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buying beer pubs

Ask for it By Name!

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’.

Kate Fox, Passport to the Pub: a guide to British pub etiquette

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

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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.)

42 replies on “Ask for it By Name!”

In Germany, it’s still mostly order by type in the regular Gaststätte (and especially in rural areas). Ask for a Bier, you’ll get a Pils, otherwise, you ask for an Export of Hefe-Weizen, as that’s pretty much what most serve. But I think it’s probably simply down to the variety available. If there are more than one Pils or Weizen available, you have to order by brand. So, maybe this trend is simply reflecting the increased choice available.

Mid-’90s Northern Irish pub customers (of which I was one) didn’t asked mid-’90s Northern Irish barmen (of which I was also one) for “a pint of bitter” ‘cos bitter is an English thing — everyone knows that. Smithwick’s is an ale, not a bitter.

The context of the asking-by-name thing in NI is that there only were two lagers and they were never sold in the same pub, so asking for a “pint of Harp” will either get you a pint of Harp or the question “Is Tennent’s OK?”, and vice versa. Harp was sold next to Smithwick’s; Tennent’s next to Bass, both of the latter brewed at the old Interbrew brewery in Belfast.

No. I can only recall the word being used in a rather derogatory suspicious way, as in “Is that ale you’re drinking?” My friends from home still have an innate distrust of “ale”.

That’s pretty much the only reason CAMRA is the Campaign for Real Ale — cos Graham Lees, one of the founders, argued successfully that ‘ale’ sounded properly northern while ‘beer’ was posh and southern. I used to have colleagues from Merseyside who would announce ‘a night on the ales’ and then drink wine, gin, cider — anything but beer.

Never noticed that at all, except in the phrase ‘on the ale’ – which, as Bailey says, basically means anything alcoholic.

On the OP, the reply when you ordered Tribute is interesting – suggests there’s a generation (of bar staff) who don’t know it’s called ‘bitter’ (sounds like they thought you were asking for something bitter). The horror, the horror, etc.

No. Was always referred to by brand name in NI, “Pint of Smithwicks/Bass etc. Even though a pub usually only had one lager or stout available back in the 90s, it was still referred to by name “Pint of Harp/Guinness etc…”

I’m afraid your opening statement just isn’t true! Having spent quite a lot of time serving behind bars over the last seven years as a landlord of two pubs, I have to tell you people order just a “pint of lager” very, very often, and ask for just a “pint of bitter” less often, but still fairly frequently.

Indeed many do so in exasperation in really geeky craft beer places – me included – as it’s often not clear if there’s a proper lager or bitter at all. I remember being in the Clockhouse on Leather Lane once when despite having a squillion taps they were serving neither lager nor bitter through any of them.

The clockhouse? Why would you refer to a pub by the name it was under before they installed all the taps you refer to? And I think it’s very unlikely that they didn’t have a lager on unless you’re splitting hairs and saying a kolsch isn’t a lager

I work for the company you are avoiding mentioning by name and I get asked for a generic pint of lager. Bitter, pale ale and IPA every day. I think it’s fair enough because we stock a lot of beers people aren’t familiar with

The reason is because, believe it or not, I’ve lived in that exact area for nearly 15 years, long before the Clockhouse was renamed, and unsurprisingly, like other people who’ve lived in an area for a long time, I refer to well known pubs by the name they’ve always had. In the case of that particular pub the name’s all the more memorable due to the ceiling inside. It wasn’t such a bad pub, you know. Greene King beer, obviously, but I used to use it a bit because my mate Scott was always in there.

I also called the “Clerk and Well” the Duke, if that helps explain things. Pub names take a long time to change, and tend to change back to the original before long anyway.

and by the way, there was no lager then, and there’s frequently no traditional bitter on, as you’ll know if you work there. And it hasn’t just happened to me there, it happened to my mate Poj as well. You can say I’m bullshitting, but I’m not.

I appreciate you want to defend somewhere you work, but before getting defensive remember I do use the place fairly often, so clearly I don’t dislike it myself either.

And, again, it’s usually called the Clockhouse if you’re from round here.

People order in the way you describe in your opening statement very frequently – particularly when it comes to lager – so the premise is a false one I’m afraid.

Typed a much longer comment but it disappeared when I hit publish.

Thanks for the insight. Perhaps we’ve overstated how far the shift has gone, then.

(Found your comment in the spam folder — our filter didn’t like a typo in your email address.)

I do a lot of beer training with bars and restaurants that stock a good range of craft beers yet the staff tell me people still come in and ask for simply lager, bitter, etc (so one of their questions is always ‘what do we give them if they ask for a bitter?’). Given that the choice has increased in recent years, and knowledge has improved alongside it, you do expect people to order more specifically but for those consumers who don’t know much about beer perhaps that choice has become confusingly large and so they fall back on the simple bar calls.

One thing that I think is more relevant is that lager, bitter and stout have now been joined by pale ale and IPA as styles that people order without looking at the beer offer – we expect them to be there now. I’ll even do it myself and if a friend is going to the bar I’ll just ask them to get me a pale ale.

You seem to have just described yourself as a customer who doesn’t know much about beer (but prefers pale ale to bitter). Does not compute…

Got to agree with Jeff (again – it’s becoming a habit). Commodity lager drinkers particularly just ask for “A pint of lager”, but bitter is by no means uncommon.

In fact in 175 Lees pubs you will hear it repeated many, many times and even in busy free houses.

You do overstate this case I’d say.

Hmm. We don’t notice it a lot in pubs ourselves — most of the ones we go in have multiple lagers so people order by brand — but will take another look.

At any rate, there’s certainly been *some* kind of shift in the last couple of decades, hasn’t there?

Isn’t Lees Bitter also the brand name? If it was called, say, ‘Manchester Pride’, would people still order it the same way?

What do you reckon you’d get if you asked for a pint of bitter in a Fuller’s pub? Probably Pride if they couldn’t be bothered to have a discussion, I guess?

Well, bitter is the descriptor rather than the brand name I’d say. I think there is, as always in these things, a generational gap in this. Mind you while you probably overstate the case (particularly where lager is involved) you do have a point. Isn’t it all do do with branding?

In almost very case in a Lees pub I hear people say “Pint of lager” to be then rejoindered with “Original or Carlsberg?

I do agree that “bitter” as a generic term is on its way out.

Come to that, in a Spoons a while back I heard a poor sod order a gin and tonic & then be subjected to a five-minute interrogation – what brand of gin? what kind of tonic? single or double? Admittedly, it only took five minutes because he had difficulty understanding the first question; when he finally got it he looked even more confused and eventually said “Have you got Gordon’s?”

I wonder whether drink driving and health impact on this as well as the proliferation of choice. Has desire to understand exactly what you’re drinking increased? Perhaps during the ’90s when particularly lager went ‘premium’ (i.e. 5%) and drink driving was being stamped on ABV became particularly important.

It could be me being clouded by the fact that this was when I worked in a pub…

So ‘A pint of Carlsberg, please’ was a way of ensuring you didn’t get Stella without the embarrassment of asking for ‘weak lager’?

Haha! I was thinking more of customers who used to plan their drinking/pub time around having a couple of pints after work and try to stay under the limit. Two pints of 5% vs 4% etc.

Wonder if ‘A pint of bitter’ also became less common because people increasingly wanted to specify a choice of cask or keg?

This has just reminded me of once in the Griffin, back when they had cask Tetley’s, I asked for one and she assumed keg. I stopped her with a proper whoa whoa whoa I mean the handpump one. She’d poured half so just topped up the creamflow with the cask and presented it to me.

Now you don’t argue in the Griffin as they have massive lads keeping an eye on. You just shrug and avert your gaze back to the stage and the live entertainment (which by the way is offensive and should be banned)

I think there’s rather a lot being made of very little here. If a pub has only one bitter on, as some brewery-owned pubs still do, people may still just ask for bitter. If there’s a choice of real ales, you obviously have to be more specific. However, I have noticed that quite a few lager drinkers still often just ask for lager.

“I think there’s rather a lot being made of very little here.”

Not by us — we had the idea at 7:50, 700 words done by 8:30, then I spent 15 minutes faffing about trying to find a picture before eventually going with one we’d already used. It’s just a blog post and there’ll no doubt be another one along tomorrow if this one doesn’t float your boat.

Of course at a lot of pubs the locals just ask for a pint (or the barest of nods will often convey the message too). That’s the problem with being a beer geek, I don’t get that warm fuzzy feeling from the routine of drinking the same beer day in day out.

If you asked for bitter in my local it would be presumed by most staff you were wanting something fairly traditional old school brown bitter and youd be given recommendation of Taylors boltmaker or black sheep bitter.

I’d be interested to hear if there is a marked difference between what a large group asks the guy buying the round to get and what is asked for. I’d suggest groups in spoons often send someone to bar for 2 lagers 3 bitters and go for pot luck as to what comes back.

True – a lot of people ask for “a lager” “something pale” or “whatever you’re having”, but then the round-buyer actually asks for something specific.

Asking for “a lager” almost always results in “which one?”, and then you specify anyway – so what is the point – you’re just wasting time.

Phil — no, the person in question was (I’d guess) in their 40s, fairly knowledgeable, and gave sound reasons why each beer on offer wasn’t quite what most people would call ‘bitter’.

(Sorry about missing comments, BTW — spam filter being insanely hard-line today for reasons I can’t fathom.)

What definition of ‘bitter’ excludes Tribute, though? Surely it’s a classic (or bog-standard if you’d rather) example of the brown malty West Country style.

I do think there are fewer and fewer pump clips that actually say ‘bitter’ on them – it’s not as bad as ‘mild’ but it may be heading the same way. In this context the ref. to Boltmaker is interesting – as is the way TT have rigged out the bottled version to follow the Landlord style & look as if it’s been like that for decades. They must reckon that the ‘Boltmaker’ styling is more marketable than ‘Timothy Taylor Best Bitter’.

Tribute’s amber/orange, uses German-style malt (Munich, I think, branded as ‘Cornish Gold’) and a mix of US and European hops — not much crystal malt, if any, and no Fuggles/Goldings. (More info here.)

So, yeah, it is a bitter, but I can see why someone behind a bar would hesitate to plonk a pint down in front of someone expecting something like Tetley’s or Butcombe without checking first.

In Starbucks the other day a very old, very deaf woman in front of me asked for “Two coffees, please love”. That was 10 minutes I’ll never get back.
I have found myself in craft beer bars asking for “Whatever’s most like a pint of bitter”.

There are still plenty of the more traditional family brewer pubs where asking for “bitter” will get you precisely that, and is therefore what the regulars do. Locally to me, Holts and JW Lees particularly spring to mind.

However, I’d say the only people who now wander into random pubs and just ask for bitter are a dwindling group of middle-aged and elderly occasional drinkers.

A couple of years ago I was in a Lees pub where a couple in their 60s came in. Probably a case of “oh, it’s a nice sunny day, let’s go out for a drive and have lunch in a country pub.” He went to the bar, looked at the pumps and said “Oh, I’ll have a pint of whatever.” After a little thought, the bar staff gave him Lees Bitter, which I’d say was the right decision.

Most pubs now have more than one cooking lager, so it’s usual to ask for Carling or Fosters by name.

As Stonch will confirm, I know nothing … but I did have a very specific and discrete recollection of experiences of London pubs in the mid-80s. I was just there for a few weeks so the recollection only fits in that window which makes me think you are a bit late with your point in time for brand preference. I recall a pub in Islingston which had Courage Directors Bitter which we drank loads of. It was clearly a keg tap in a range of Courage products and even though you could ask for a lager most were more specific in their choice of ales by brand name. You would also certainly ask for Guinness by name and not just stout. I think associating consumer specificity with Jackson is a bit of a stretch as well. Patrons certainly knew what they wanted as part of the overall appreciation of food and drink. I recall being quite struck by the diversity of produce in the street market and how a shop, admitted somewhat up market, offered 1, 2, 3, 5, 8 and 10 year old Canadian cheddar – something I had never seen in Canada at that time. Consumer choice was well underway at least there.

There are numerous other brewery/former brewery pubs where it’s perfectly normal to as for a pint of bitter. Adnams and Young’s spring to mind, although in Young’s houses you also hear people (including me unless it’s Winter Warmer season) asking for a pint of ordinary.

Again, though, I’d argue that’s, if that’s the case, it’s because both Adnams’s and Young’s bitters are actually *called* Bitter — there’s no other way to order them.

I had to laugh, as I’m sure it’s been forever and a day since you could order beer without a brand name in the U.S. I recall my first time legally (*ahem*) ordering in a bar here, and in my ignorance asked for “a beer, please.” As the barmaid waited patiently, my friend explained the need to be more specific. Seeing how all American lagers tasted the same in the 1980s, it was a pointless exercise.

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