The traditional drinking establishment is the "pub" (short for "public house"). These are normally named after local landmarks or events, and most will have a heraldic (or pseudo-heraldic) symbol on the sign outside; more recent establishments may poke fun of this tradition (e.g. "The Queen's Head" featuring a portrait of Freddie Mercury, lead singer for the rock band Queen). England seems to have an incredible number of pubs. While in a city you are usually not more than a 5 min walk from any pub.
The pub is an English institution, though a declining one. Tastes are changing, smoking has been banned inside pubs, beer is ever cheaper in supermarkets, drink-driving is taboo, and pub landlords are often squeezed by sharp practice by the big firms which supply beers, and which also own many pub buildings.
There are many different kinds of pub. Some are traditional 'locals', and a real part of the community. In most neighbourhood pubs you will find all generations mingling together, which often gives patrons a feeling of community. It would not be uncommon to see three generations of one family congregating in a neighbourhood pub. Nevertheless, pubs can vary widely in character. Depending on the area, you can find a warm and friendly welcome, or drunken youths spoiling for a fight.
However, pubs are becoming more and more specialized. In city centres, many have been taken over by big chains; some are soulless, some are moderately pleasant. Some independent pubs have become wine bars or cocktail bars; perhaps the least pleasant are those pubs which pack in customers on their way to a nightclub, with loud music, no space, and super-cheap spirits to make sure their clients are as drunk as possible by 11pm.
However, many pubs are evolving in a more healthy direction. There are now many pubs which pride themselves on serving 'real ales' - beer brewed on a smaller scale to traditional English methods and recipes. Any visiting beer lover should track these down. Many pubs, both in the countryside and in cities, have moved towards serving good food. And while most pubs will serve food, it's in these 'gastropubs' that you'll find well-prepared food, generally a mixture of traditional English dishes and international influences. The prices will tend to match.
Pubs have a little of their own etiquette. At any proper pub, service is always at the bar. It's polite to strike up a conversation with anyone else who is standing or sitting at the bar. And if someone buys you a drink, you will be expected to 'stand your round' later on, buying for whoever you're drinking with. If you're planning to leave promptly, or don't have enough money, then you should politely decline the offer.
Although traditional pub licensing laws severely restricted their hours of operation, laws enacted in 2005 allow pubs to request more flexible opening hours. Few pubs have requested anywhere near the "24 hour drinking" that is theoretically possible: as a general rule more traditional pubs will close at 11PM still. Some of the more trendy bars will close nearer to 1AM, filling a niche in the market between traditional pub and nightclub. However in most cities and many towns, centrally located pubs and bars will stay open anytime from 2AM till 6AM, especially on Friday and Saturday nights. Also, at public holiday times, many pubs extend their closing times — especially New Year's Eve.
England is home to a huge variety of alcoholic drinks. As well as wines and spirits (mainly imported, but some local), all pubs sell several beers and at least one cider. The main types of beer you will come across are lager , bitter and stout. Real Ale is not a separate classification, it refers to beer made and served by traditional methods.
-Lager — Predominantly the pilsner type: pale, fizzy and cold. Because of the popularity of this type of beer amongst the young, there are many mass-market national brands brewed in the UK (and widely advertised with "having fun" type ads) which may disappoint anyone wanting more than simply cold, fizzy, alcohol. Some national brands are much better, and often stronger, and may be sold in bottles as well as on draught. Purists often prefer imported European-brewed lagers.
-Bitter — The most common example of the English type of beer technically called "ale" (see below). They are typically darker than lagers - they are called bitter because they have more hops than mild (another less-common kind of ale). Again, there are well-advertised national brands for the mass market, usually less strong than lagers. Most are now not "real ales": they are not matured in the barrel; they are often called "smooth" or "cream" (which means that they are infused with nitrogen to give a small-bubbled head) and are often served very cold from a small tap on a tall, illuminated stand.
-Stout — A dark, heavy, usually very bitter beer. Originally called Porter, Arthur Guinness decided he could do better and made Guinness which he branded a Stout Porter. Guinness is one world-famous Irish brand that is available almost everywhere in England, often in "normal" and "extra cold" versions.
All of the mass-market types above can be bought in cans - often with a "widget" that when the can is opened, forces nitrogen bubbles through the beer to simulate "draught" beer.
-Ale — This is not simply another word for "Bitter" or "Beer". Technically it simply means any beer other than lager (ie it is a beer brewed at cellar temperatures using floating yeast, ie bitters, milds and stouts). However, these days "ale" is often used a little self-consciously, usually either as a "matey" word for any type of beer ("Anyone fancy a few ales?") or in a consciously "traditional" way ("Try a pint of good old English ale"). To ask for "A pint of ale, please." would sound like a line from a period film. However "Real Ale" is an accepted term, so to ask "What real ales do you have on?" would be quite normal.
-Real Ale — The Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) has been a very successful consumer campaign, its aims have been to ensure that mass-market beers do not completely force out beers made in the traditional way. CAMRA created the term "Real Ale" to summarise the type of beer they wanted to keep alive: it must be allowed to continue maturing after it leaves the brewery (ie not be pasteurised or filtered to remove living yeast; be stored and served without additional gas (ie does not have carbon dioxide or nitrogen forced into the beer); and be served at the appropriate temperature for the style: traditional ales are not generally served warm, as many people believe, but at the temperature of the 'cool' cellar they have been maturing in for several days (ideally, 8–12°C) . Most real ales are served from the distinctive "handpumps" which allow a pint to be "pulled" from the cellar by several full-length strokes requiring visible effort on the part of the server. Most "real ales" served in ordinary pubs are bitters, but these come in a wide range of strengths, colours, and bitterness. A majority of pubs now serve at least one or two national brands of real ale, and perhaps one or even two local ones.
"Real ale pubs" — At a pub which especially caters to lovers of real ale, or at a beer festival, there will be more local brands (and "guests" from some distance away) and a wider range of bitters, and even a good choice of other types. Expect to see summer ales, winter ales, exotic beers (containing ingredients such as heather, honey or ginger), light milds, dark milds, lagers, stouts and, increasingly, porters (like a stronger dark mild, or a lighter, sweeter stout). These will be served from a long row of handpumps or (even more traditionally) straight from barrels sitting on the bar or (especially at beer festivals) in racks. There will also be a wide range of "bottle-conditioned" beers ("real ale in a bottle") usually either versions of English bitters, often called "pale ales", or very strong beers from France or Belgium. There will also be several ciders and perries.
-Cider — In England this means an alcoholic drink made from apples (often much stronger than beer). These are generally brewed in the West Country (Somerset, Devon & Cornwall) but not exclusively so as Herefordshire is also another region famous for its cider. The more commercial brands of cider, served from pressurised kegs and so available at any pub, are clear, fizzy and cold , and quite strong (they are usually moderately or very sweet, so the high alcohol content may go unnoticed by a novice). A real ale pub will usually sell at least one "real", unpressurised, cider, perhaps from a barrel sitting on the bar. This may may be clear or slightly cloudy, but will be almost certainly be still, not too sweet, and very strong (7% alcohol is only average for this type of cider). The most traditional cider is called Scrumpy and is usually very strong, very cloudy and possibly (but not always) rather sour. Some commercial ciders have "scrumpy" in their name, but these are not quite the same as a gallon jug bought at the farmhouse door.
-Perry — Similar to cider but made from pears (is sometimes called pear cider, especially if imported). Farmhouse perry was always difficult to get hold of outside the West Country, but this is improving, and there will nearly always be some available at a beer festival. Keen perry-spotters might notice the sweetish "undercover" commercial versions : advertised nationwide with a "girls night out" theme and sold in wine-shaped bottles with "inexpensive white wine"-type labels bearing the legend "Perry" in small letters.
-Tea is widely drunk throughout the country, almost always hot, usually strong, usually with milk, and quite often with sugar. There are many popular brands (the most recognisable brands are PG Tips and Tetley). Tea is usually drunk at home or at work or to accompany breakfast in inexpensive restaurants (where it will usually arrive with milk in a separate jug), or with afternoon tea (scones, cream, jam, and cakes) at a "tea-room" (less-frequently seen these days, except in expensive hotels or in holiday areas). It is often the cheapest drink in coffee shops. Tea is often served in pubs and bars too.
-Coffee is as popular as tea. Instant coffee (made with hot water, hot milk, or "half and half") is much used at home and work, and in inexpensive restaurants. If it is made with just hot water, then it is "black coffee"; with added cold milk it becomes "white coffee". Percolators are little used, and machines with paper filters are less common than they once were: they often fill a restaurant with a coffee aroma, but a mediocre restaurant will often leave the made coffee heating for too long. Therefore, at dinner parties or good restaurants, the "french press" (cafetiere) has become the standard way to serve "real" ("ground") coffee: the customer can leave the coffee infusing until it as as strong as they like, then press the filter down to stop the brew and restrain the grounds from getting into the cup. The drinker then adds their own milk (hot milk is often provided; cream less often) and sugar. Seattle-style coffee bars serve the usual types of espresso-based coffees (but with a less-bewildering choice of combinations of coffee, milk, sugar, and flavourings). Decaffeinated coffee is available, but not standard. A Pub may serve coffee, but "Bar" type of pub (at a non-busy time of day) is a better option. International coffeshops such as Starbucks, Costa's and Cafe Nero are very common in large towns and cities. These often serve a wide range of coffees, teas and hot chocolate.
-Fruit juices are popular, particularly apple. Smoothies are becoming big too, and you will find many varities at places like Starbucks.