I don’t want you to be another lost and confused foreigner when you come to Spain, so let me explain here and now: Spaniards don’t usually ask for a “cerveza.” They specify what size or type when ordering. Here are the most common options:
A standard glass bottle of beer, usually 12 ounces but sometimes smaller.
In general, the smallest size of draft beer a bar sells. Usually a small glass or wine glass with a little less than a half pint of beer.
Technically, double the size of caña, but this isn’t always the case. Often a doble will come in the same glass as a copa.
A glass or “cup” of draft beer, bigger than a caña but could be smaller than a tubo or the same size as a jarra. This is one of the more ambiguous sizes you can order, but I use it a lot because it rolls off the tongue: “¡Una copa, por fa!”
Usually a mug or “jar” of draft beer, often pint size or the largest portion of beer sold (besides a pitcher, which can be called a jarra). Confused yet?
A standard pint of draft beer. Probably the best thing to order if you really want to be sure what you are going to get, although I give you no guarantees!
A tall, thin glass about 10 ounces in volume. You don’t hear about this size too often, but you occasionally see it on menus.
As a result of Spain’s complicated and multicultural history, weights and measures have evolved in an interesting and inconsistent way, leading to interesting and inconsistent terminology. Aside from the pint, these beer terms are not standards. You never really know exactly what size you’ll get without looking around the bar or just ordering one. You wouldn’t want to use these measurements for cooking paella for your friends on a leisurely Spanish Sunday, because you might end up with some really gross, soggy rice.
While all this terminology might seem unnecessary and annoying, there are some great things about Spanish drinking culture that quickly make up for any difficulties you may have when ordering a drink. Firstly, many bars are open until the wee hours of the morning. In the larger cities in Spain, people are invariably up all night, especially on the weekends.
When the weekend hits, you can also rest assured that the drinks will be flowing. Seemingly all of Madrid’s inhabitants are out and about, leisurely drinking apertivos, imbibing in preparation for the weekend’s football matches, slowly eating through endless tapas, and drinking and drinking all the while. Furthermore, beer is quite cheap in Spain, especially when you compare the price of a brew to what you will pay in other popular Western European hubs. Madrid is not like London, where the budget traveler has to avoid eating all day just to be able to afford a few pints at a pub in the evening.
Until last year when it was outlawed in Madrid, a popular way to drink was the botellón, a parade of people drinking and partying on the streets. While this popular, well-loved street party tradition has not been completely halted by the new law, in-house beer prices have fallen since the law went into place, to encourage rambunctious partiers to drink inside bars and not on the streets.