Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Britishness

Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Britishness

Grace Kelly explores the culture shock Americans experience when they encounter the British fondness for pubs

An American walks into a bar in the US. Depending on where the bar is, the atmosphere is rowdy, calm, or most likely a combination of people eating and people slurping their Monday Madness Margaritas and watching football (the American kind).

Put an American in London and tell them to go to a pub, and the difference is rather marked.

First, the American will be puzzled by the clusters of people huddled together outside the building, sipping their lukewarm ales amidst cumulous clouds of cigarette smoke. Public drinking? Not tolerated in America.

They will then check their iPhone, and be surprised to see that though it is only 2pm the pub is already starting to break a sweat. The American will then become overwhelmed at the entire scenario, from the time of day, the warm ale, and the fact that the interior of the pub is just starting to get busy while the outside is teaming, and begin to blabber to their English mates about their confusion.

As an American, I first noticed the difference in the bar/pub culture when I went to a pub around St. Paul’s for lunch. While it was virtually empty at 11:45am (I was hungry after walking up all 528 steps) a crowd of people in business attire began to filter in around noon and with them the empty pub transformed into a place of beer, laughter, cigarette smoke and pool.

Transfixed, I ate my beef pie while absorbing the reality of the atmosphere at noon on a Tuesday. Perhaps it is the Puritan work ethic that we have in the US where visiting a bar at lunch on a Tuesday would be seen as, well, socially unacceptable (cough-cough “alcoholic” cough-cough).

Perhaps the heart of the difference lies in the easy relationship between Brits and their booze and the inverse history of America and its drinking heritage. Indeed, in an Esquire article titled Is this the End of the Great English Pub? by Tom Barker Bowles, he states, “Alcohol is the oil of Britain’s social engine, long soaked into the fabric of national life. People have gathered to drink together ever since early man found that natural fermentation turned sugars into ethanol.” The veritable George Orwell describes his perfect pub as having a surplus of ‘regulars’ saying, “…it would seem natural to put the beer first, but the thing that most appeals to me…is what people call its ‘atmosphere’.”

This warm and fuzzy relationship with the local pub makes it no wonder it is such a part of daily life in the UK. Whilst new tax laws, cigarette bans and the cheap booze on Sainsbury’s shelves threaten the life of the English pub, in the US there has always been a tenuous relationship.

Christine Sismondo, bar culture extraordinaire and lecturer at York University in Toronto said, “I think that in the UK there is a less tortured relationship to the pub. In America it’s been more of a love-hate kind of thing. Historically speaking, it’s been a hot-spot for political organization and community building.”

Indeed, from revolutionary times the bar in the US was a place to get fired up, but Puritanical influences always claimed temperance as a virtue. This dichotomy was continued into the 20th century with the famous ‘speakeasy’ during the time of Prohibition.

This period of illegal drinking (much like that strange period of time before you turn 21 in the US) was one of binge drinking and general disorder.

Sismondo says that “people didn’t drink more, they drank less (far less), over all. It changed the culture of drinking – radically”.

But even once the 18th Amendment (which introduced Prohibition) was repealed in 1933, there were still reverberations of its attitude amongst individual states and counties – Connecticut only recently repealed its Puritanical ‘Blue Laws’ which prohibit the sale of alcohol on Sundays.

Thus, dear readers, have pity on us poor, deprived Americans. It is no wonder Americans in the UK are astonished by pub culture and the way that it emphasizes community gathering and sociability – with frothy beer tops glinting in the warm glow of pub lighting as the glue between it all.

Featured image credit: Jorge Royan

Grace Kelly