In the pub, standing is part of the fun

In a really lively pub, not everyone is going to get a seat.

If you do get a seat, there’s no guar­an­tee you’ll have the table to your­self, or that some­one won’t end up stood over your shoul­der bump­ing you with their hip and yelling, laugh­ing or oth­er­wise exist­ing out loud.

We found our­selves think­ing about this as we worked our way around the pubs of Kel­ham Island in Sheffield on a busy Sat­ur­day night.

There, par­ties of peo­ple in smart Going Out Clothes seemed hap­py to stand about, cas­cad­ing into spaces between tables even where there hadn’t seemed to be spaces moments before, and crowd­ing the cor­ri­dors.

Can I just squeeze through there, pal?” Well, not real­ly, and yet some­how, yes, and all with­out touch­ing. (A British super­pow­er.)

If you’re mug enough to wear a coat, you’ve either to swel­ter, to hold it, hope to hang it, or throw it on the floor. The ten­den­cy to hit the town in shirt­sleeves makes sense in this con­text – cold between pubs, sure, but unen­cum­bered once you get there.

That’s not to say that peo­ple aren’t keep­ing an eye on the avail­abil­i­ty of seats. There’s a way of glanc­ing side­ways: how near is this lot to fin­ish­ing? How emp­ty are their glass­es? Is any­one mak­ing a move to buy anoth­er round, or have they start­ed pick­ing up coats and hand­bags? There are prime hov­er­ing spots, and sharp elbows are some­times unleashed: “Some people’ll jump in your bloody grave!”

One par­ty leaves (a gust of cold air, dead leaves across the car­pet) and anoth­er group comes in. The crowd flows flu­id to make way as hands reach over to lift pints from the bar, as scotch eggs are eat­en from plates bal­anced on the man­tel­piece, as gig­gling peo­ple sit on laps, or the arms of chairs.

These pubs are healthy. This pub cul­ture is healthy. Life is good.

And those love­ly, tran­quil pubs where you always get a seat? Per­haps wor­ry about them.

Three’s ideal, maybe five, six is pushing it

You can do the pub with two, sure, but even the closest of companions will find lulls in the conversation.

No, three is the ide­al – keep­ing the chat at a con­stant sim­mer, tak­ing it in turns to inter­ro­gate or lis­ten, and nobody left alone while the round’s got in. And three will fit any­where, from the tiny round table in the tiny snug, to the end of a bench, to lean­ing on the bar.

Four and five work too, though the bal­ance is nev­er quite as good as with three. It’s too easy to end up in a row, play­er one unable to hear play­er four, play­er five cast adrift and in every­one else’s way on a stool dragged across to the end of the table.

Six? You need a big­gish pub with plen­ty of room to pull off six, but it can be done on spe­cial occa­sions: you can’t see A with­out telling B you’re com­ing out, and B will want to bring C, and if C’s there it would be rude not to invite D… But the con­ver­sa­tion either frag­ments, or ends up with every­one yelling over each oth­er. You’ve to work hard in a six.

Eight is just daft. Avoid eight. That’s a din­ner par­ty, that is, or a com­mit­tee meet­ing. Coats in a pile, not enough chairs, “You swap with her so she can talk to him about them”, tables dragged togeth­er and bar staff rolling their eyes. Except in the biggest of booze barns your group of eight is a dom­i­nat­ing and prob­a­bly irri­tat­ing pres­ence.

Then there’s twelve… Are these peo­ple barmy? Five tables in a row down the mid­dle of the room so nobody else can get to the bar or toi­let or the smok­ing lean-to. High chairs and pushchairs. A cam­era on a tri­pod. Is some­body mak­ing a speech? “Let’s pile the presents on this table here to get them out of the way while we eat.”

Even bet­ter, the cen­tral Lon­don spe­cial­i­ty: fif­teen, with no book­ing, guide­books in hand. Shuf­fle in, shuf­fle all the way round look­ing for the mag­ic unre­served ban­quet­ing table, then shuf­fle out again look­ing sad.

No, three is the ide­al size for a team in a game of pub.

Though there’s also a case to be made for one.

Queuing in Pubs: Feels So Wrong, But So Right

Is queuing at the bar an affront to the idea of the pub, or “excellent Britishness”? Are there any practical arguments against it or is the reaction purely emotional?

On Sat­ur­day, for logis­ti­cal rea­sons, we end­ed up in a gin-and-din­ing water­side pub a bit off our usu­al beat where we saw a remark­able queue for the bar, 20+ deep at times, cut­ting right across the main ser­vice area and towards the front door.

We Tweet­ed about it…

…not mean­ing to con­vey any par­tic­u­lar judge­ment, only that it was unusu­al. As is often the case, that kind of min­i­mal­ist open­ness elicit­ed an inter­est­ing range of respons­es.

It’s a sad reflec­tion of the lack of expe­ri­ence in “real” pubs by mil­len­ni­als. It’s not McDon­alds #FFS

Have peo­ple for­got­ten how bars work?!”

I think any­where with this auto­mat­i­cal­ly los­es their pub sta­tus.”

I ignore it and do what I’ve always done – go to the bar.”

I’m a big fan, saves hav­ing to con­cen­trate. Just chill and wait for your turn.”

Excel­lent British­ness on dis­play. Makes you proud.”

I’d pre­fer queu­ing to hav­ing to fight your way through a swarm of barflies.”

If you believe that the point is the most effi­cient and fairest ser­vice of food and drink, the queue does indeed make a great deal of sense. In almost every oth­er aspect of British life it is con­sid­ered prac­ti­cal­ly sacred.

But the pub… The pub is sup­posed to be a jum­ble. And when we say “sup­posed to be” we mean “is usu­al­ly por­trayed as”. Look at this famous paint­ing, ‘Behind the Bar’ by John Hen­ry Hen­shall, from 1882:

A Victorian pub.

These days, as pubs have been cleaned up or closed, the scrum at the bar is about all that remains of the old tra­di­tion of glee­ful dis­or­der.

In response to our Tweet Ter­ry Hay­ward shared a link to a 2012 blog post on this sub­ject which con­tains the fol­low­ing stir­ring sto­ry:

I decid­ed to make a stand and I began to bypass the queue. Two men at the back of the queue saw what I was doing and felt the urge to make a com­ment, and I heard the use of the word “queue jumper”. I turned to them, and I could see that they, like me, were men of the world. They weren’t here to order Burg­ers, or Bangers & Mash , or Turkey Dinosaurs and a Fruit Shoot, they just want­ed a good pint of fine foam­ing ale.

I asked them when they’d ever seen peo­ple queue like this in a pub before. They con­ced­ed it was unusu­al but used the Homer Simp­son defence, “It was like it when I got here”.

Ah”, said I, “but by stand­ing there you’re only mak­ing the sit­u­a­tion worse, more will come and queue behind you. It’s time to break ranks. Are you in?”

They looked at each oth­er ner­vous­ly, but after a brief moment they agreed. It was time to make a stand. So, we start­ed to move to the vacant areas of the bar but, being British and being nat­u­ral­ly polite, we made sure we took oth­ers with us. We weren’t here to push in; we were here to ensure that cen­turies of tra­di­tion were not being thrown out of the win­dow.

But, again, check that nos­tal­gic instinct: what if, as one per­son hint­ed on Twit­ter,  queu­ing might make the pub more of a lev­el play­ing field for women? (It’s inter­est­ing that Mr Hayward’s sto­ry uses the phrase “men of the world”.)

Or, indeed, for any­one oth­er than large, con­fi­dent peo­ple with sharp elbows?

It’s per­haps no sur­prise that the cur­rent spate of pub queu­ing seems to have start­ed at branch­es of Wether­spoon which, for all its down-to-earth rep­u­ta­tion, is also often a step ahead when it comes to mak­ing pre­vi­ous­ly exclud­ed groups (and their spend­ing mon­ey) feel more wel­come.

On bal­ance, we don’t think queues are the end of the world in pubs like the one we vis­it­ed on Sat­ur­day. Places that aren’t in his­toric pub build­ings, with lit­tle his­to­ry about them, and where the num­ber of pun­ters great­ly exceeds the bar staff because head office insists on adher­ence to an ide­al wage-per­cent­age. In fact, it was pret­ty con­ve­nient, keep­ing things clip­ping along so we could get our drinks and Pub Grub before mov­ing on to a Prop­er (queue­less) Pub.

But some­thing would cer­tain­ly be lost if queues start­ed appear­ing at, say, The Roy­al Oak, London’s best pub. Or, at least, overt, obvi­ous queues, because of course there is a queue, even though the bar has two sides open to ser­vice. It’s just invis­i­ble, man­aged by staff and cus­tomers between them, through a sys­tem of eye con­tact, def­er­ence and polite mur­mur­ing.

Q&A: How Do You Drop Knowledge Nicely?

Questions & Answers -- 1906 magazine header graphic.

What’s the eti­quette when you know more about beer than bar staff? They’re prob­a­bly pas­sion­ate about beer, about craft. Maybe they’re younger and hip­per than you. Some­times they think that because they behind a bar they’re experts on beer, but drop clangers like telling you that Ekuan­ot is a brand new exper­i­men­tal hop rather than a rename of Equinox. What do you do? How do you com­mu­ni­cate that they’re wrong about some­thing with­out being boor­ish?”

Bren­dan, Leeds

This is an inter­est­ing ques­tion, although more about eti­quette and human inter­ac­tion than some­thing to which we can give a defin­i­tive answer. But we’ll try.

Short ver­sion: let it go.

On a cou­ple of occa­sions we’ve found our­selves in pubs with a vet­er­an beer writer and watched them come up against the kind of bar per­son who not only doesn’t know much about beer, but exhibits their igno­rance with enor­mous arro­gance.

How does the guru han­dle it? They say, ‘Oh, inter­est­ing – thanks’; they smile kind­ly; and they walk away.

Unless it will result in you los­ing out some­how (e.g. being over­charged, or end­ing up with a beer you won’t enjoy) what’s the point in start­ing this kind of argu­ment? It can only be ego, sure­ly.

Take the high road.

Let it go.

* * *

OK, short ver­sion over – now let’s dig into this a bit more.

The flip­side of the sit­u­a­tion Bren­dan describes is the dif­fi­cul­ty for bar staff of deal­ing with experts, or at least peo­ple who think they’re experts. We asked on Twit­ter what peo­ple who’ve worked behind bars think of ‘know-all cus­tomers’ (lead­ing lan­guage, but there you go) and here’s a selec­tion of the com­ments we received:

Per­son­al­ly I love when I get a cus­tomer that knows more than me. It rarely hap­pens though, not to brag.”

There is a con­tin­gent of gen­er­al­ly male cask ale drinkers age 50+ who sim­ply can­not accept that some­one in their twen­ties can know more about beer than them. Despite the fact they know very lit­tle.”

Spent years being ‘told’ how to pour Guin­ness. These days if they keep annoy­ing me I may casu­al­ly men­tion my [beer writ­ing work]… They are there to have fun. It’s my job to help. If they are show­ing off and it’s jovial I’ll tease them about any­thing they get wrong.”

Geeks who are just shar­ing their excite­ment – go for it, I like talk­ing to guests like that. Know-it-all ass­es? Not so much.”

All pow­er to em, if it’s the one bright spot their oth­er­wise mori­bund exis­tence then let em have it. Hard­ly worth the grief get­ting wound up.”

I liked peo­ple to tell me how they want­ed things served, rather than those who expect­ed me to know and com­plained after.”

Obvi­ous­ly, I also have the dis­ad­van­tage of being female, and below the age of 30, so I think I may have had a more con­cen­trat­ed expe­ri­ence…”

I’ve expe­ri­enced two kinds of ‘know-all’ cus­tomers. Some love beer and just want to talk about it and they’re obvi­ous­ly pleased when they find knowl­edge­able staff. They’re the awe­some cus­tomers that you can wax lyri­cal about hops with and share favourite beer facts. But then there’s the ones that want to lec­ture you. Nor­mal­ly mid­dle aged men who like prov­ing they know every­thing about beer to any­one in ear shot.”

I’ve been that per­son myself; des­per­ate to get the approval of the bar­tender. As long as nobody is rude, no harm done.”

One of those com­ments came from Suzy (@lincolnpubgeek) and we asked her to elab­o­rate – how should a cus­tomer in Brendan’s sit­u­a­tion han­dle it?

When I was a fledg­ling beer nerd [work­ing behind a bar] this hap­pened every now and then and I’d just refer to what I did know or ask a man­ag­er… But then that was in a bar with­out a beer focus so it wasn’t a com­mon issue.

If that’s hap­pen­ing some­where that does have a focus on beer then that’s sim­ply bad man­age­ment. In my old job some of the staff weren’t as knowl­edge­able and they’d often refer to me or a man­ag­er which can works too so long as they at least know the basics.

There was a bar in Lin­coln where some of the staff had zero train­ing and didn’t even drink beer. It made order­ing a very slow ker­fuf­fle but they were apolo­getic and polite about it, it was def­i­nite­ly a man­age­ment and train­ing issue.

Staff need to know what’s going on in the cel­lar and need basic tast­ing notes for all the prod­ucts as a bare min­i­mum. Cus­tomers need to make it known that beer knowl­edge is a big plus, with their wal­lets when it’s not there, and their voic­es when it is.

We asked the same ques­tion to Susan­nah Mans­field who runs the Sta­tion House microp­ub in Durham:

Usu­al­ly the peo­ple who gen­uine­ly know more are peo­ple who are hap­py with how we do things because they know why we do it, and it’s con­ver­sa­tion­al, or sug­ges­tions to improve that I either may not have thought of, or have good rea­sons for not doing, or old tricks of cel­lar­ing that are less well known…

I’ve nev­er pre­tend­ed to know every­thing, but equal­ly, I know a hell of a lot more than the aver­age punter, and I tend to find that those that have that greater knowl­edge them­selves are far less proud of them­selves about it.

What comes out of all of this, is a fair­ly clear, quite obvi­ous set of rules that real­ly boil down to basic social skills. If you absolute­ly must have it out…

  1. Don’t be blunt, loud or aggres­sive. Get­ting some­thing wrong is embar­rass­ing and being cor­rect­ed can be humil­i­at­ing, so gen­tly (and qui­et­ly) does it. It’s not a point-scor­ing exer­cise.… is it?
  2. Con­sid­er that you might be wrong. Of course you think you’re right – you’re sure you’re right – but if you think back a few years you can prob­a­bly bring to mind ‘facts’ you clung to and par­rot­ed because you’d read them in one book you now know is rub­bish. (We cer­tain­ly can.)
  3. If the bar staff haven’t been trained well, it’s not their fault. If they start floun­der­ing and look­ing uncom­fort­able or unhap­py, change the sub­ject, and resist the urge to CRUSH THEM WITH YOUR KNOWLEDGE.
  4. Don’t go on, and don’t lec­ture. Make your point but if you’ve been talk­ing for more than, say, 30 sec­onds, wrap it up.
  5. Ask your­self: am I assum­ing I know more because I’m old­er than them? (And/or a bloke.)
  6. Don’t, for good­ness sake, trot out your cre­den­tials. There is no way to do this that doesn’t make you sound like a buf­foon: ‘Don’t you know who I am?’ If it gets to this stage, we refer you to our ini­tial advice: let it go.

Think­ing about it, some of those rules prob­a­bly work the oth­er way across the bar too.

Who Drank My Beer? (1952)

We heard this song by Dave Bartholomew on a com­pi­la­tion of blues and R&B songs about booze that Bailey’s Dad was lis­ten­ing to over the week­end. It’s a sad tale of a bloke who goes (we think) to the bog and, when he comes back, finds that some­one has fin­ished his pint:

Who drank my beer while I was in the rear?
Who drank my beer while I was in the rear?
Point out that low-down moocher –
I’ll dis­lo­cate his future!