” (He didn’t drink it.)

* * *

There were several things about this exchange that interested us. First, by ruling out the cask-conditioned ales, the visitor was fatally limiting his own choice and missing out (in our opinion) on the best beer that particular pub had to offer.

At the same time, the fact that there wasn’t a single beer he could really get excited about out of a range of 12 or so draught products suggested to us that British craft beer (definition 2) in the mainstream still has plenty of catching up to do with the US equivalent.

And, finally, the poor twenty-something’s struggle shows that training is a good start but only goes so far without (sorry) ‘passion’ to back it up.

67 replies on “Beer, Beer Everywhere…”

So he wanted something that tasted American, but was made in Britain. Kinda like a wimpy.

I don’t think we need to “catch up” with American beer. We can be influenced by it of course. I’m sure I would fail miserably if I went into an American bar searching for a warm, semi-flat, 3.8° fuzzy tasting lightly hopped bitter. I think we have to align our expectations to the bar/country we are in.

But, a broader choice and caring staff would help

That’s a perfect storm of ignorance, on the drinker, the bar-staff, and ultimately communications.

Most british bar staff aren’t challenged that way, when being asked for a beer. It’s cultural differences in the way that people ask for a beer in the US. (albeit, in my life, spending years in the country, only ever seen those IBU listings at Russian River) – and IPA is very much, the hot topic of US brewing, session or otherwise.

I would also defend the brewers of said cask ales; it’s not about interesting beer, (for want of a better term) is that they are supplying local markets – their customer avatar is not the “ignorant ‘merican”, and you as many know the nature of the general British drinker favouring balance, over impact.

I can relate to the story above, as having been behind bars for many years, serving many Americans who came to see the white cliffs, and offering a number of cask beers, and imported beers, and even spending so much time in the US, I had to navigate the cultural differences, break barriers and ultimately get a sale.

so much fun.

The decent UK keg ipa s exist but without going to very specialist bars no way I can guarantee finding one. Frankly fact he had choice of UK quality kegs is a miracle. Frankly the bar sounds like it’s range is in the top 5% of UK bars and the idea that mainstream English pubs will catch up with the US is laughable. Anyone off hand dismissing all cask is a bit of a dick anyway. (no one mentioned bottles, but I’d assume they were 90% non UK)

What do you MEAN you don’t stock heady topper? Have you people never heard of John Kimmich?

So IPA is the new Budwieser or MacDonalds burger, a ubiquitous product expected to be available in all locations, pleasing according to the taste of any customer. Having no sense of curiosity makes the fault the customer’s alone. would have laughed at him if I was next along the bar.

Well no because those two things are identical everywhere. IPAs vary sufficiently to the point of rendering the designation meaningless. At the exact moment this occurred, at least one British person in North America was being similarly disappointed with what they received upon ordering tea. It’s just one of those things that happen to people who aren’t very good at the whole “travel” thing.

You forgot to note the most likely reason for this exchange. The customer in question was a grade A dick, let’s not beat about the bush here. Such people are regularly to be found in the tasting rooms and beer bars over here, usually commenting how they only like IPAs (or, to be fair for some odd reason, bocks and doppelbocks), they come, they do their flight and waffle on about how you can ‘taste the IBUs’ or ‘feel the brewer’s passion’ (a phrase which would worry me greatly if I were a pro-brewer), but then give the game away by not knowing that different hops give you different flavours and aromas, and that Pilsner Urquell has more of their precious IBUs than Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.

I’d have been laughing with Alan had I been sat at the bar. Had I been behind the bar I would likely have foisted the hoppiest cask conditioned available on him and, assuming said place has excellent cellarmanship, watched with joy as he realised he was full of shit.

I shudder to think how he would have got on in a “normal” pub. Or maybe this one rather raised his expectations.

Anyway, if he’d been in Spoons no doubt he would have ended up with a Devil’s Backbone 😉

This person (customer, not barman) just sounded rude to me. Asking about IBUs? I’ve never heard anyone do that here, and only very rarely seen IBUs advertised. I am sure there were some fine beers in that group. Sometimes you just can’t please some people, but I think it’s atypical of anyone ordering beer in a bar no matter their nationality.


P.S. On a different topic, B&B, did you ever post your comments on the two new Guinness beers? I believe I never saw a Part III…

Gary — this Friday. We were on holiday last week and didn’t have time to write it up.

I agree with some of the above comments. The way you make it look in your report, the gentleman in question seems to be a royal (or maybe republican/democrat) wanker. A tourist in the worst sense of the word. A know-it-all who wants things to be like at home, but under a different name. I doubt that even the best trained and informed tapster would have been able to make someone like that happy.

The worst part of it is that people like Mr IBU McTwat are of the sort that might very well trash the pub on-line because it was unable to cater to his very, very narrow needs.

The UK beer scene doesn’t need to catch up–at least not as far as situations like these is concerned–is people like this idiot who need to understand that things are expected to be different in other countries.

I’ve encountered a very similar experience to this myself in the Old Coffee House on Beak Street in Soho. Late one afternoon I was killing some time in there before I met with my family and was steadily working my way through the selection of Brodies beers on cask and keg a half at a time.

In walks an American gentleman, who I assumed was in his late 50’s and he sidles up to the bar next to me. I observe as he tries to order a beer but the server is as unsure as he is over the difference of the draught beers. Having a few beers in me gave me the confidence I needed to join the conversation. Turns out he’d decided to leave his wife shopping and literally popped into the first pub he came across. He was a big beer fan and was visiting from New York where he knew the beer scene well but admitted to having done little research on London beers other than Fullers ESB (which he had tried and loved in a Fullers Pub I can’t remember the name of.)

I asked him what his favourite style of beer was, “big, hoppy IPA” he replied. “Brilliant” I said “That’s mine too!” Before I referred him to the keg font I was standing next to which he didn’t notice probably because it wasn’t adorned with the large distinctive tap handles you see in American bars (although Lagunitas have employed this in the UK with great success) I made him order a pint of their Citra on Cask.

I had one earlier so I knew it was cold and in good condition. He seemed to be really enjoying it so I asked him what he thought the ABV was and he quizzed “Five, maybe six per-cent?” He was pretty amazed when I said it was 3.2% and this opened up a whole conversation on what cask conditioning brings to the mouth feel of the beer. I was glad I had started that conversation with him.

We then both tucked into the Hoxton Special on keg which was on great form, it was exactly what he was looking for. I recommended him some more pubs and made him download the Craft Beer London app before I went on my way. He too enquired about the IBU’s of the beer but didn’t asked the ABV of any which pretty normal. They are hung up over that measurement in the same way we are hung up on how strong it us.

I still feel, that after several trips to the States that we are about five years away from where they are now, although we’re catching up faster than they are progressing. In the beer drinking states such as California, Colorado, Oregon etc then it is completely normal to walk into the shittiest dive bar or roughest biker bar and still see great, modern styles on tap or in the fridges, it is simply the norm. What Wetherspoons has done over the last month is simply what will happen to all pubs, or what needs to if they are to have a modern offering that encourages business.

There are comments above that remark that that the problem was not with the pubs offering but with the customer himself and I think its important to remember that the customer is king/always right/etc. I’m assuming that the first beer he was offered brewed 20 miles from where he lives was Lagunitas. If thats the case then he’s from a part of the world where craft beer is the norm, it’s everywhere and advertising the IBU is simply the done thing. Arguably the best people in the pub to help him in his decision were you guys, obviously though we’re not on duty all the time and sometimes a quiet pint and not intense discussion is whats needed. In those situations I can’t help myself however.

(Also am I to assume from the photo you visited Beavertowns tap room? Hope you enjoyed yourselves, I love it there)

“he’s from a part of the world where craft beer is the norm, it’s everywhere and advertising the IBU is simply the done thing”

Yeah, but he should have noticed when he left that part and went to a different one. The big metal flying thing should have been a clue.

But I would have done exactly the same thing as you in that situation.

It’s important to remember though that so many respected, high profile craft brewers in America cite British or European beer as the inspiration they needed to start brewing in the first place.

Taking that into respect is it wrong of a guy from San Francisco to fly out to the UK and expect to find some exceptional beers without much effort?

No it’s not. However it is wrong of him to have expected to find it in the same sort of way one finds it in San Francisco: via IPAs and IBUs. He would equally have been wrong to do so in Belgium and Bohemia. These places just work differently, beerwise.

Yes, it is. There’s no excuse today for not doing your homework when travelling to another country. More so if you fancy yourself as a beer (or anything else) knowledgeable person.

If you’re expecting something more or less specific, then you should do some research. If you don’t want to do any research–absolutely nothing wrong with that–then you must come to terms that you can’t be really sure about what you’ll find, because at the end of the day, is part of the experience of travelling, as opposed to tourism.

if you go to another country expecting everything to be like at home, then you’ve started your trip with the wrong mindset. You’d probably be better off staying home.

Now that I’ve put the dinner in the oven, and without having anything better to do (shit, that sounds sad). I will tell you why is it wrong of a guy from San Francisco to fly out to the UK and expect to find some exceptional beers without much effort

I live, basically, in Prague. I know the city really well, and the local beer scene even better. I know which beers and bars are exceptional, and I have friends who will tell about those I don’t know yet. It’s come to the point that I don’t have to drink anything substandard if I don’t want to, I have to such little effort to find the exceptional, to the point that it has almost become the normal. I believe we could say the same about this man from San Francisco.

But I’m still fully aware that those exceptional bars/beers are exactly that, exceptional. And that there are many, perhaps more in number, bars/beers that are downright crap. And I’m also aware that the same applies everywhere, San Francisco included.

So, if I travel to another county (or even city that I don’t know well), and I want to get the best out of my time and money, I think I’ll do some research, nothing too detailed, necessarily, just the names of a few places or beers to at least get me started.

Of course, I can choose not to do any research, but then I’ll be depending mainly on my luck, and I can’t complain if I fail to find anything exceptional, because chances are that I won’t.

You’ve absolutely nailed it here.

It’s the reason I knew pretty much exactly the bars I wanted to drink in and places I wanted to eat at when I went to New York. If I’m only going to be in a place for a few days, I’m not wasting my time and money on shit.

It’s wrong for him to expect to find some exceptional US-style new wave IPAs on keg without much effort – because, amazingly enough, that’s not what most British brewers/pubs/drinkers are brewing/serving/drinking.

He sounds like a 24-carat wazzock – so much so that I suspect our hosts of embroidering slightly for effect.

Oh dear. We can’t claim it’s verbatim — we didn’t have a dictaphone out in the pub — but I don’t believe it’s ’embroidered’.

And, again, I should say that it didn’t come across as especially rude, except insofar as anyone who does anything other than hesitantly mumble and drop vague hints seems a bit blunt by English standards.

I retract that aspersion! He does sound a bit awful, though – “don’t give me that I want that, ugh that’s horrible, what else you got, ugh that’s horrible too…

Could we once and for all kill the bollocks of the “that the customer is king/always right/etc. ” It’s one of the worst aspects of the service industry. Like any other person, customers can be rude, self-entitled, idiotic, pricks, and I don’t see why anyone providing a service should be forced to put up with that, regardless of how much they’re paid.

This customer in particular, based on the report, who might have deserved to be politely told to piss-off (I respect businesses who won’t put up with any shit of this sort, more than those who abide to the “customer is always right” nonsense). His response to the offer of an American was quite rude. He could’ve said he preferred to drink something local.

Further, I don’t see why B&B, or anyone else for that matter, should have helped someone with that attitude.

precisely, this whole ‘customer is king/always right’ nonsense is as pernicious as it is pervasive, and in its extreme manifestations becomes a case of treat customer service staff as little more than a glorified indentured servant.

Blimey, I hope I never have to buy a pint from you 😉

I worked in retail for 10 years in musical instrument shops mostly selling guitars from supermarket guitar starter packs up to several thousand pound hand made wonder guitars. In that time I served some massive pricks but I bit my tongue and did everything I could to help them. It’s the service industry, you’re paid a wage to serve people, you try and do that to the best of your ability. That doesn’t mean that your all ‘yes sir’ ‘yes ma’am’ all the time, every customer is different but if their paying you money you damn well try and keep em happy, no matter how awful they might be.

I’ve also worked in the service industry, and though we were instructed to do our best to keep the client happy, we were also trained on how to deal with rude clients–always politely, of course.

Anyway, if you came to my pub for a pint, and treated as politely as your parents surely taught you to treat people, regardless of who or what they are, I would do my best to make you a happy client, and a happy client is more likely to come back. Now, if you came acting as if that pint made you my master, I would sure kick you out, because I’d know that not matter what I might or might not do to make you happy, you’d still bad mouth me.

“I still feel, that after several trips to the States that we are about five years away from where they are now”

Do you mean that in terms of the quality of the absolute best stuff or in terms of what you’ll find if you walk into a random pub in a random town, or somewhere between the two?

Sorry if that seems like a finicky question, but I think there’s a difference between saying that (for instance) the best stuff that Magic Rock or the Kernel or Oakham or are doing is still a long way behind the best of the US, and saying that those breweries are great if you can find them, but in the US you’d be able to get a wide range of beer like that in every pub that gives half a damn about beer rather than having to go out of your way to find it.

(All assuming that we’re talking within the limited compass of US-style craft here…)

2 years ago I was surprised every time I went into a random pub and found something that could be loosely described as craft beer. Nowadays I’m surprised if I don’t.

Went on a little pub crawl last weekend, in the worst pub we went to we had a choice between draught Budvar and bottled Blue Moon, so we quickly moved on.

2 years ago, that would have been better than the average pub.

The UK has a long way to go to catch up to America. Then again, a lot of UK cask beer is crap and a lot of American beer is crap.
It’s not the customer, it’s his right to know what product he is buying. Blame the boogie.

The UK doesn’t need to ‘catch up with America’, people need to accept the fact that British beer culture is different than American and should be valued as such, just as German, Czech, and Belgian beer cultures are.

Also, what’s the actual point of this drivel?
That the UK are behind USA in beer choice?
Get a real job, B&B.


Thanks for interesting comments (almost) everyone.

FYI, the guy didn’t come across as rude, though he was a bit more direct than most customers of English pubs would usually be.

The worrying thing, I suppose, is that on tasting two keg pale ales which presented themselves as being in similar territory to American-style ‘craft’ beer, he wasn’t impressed. (We tried them both and can confirm that he wasn’t just being fussy — they were pretty dull.)

Even if we had got involved, I doubt we’d have been able to make a difference — he’d obviously tried it before elsewhere and if carbonation was his specific issue, then we probably wouldn’t have changed his view, despite our undoubted great eloquence and powers of persuasion.

We did wonder why the barman didn’t push a taster on him though — if anything would convince him, it would have been that.

So I’m guessing you’re far too polite to actually name the beers in question…

But am I right in thinking that this is the sort of moderately forward-thinking traditional pub that’s recently replaced a couple of their regular keg offerings with something a bit craftier – a “British Craft Lager” instead of Carlsberg, say, or a crafty nitro-stout instead of Guinness – rather than a full-on bleeding edge “craft beer bar”?

Dave — a bit more craft than that — range of Belgian/US bottles was pretty impressive — but not, as you say, bleeding edge.

Ah, okay.

(I’m guessing Camden Pale or Meantime London Pale and Redwell Pale or one of the Adnams Clump Sagin…)

Exactly! Tasters must surely have been the way forward. The customer immediately feels they are being served and can make a choice based on his knowledge, even if is the best of a not-to-his-taste bunch. Neatly circumvents the bar person’s lack of knowledge.

That said, how many times have you been served by someone who professes no to like beer?

“The worrying thing, I suppose, is that on tasting two keg pale ales which presented themselves as being in similar territory to American-style ‘craft’ beer, he wasn’t impressed. (We tried them both and can confirm that he wasn’t just being fussy — they were pretty dull.)”

I wouldn’t worry, most bitters brewed over here and traded as ‘English’ style wouldn’t pass muster in the UK either.

Well, the beer drinker who has strong self belief but narrow needs and apparently little awareness of the facts of travel sets himself up for disappointment. Having been raised in reasonably high quality retail, I am aware that the customer is not king but is to be served. Which means being able to discretely but firmly explain when the customer is in error. As in “no, you do not want all apricot coloured flowers for the wedding as it will make the bride look sickly.” If the odd customer is unsatisfied due to misunderstanding their limited understanding, well, that is their problem.

That guy sounds like me last summer, white hair and all, except for the IBU nonsense and rudeness not to drink the recommended half pint. I went to a number of pubs around London to find and sample England’s craft beer, and in many traditional pubs the craft choices were not great, but I always found something to drink. The bar staffs were great, too, more than willing to pour samples and answer my inane questions. I did find that a few that did not know much about local craft breweries – I’m guessing they had not read all the articles on breweries in Bermondsey. I was looking for craft beer versions of traditional English styles, not some British take on a West Coast IPA. How boring is that, I might as well have stayed home.

I think I did alright – Portobello’s VPA and Camden’s Pale Ale were wonderful, and Kernel’s Export Porter was sublime (I only had it in the bottle), to name a few. I don’t think Deuchars IPA from Caledonian Brewery is considered a craft beer, but at 3.8% abv it’s the opposite of an American-style IPA.

Anecdotally, while most pubs were doing good business, the two places I saw (didn’t visit) with the biggest crowds were the two with a heavy craft beer focus – Holborn Whippet and The Craft Beer Co in Clerkenwell. Adding a few more craft beer options could help some of the traditional pubs.

After reading your post and some of the comments I feel bad that I didn’t try any cask ales. I know the brilliance and subtlety of cask ales, which is part of the reason why I didn’t try one. Most of my pub visits were the “family is shopping nearby” or “in the hotel room getting ready,” which only afforded me time for a quick pint or half pint, not the time necessary to appreciate a proper cask ale.

Boak and Bailey, I am reading and enjoying Brew Britannia, which I purchased after returning from England. Thanks, too, for posting a 1960’s picture of The Black Friar pub last summer on twitter. Stopping there for a late afternoon pint was a trip highlight. I have two examples of amazing British beer karma I experienced on my trip, but I’ll save them for later.

“I was looking for craft beer versions of traditional English styles”

Out of interest, how is this different from saying “good examples of traditional English styles”?

Hi Nat
Thanks for the lovely comments and for sharing your experiences. I hope you will get to try more cask in future. Don’t be put off by this idea it’s “subtle” – I sometimes think we Brits make it into some kind of strange mystical experience, but most of the most flavourful (half) pints I’ve had have been cask. There is a lot of bad cask out there and if most tourists views on cask are formed by an insipid flat pint in a central London pub I’m not surprised they don’t “get it”

I don’t think Deuchars IPA from Caledonian Brewery is considered a craft beer

It’s mostly considered swill. The wide availability of ridiculously bland, even tasteless cask beers is a bit of a problem.

Having worked in pubs in the UK and managed a craft beer specialist bar/restaurant in Vancouver, Canada and visited many in the US I can see a common thread when I visit many places in Britain. Service quality, including product knowledge is generally very poor here. He was probably used to high American standards of hospitality. The same is true when asking about wine in ‘good’ quality restaurants. A vacant look and an apology or incorrect information / guesses seem to do. It would not be acceptable in the US or Canada.

We need to train the staff properly if the range of beers is increased in bars and pubs. You can’t get away with just offering loads of beers, the staff need to know about them, describe them and be confident to chat to the customers.
The Beer Academy and others offer beer training, it’s time to raise our game.

Without a doubt I’m with the bar staff here. I’m in the fortunate position of working in a beer shop on a Saturday because it’s what I like to do, not what I need to do. For those who are juggling shifts inbetween other jobs or studies I feel for them. Not only are you expected to know beer and brewing inside out but the next person will be asking just how dry is your Sauvignon Blanc or why haven’t you got anything peatier than a Talisker? And all for the pleasure of minimum wage. If the staff thought they may have future in the industry maybe there’d be more effort but for a lot it’s just a means to end.

Agree 100%. Criticise the owners for not investing in training or paying more, do not fall into the trap of blaming staff for “being useless” etc.

Given that this was basically just a slightly upmarket pub, it sounds like the barman did a reasonable job.

This American Craft Beer enthusiast ordered Adnams Southwold Bitter and Young’s Winter Warmer, both on cask in my only trip across the pond. Wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Here’s hoping his next stop is Paris, where he can tell the barstaff their wine isn’t strong/fruity/oaky enough

Interesting comments. I’ve had fairly extensive experience (customer side of the counter) in all the countries mentioned and at day’s end, I find a certain reticence helps the experience. It’s just a drink after all, nothing is perfect, no one knows everything, and even when you order what you think you want, sometimes it comes differently, or isn’t in good condition, or the music is too loud (I hate this in North American bars and restaurants), or whatever. I’d say, chill, asia couple of questions, have a drink, try to enjoy it. There is a time for more in-depth discussions, but these usually are for regulars, where you know the servers or owner and can delve more deeply with them of occasion.


Right on Gary, nothing wrong with asking questions. There is no such thing as a dumb question.

This exchange would never have happened 20 years ago. In fact it would have been the reverse, with a British punter bemoaning the ubiquity of Bud/Coors-type shite in US bars, and an American being charmed and bewildered by the choice of British real ales.

Either that or an American demanding something exactly like a Bud – & being equally picky and borderline obnoxious about how un-Bud-like *British* macro lager was.

Tell people the customer is always right for thirty years solid and you end up with… assertive customers, let’s say.

The concept of the customer is always right is only there to help businesses make money, and continue to be viable not always easy in the pub / hospitality world. Of course customers should be polite and respectful, but sadly that is not always the case. If half your customers are rude, you still need to make an income from them, or else you may be putting half your income in jeopardy.

Now i’m all for training staff on the taste, abvs, locality, what glass it goes in, whether or not it’s served from a stuffed animal etc… but IBU’s??!! That customer can f*!k right off! Why not go further and ask how many kids the brewer has and where they live? FFS!

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