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Beer Laws

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Here's a run down of some international drinking laws.


You would assume that being a small island, Britain would have simple laws regulating the sale of alcoholic beverages. However, Britain's beer laws are generally thought to be archaic.

The main bone of contention among drinkers seems to be opening hours. You can only buy alcohol between certain times of the day. The laws were established because, during World War II the government was worried about the workers not turning up to make bombs because they were hungover, or worse, were drunk. So they brought in opening hours. Landlords were only able to open their establishments from 11am, after the workers were hard at work, until 2pm, just after lunch. Then they could reopen at 5pm, just before the factories closed but had to shut at 11pm, so everyone could go home and get a good night's sleep and be bright-eyed for work the next morning. These restrictions applied from Monday to Saturday, but people didn't work on Sundays so the laws were slightly different: on Sundays pub landlords had to shut at 10.30pm. Nobody said it made sense, but they were only temporary laws while the war was on.

After the war, however, the British government was too busy rebuilding a country and being nice to the neighbours, and it seemed they forgot about taking the laws off the books. In this enlightened 24-hour-a-day society of ours, the law makers realised that the beer laws needed changing, so they sat down, had a think and came up with the idea of all day opening. Consequently publicans could open their doors at 11am, after people had gone to work, and stay open until 11pm, so the workers could sleep off their inebriation. Pressure from the Church meant that they still had to shut on Sunday afternoons though. It was said at the time that not everybody worked nine-to-five and that these changes didn't really alter anything. After a lot of people lobbied and complained to the government they changed the laws again, and brought in all-day opening on Sundays.

Before All-Day Opening

What of the people in the era before all day opening began, who didn't have to work, could they drink all day? Yes they could, as long as they were rich enough to be able to join a private members' club. These establishments had a whole set of rules of their own, including their own opening hours. Other people, who couldn't afford to join a private members' club soon found a loophole among the red tape - market licensing. While the war was on, markets weren't really in full swing, so the officials missed an old law stating that if a public house was within a certain distance from a place given over solely to market trade then it had to open to offer refreshments for the market traders who may have travelled for many hours to get to market. Seeing as they missed it, they forgot to repeal it so it still stands. A pub next to a market can open at 5.30am for market traders. This can be quite handy for very early morning workers such as the porters and butchers of Smithfield meat market in London. They can go for a quick pint after work when they finish work late at, say, 7am.

Age Limits

Not everyone can drink beer legally in the UK - there's a minimum age limit as to when you can start buying alcohol. But this limit isn't clear cut.

  • If you're in a restaurant you can have a glass with a meal at the age of 14.

  • At 16 you can drink shandy1 in pubs.

  • At 18 you can start buying alcohol legally in pubs.

Pressure groups say that there is a big problem with underage drinking in England. What they fail to mention is that pubs are not the cause of the problem, but off-licenses2 are because the sales staff have no come-back for the actions of their customers. However, pub licensees do.

In early 1998, a pub regular brought his son in for a birthday drink, the son then decided to match his father's drinking. Naturally he couldn't and started to look a bit ill. The staff propped him up on a seat in the corner and he promptly fell asleep. A while later when the father decided to go home, he tried to wake his son up and couldn't. He had died of alcohol poisoning. A tragic story and a senseless waste of a young life. What was even more senseless, though, was that the family of the boy took the staff of the pub to court for manslaughter. Their argument was that the staff served the drinks and were therefore responsible for the boy's death. The staff argued that the father kept ordering the drinks for his son and he should have stopped his own son drinking. The family won the case because any member of bar staff in England is responsible for a customer in their pub. It's actually illegal to serve beer, or indeed any alcohol, to someone that you think might be drunk.

The last main law relating to beer in Britain is what it's served in. All glasses in a pub have to be government stamped. This means that they have a little etching on the side saying that they do actually hold the amount they say they do to make sure that you don't get a short measure. However, a lot of beer is served with a frothy head, about a centimetre high, and that's a good slurp of beer.

The Future

A recent poll carried out in early 2000, showed that almost two-thirds of the country were against the extension of pub hours in residential areas and just under 50% thought that bars in the city should still close at 11pm. Only 12% of pollsters favour an extra hour's drinking. Old habits die hard.


Scotland is a little more relaxed than the rest of Britain and has a slightly laid-back view of the restrictions on drinking. Some pubs in Glasgow for instance can remain open to 1am. The anti-drinking groups didn't like this idea but the police did, and there were more police and drinkers than there were anti-drinkers.

Interestingly, Scotland is reputed to have one of the highest concentrations of alcoholics anywhere, but since the introduction of more liberal opening hours, the amount of alcohol-related crime has reduced dramatically. The age limits in Scotland are still the same as the rest of Britain, but landlords are more likely to turn a blind eye to age. Their view seems to be, if you act old enough, you are old enough. They have also been known to refuse to serve people legally old enough to drink on the grounds that they don't act responsibly enough.


There are a lot of pubs in Ireland. So many in fact, that there are no more pub licences available and there hasn't been for quite some time now. But of course, there are loopholes:

  • Buy another pub and renovate it or close it down and free-up a licence so that you can build one somewhere else.

  • Build a hotel. A hotel, by definition, has a bar in it and so you can just open it up to the public.

In Ireland you have to be 18 to drink legally, so officially one shouldn't be allowed near it until after that. If you have a beard and are tall (male) or are very cute and flirty (female) most bouncers won't notice you or won't care. Because of this, most pubs are now over 21s or over 23s only so that they can legally turn you away if they suspect that you are underage and just have a fake ID.

To be in a pub in the first place, you have to be 16, unless accompanied by your parents, and 18 to stay there after 8 - 9pm. But most pubs won't care if there are kids there with their parents all night - in fact it's part of life in most rural areas.

To work in a licensed premises, you have to be 16 for lounge work and 18 for bar work, but again, in the typical Irish way, these laws are usually relaxed quite a lot if it suits people.

Opening Hours

Pubs can legally serve until 11.30pm (it used to be 11pm during the winter, but that was changed in the last couple of years) with a drinking up time of 1/2 hour.

At weekends or on special occasions they can apply for a late licence to serve until 1.30am with drinking-up of 1/2 hour again. In order to have a late licence, you must fulfil a few legal criteria - the pub must serve a meal, have music (live or DJ) or be part of a hotel.

Of course, in rural areas, it's not uncommon for pubs to stay open until 4 or 5 in the morning, or possibly all night until the owner wants to get some rest. But in cities, the opening hours are usually strictly followed.


The legal drinking age in Australia is 18.

The logic is if you're old enough to vote, your old enough to drown you're sorrows at the result.

North America

Due to the way laws work in North America, particularly in the United States, those related to beer and indeed other forms of alcohol, vary from state to state. The general rule of thumb is that if you're 21 you can buy beer. You're able to buy a gun at 18 and drive at 15 but you're not allowed any beer until you reach 21.

Getting hold of the stuff is a different matter altogether. The act of purchasing beer seems to be surrounded by so many unusual and, at first glance, strange laws that people will probably give up and have a cup of coffee instead.

It's not just the age limit, there are laws that affect almost every aspect of buying beer. In some Provinces of Canada, such as Newfoundland and New Brunswick, you can't buy beer to take home in quantities less than a six-pack. In a lot of southern American states, beer bottles can only be in sizes of 8, 12, 16, or 32oz. This restriction can really mess up imports of bottles from countries where it is still measured in Imperial pints (such as the UK). Another law that may confuse tourists was found in Vermont where you cannot have two glasses of beer in front of you at the same time. Not really a problem you might think, but the beer is served so cold that you might want your second glass to warm up slightly while you drink your first. Most bar staff are very obliging and will pour the second drink and let it sit for a while before selling it to you.


This is a country that is known for its liberal laws - laid-back and sensible.

Not quite simple enough, though. You can buy beer there from the age of 16. But you can't touch spirits until you are 18. They seem to want to break you in easily, which begs the question, 'Why do they legalise sex at 14, then?'

1A shandy is most commonly beer mixed with lemonade.2These are shops in England that sell alcohol on a take-away basis.

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