These days, it would seem odd to go into a pub and simply ask for ‘a pint of lager’ or a ‘half of bitter’ but that, we think, is a fairly recent development.
Fortunately, people have been observing, recording and advising on the etiquette of ordering beer in pubs for decades so we can trace the change fairly easily.
1938: Avoid Brand Names
Assuming that you intend to star on beer the safest drink for you to demand is ‘bitter’… Or you might try a Burton (alias ‘old’) if you have a taste for something a little less acrid… Having become proficient at ordering in its simpler forms, you may proceed to the more complicated mixtures… There is no necessity for any instruction to be given on the ordering of bottled beer… You have only to be careful in a tied house that you do not ask for the product of a rival brewery, and that error is easily avoided by ordering a light or dark ale without mentioning names.
T.E.B. Clarke, What’s Yours? — the student’s guide to Publand
1990: Brand Names for Bottles
There are five different kinds of draught beer: [Lager, Bitter, Mild , Guinness and Non-alcholic or low-alcohol beer]… Non-alcoholic beer is usually sold by name… Most pub beer is sold on draught. You can see the names of each one available on the pumps at the bar. You order them by the pint of half-pint… ‘A [pint/half-pint] of [bitter/lager/mild] please’. There are also many beers which are sold in bottles. You ask for them by name.
Jimmie Hill and Michael Lewis, Welcome to Britain: language and information for the foreign visitor
1996: Ordering by Brand is a Northern Irish Peculiarity
At a basic level, the bar staff just need to know whether you want bitter, lager or another sort of beer, and whether you want a pint, a half, or one of the wide variety of imported and domestic beers sold by the bottle… When ordering, you just say ‘A half of lager, please’ or ‘A half of bitter, please’… In Northern Ireland, pubgoers tend to order beer by brand name: they will say ‘A pint of Harp’, rather than ‘A pint of lager’ and ‘A pint of Smithwicks’ rather than ‘A pint of bitter’.
2001: ‘A Pint of Bitter’ No Longer Sufficient
It used to be fairly simple for the beer drinker: a pint of bitter… This was in the days when pubs were owned by breweries and a pint of bitter was the normal draught ale made by that particular brewery. Nowadays, there is likely to be a choice of bitters, but there are worse things than choice.
Nicholas Pashley, Notes on a Beermat: drinking and why it’s necessary
2009: Order by Brand to Pass for Native
The easiest way to sound native in a pub is to order your beer by the brand name, rather than using the generic terms ‘lager’, ‘bitter’ and so on. If you like trying new thing, you could ask for a pint of ‘Old Speckled Hen’ or ‘Theakston’s Old Peculiar’, but don’t blame us if you don’t like them.
Gavin Dudeny and Nicky Hockly, Learning English as Foreign Language for Dummies
* * *
Of course we’d like another 20 or 30 sources before we can be sure but, from that lot, we’d conclude that something happened in the 1990s that meant ordering just ‘a pint of bitter’ became passé. We reckon it was probably a combination of (a) the collapse of the brewery-tied-house pub model in the wake of the Beer Orders and (b) the sheer weight of brand-based advertising and designer culture. It might also be, however, that British consumers, after 20-odd-years of education from the Campaign for Real Ale and beer writers like Michael Jackson, had simply become more particular.
On a related note, what do you think you would get served if you went into your favourite pub and just asked for ‘A pint of bitter, please’? We put this question to someone behind the bar in a St Austell pub and they were stumped — ‘Tribute is our biggest seller, but it’s not exactly bitter, as such.’ (Although that was before the launch of Cornish Best.)