Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Last Call for Alcohol

Apologies for the hiatus that passed between the last post and the one you are reading now. On top of adjusting to my new classes, I was diagnosed with a walking pneumonia-esque illness that I've actually had since I left England and which I am still recovering from now, believe it or not. It basically amounts to a persistent cough and a boatload of fatigue, but it's not a fun addition to all the stuff I have to do and all the places I have to be. Anyway, without further ado, I will present this rather belated blog post:

With my 21st birthday having recently passed, I thought this would be an appropriate topic to write about (for my non-U.S. readers out there who may not know this, the legal drinking age in America is twenty-one, not eighteen - I had several students from China and Hong Kong ask me if this was a myth. I assured them that it was quite true and they were completely shocked).

So I've talked a bit about alcohol and pubs throughout this blog, but I've never really gone too much into depth. You can imagine that, as a twenty-year old American with no bar or alcohol-ordering experience and little to no English brand familiarity, I was a bit overwhelmed by all the choices in an English pub. After getting the run-down on the types of alcohol available I set myself these rules:

1) If it's something you recognise and can easily order in the States, don't bother ordering it here
2) Conversely, if it's something you can only really get in the UK, go for it!
3) If you're with a large group, gauge interest and get a pitcher (or several) of whatever it is you all agree on
4) If it's on draught, awesome!
5) If it's more than £3, either don't buy it or split it with someone

Two of my fellow Fulbright friends and me at the Firehouse
This essentially boiled down my UK alcohol experience to ale and cider (though I did drink a lot of the free wine provided at our dinners in London and also at the gala dinner). I avoided beer as I can't drink anything that's too heavily carbonated (the physical effect on my body is quite unpleasant - it feels like my whole tongue and throat are burning - and that's just going down. Coming back up is like my whole nasal passage way explodes in a fiery inferno. Whoops, TMI). Ale and cider are only lightly carbonated so I was able to drink them without much problem.

When I wasn't drinking in a large group, I generally ordered real ale for myself, which is naturally carbonated and served warm. I usually ordered the bitter ales on draught. Bitter ales, as the name implies, are bitter, but the kind I drank were much less bitter than Guinness or other dark stouts. I avoided Guinness because I knew I could always drink it in the States. Ales differ from brand to brand and pub to pub. No two ales I tried tasted or even looked alike, but they all were generally bitter. Ales are mostly served in pints or half pints. Unlike the U.S., a pint in England (sometimes called an imperial pint) equals about twenty ounces instead of the American sixteen. I usually ordered the half pint, since I didn't want to take a chance of ruining the next morning for myself.
Upstairs at the Firehouse, drinking cider with friends

My friends and I probably enjoyed drinking cider the most, as you can tell from our pictures. We would order pitchers of different flavoured ciders at the Old Firehouse, which included elderflower, strawberry, toffee, and cinnamon. Toffee and elderflower were the most popular. Toffee was sweet and tasted, as I may have mentioned before, how I always imagined butterbeer to taste in Harry Potter. Elderflower was milder and only slightly sweet.

"What about Pimm's?", you may be asking yourself now if you read my earlier post involving this lovely drink. The truth is, I never ordered Pimm's out at a pub. I always drank the free servings provided at social events since the stuff is damned expensive - about £8 or £9 for a pitcher (cider ran about £5 at the Old Firehouse). I already discussed Pimm's, but in case you may have forgotten, it's a summer gin-based drink with a mild fruit flavour than is often served with sliced up fruit floating on the top. I recently looked into getting Pimm's stateside and found that you can buy it in the U.S., but very few liquor stores sell it. Thankfully, I was able to find one that did on my 21st birthday and my family and my boyfriend and I enjoyed a Pimm's-filled evening.

Pimm's is generally mixed with lemon lime soda or gingerale (I prefer gingerale) and served over ice with a lemon wedge or a generous portion of mixed fruit - mostly citrus, but strawberries work too, as well as mint leaves. One and a half ounces is the recommended serving. I prefer one part Pimm's for every two parts soda. I found this to be roughly similar to what I had tasted in England and it also produced the characteristic iced tea colouring that had so confused me upon my first experience with the drink.

So that about rounds it up for the alcohol I experienced, now what about the pubs? Well, pubs were probably one of my favourite things about the UK - and not at all for the alcohol! Pubs have a relaxed atmosphere and charm that bars in the U.S. lack completely. For one thing, although many pubs definitely have a few televisions (tellys) going so patrons can catch the latest match, you are generally not assaulted on all fronts by twenty massive flatscreen televisions as is the case at many U.S. bars. The Old Firehouse had perhaps the best pub-ambiance (and pizza!) in Exeter and we frequently patronized them. The first pub I ever visited was called The Fat Pig and it was a delightful little place, painted green, with cosy wooden tables and chairs. London had a variety of pubs that we hopped through before settling on a cheap one and they each had a unique and fascinating atmosphere - one was a converted sewer and another, located at 221B Baker Street served as combination pub and Sherlock Holmes museum. The pub we settled on was friendly and well-lit. I can't imagine a better place to socialize than a pub, for both drinkers and non-drinkers alike (we had several people who simply ordered water when we went out to pubs and they still had a wonderful time - there's no pressure to order alcohol if you don't want to).
The Sherlock Holmes pub

Of course, pubs can get quite rowdy depending on the location, day of the week, time of night, and outcome of football (that's soccer for you Americans) or cricket matches (the Firehouse had a blanket ban on all football jerseys - I assume they've had quite some brawls in the past), but my friends and I had nothing but positive experiences on all our pub excursions.

Another reason I loved pubs was for their quizzes. I believe I mentioned this in a previous blog, but pub quizzes are a favorite tradition in the UK. A little under half of all pubs in the UK offer weekly pub quizzes, bringing the grand total to something to the tune of 22,445! That's a lot of quizzes! Source:

The famous Firehouse pizza!
Prizes are awarded for most questions answered correctly as well as best team name. The prize money usually comes from a pot which each team donates to before the quiz commences. In my limited experience with pub quizzes, questions were broken into several categories. A pub staff member will ask the questions out loud and the teams write down the answers on a provided answer sheet. There is usually one category that is not asked verbally and requires team members to label or identify certain things from a series of pictures or a map. All and all it's a fun way to spend an evening.

One thing I noticed during my stay was that drinking culture in the UK is quite different from that of the U.S., though please keep in mind that the following statements are generalisations and do not obviously hold true for everyone in either culture. My observations were that the English tend to drink more over an extended period of time while Americans tend to drink more (i.e. binge) over a short space of time (usually the weekend). In other words, the English are the marathon runners and the Americans are the sprinters of the drinking world. To me, drinking in England seemed to be more tightly bound with socialising with other people than in America, though it definitely plays that role here as well. As in the U.S., people in the UK are concerned about drunk driving. Possible penalties for driving whilst drunk include fines, imprisonment, rehab, and the suspension of one's license. If you are interested, more information about the drunk driving laws in the UK can be found here:

The interior of the Firehouse, first floor
It might be easy for a person who has never visited or lived in the UK, especially given my rather romantic descriptions of the Firehouse and the Fat Pig, to assume that all pubs are privately owned ventures based out of charming buildings that can trace their history back several centuries. That's not entirely true. While there are many such pubs, there are also many pubs that are based out of modern buildings or are part of a large chain or franchise. For instance, a local pub located just off campus called The Imperial was part of the Wetherspoons chain of pubs. Alas, I never got around to visiting it, so I can't really speak to what it was like, but I heard positive things, although I also heard it lacked the ambience of the Firehouse. There is, of course, nothing necessarily wrong with chains, but they do tend to go against the image of the quintessential English pub. Of course in the age of corporations, it makes good business sense to turn such a popular destination into a franchise.

So, that about wraps it up. There will be one or two more posts before I retire this blog for good. Since my school schedule is already crazy and is only going to get crazier, I will ask you to kindly bear with me as I write the remaining post(s).

See you next time!