Not just butterbeer for college Britons

The day has finally arrived when I can legally buy alcohol. No, I didn’t have a birthday, and I’m still only 20 — I’m in Europe.

The United States is just one of a handful of countries that bans people from drinking before the age of 21, a move that eliminates not only alcohol consumption but also the majority of nightlife opportunities for those who are underage.

For two decades, I’ve lived under these rules, but Britons two years my junior — like most European teens — have been able to drink beer with their burgers and toast to the new year with champagne since high school graduation.

Forget about taking AlcoholEdu or DPS breaking up parties before 1 a.m. In England, the outlook toward college-aged drinkers is so positive that universities openly condone school-sponsored events that provide alcohol to students.

Even before classes started last month, I was encouraged to attend a wine and cheese event held by City University administration, which took place at Ten Squared, their version of USC’s Traditions. Under the guise of student bonding, the gathering supplied a steady stream of complimentary wine even when the crackers ran out.

During the first days of the new term, also known as Refreshers Week, I was courted by Student Union representatives and bombarded with flyers to attend welcome back activities, such as student club nights and a pirate boat party on the Thames River, all of which advertised the sale of alcoholic beverages.

But if school officials seem unperturbed by student drinking, it is only because they are taking cues from the government. Under British law, young adults between the ages of 16 and 17 can drink wine, beer or cider as long as they are eating a meal and accompanied by an adult.

As a result of these lower age limitations, the doors to many nighttime activities are open to college students.

As in the United States, Thursdays are a popular night for the college crowd to go out on the town, but you can find student specials for clubs, pubs and bars on almost any weekday. The key, however, is to do a little research on closing times, or you might find yourself kicked to the curb before the clock strikes midnight.

Because London nightlife is expensive — entrance into a popular club can be as much as £27 (about $43) — many students still opt to drink beforehand at home with a couple of friends before going out.

The English pub is at the heart of British drinking culture. Britons spend £17 billion ($27 billion) in pubs each year, which is about £10  billion ($15.5 billion) more than they spend on going to the movies, theater and museums combined.

Most people usually stop by these establishments for light meals and cheap drinks before continuing their night’s  journey. In recent years, however, pubs have brought in live D.J.s to attract a broader clientele, transforming many into final destinations. Luckily, the multitude of pubs and their proximity to local transportation makes it easy to get around without having to worry about parking fees or DUIs.

The bravest of bar hoppers attempt the pub crawl, a local drinking game where players get off at each stop, head to the closest bar for a drink and then hop back on the tube for the next stop.

With most subways stretching across the city — the main Circle Line in central London has 27 stations — pub crawls can get ugly. But because drinks in London are made with shots about half the size of American shots, finishing the formidable quest is a little bit easier.

Unlike Los Angeles, many London clubs keep their doors open seven nights a week, with some even doubling as restaurants during the day.

Tiger Tiger, a club notorious for its Monday student nights, boasts a full menu, including sizzling sirloin steak and Tiger Prawn Skewers.

Dress codes vary but are usually more on the casual side. Some clubs even ban formal attire altogether in favor of jeans and tennis shoes.

Music staples typically include an eclectic mix of hip-hop, house, techno and ’90s music, but you can find places playing anything from indie pop to Bhangra.

Like everything else though, all good things must come to an end. So when it’s finally time to stumble on home, apologize to the cab driver and tell him you’re a little bit pissed.

If he’s a true Brit, he’ll understand.