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!

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

* * *

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.)

Modern Pubmanship, Part 4: Nor Any Drop to Drink

The fourth in an occasional series of guest posts by our etiquette expert R.M. Banks.

We have, as our cousins across the p. like to put it, ‘all been there’: in the pursuit of some errand of great import, you come upon a public house handsome enough to lighten the dullest eye before which resistance crumbles, and in you stride, hands rubbing together and tongue lolling in thirsty anticipation of 20 fluid ounces of something piquant and wholesome. At which, like young Harker hoofing across the threshold of Castle Dracula, What ho!-ing freely, you confront a scene of infinite horror: there is not one beer on the bar counter worth your time, your precious coinage, or the strain on the old sock which serves in place of your liver.

‘Oh, you are being fussy again, Banks,’ you say, pooh-poohing, and, I dare say, wagging a digit. Well, I tell you, I am not – the most flexible of practitioners would struggle to limbo beneath my standards, which lie as close to rock-bottom as is possible without holing the hull. (Have I mixed my metaphors? No matter. We must plough on. (Oh, bother — there’s another one.))

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