The geo-alcohol belts of Europe

The European Alcohol belts.

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There are roughly three alcohol belts in Europe.

The vodka belt includes much of the former Soviet states, including parts of Eastern Europe, the Baltic states, and a number of Nordic states.

The beer belt counts the much of western Europe, including the beer-loving Benelux, UK, Germany and a number of central-European states.

And going down south is the wine belt, where states bordering on the Mediterranean such as France, Italy, Spain, and Greece prefer to sip their drinks with food.

According to the Economist world figures, the following countries topped the yearly alcohol consumption table in 2008.  I suspect Germany and Czech’s high positions is attributed to their heavy beer-drinking habits, which are always consumed in higher quantities than wines and spirits.

1. Germany
2. Czech Republic
3. Finland
4. Denmark
5. Russia
6. Austria
7. Venezuela
8. Poland
9. Slovakia
10. Netherlands

But available statistics for binge drinking looks quite different than those of regular drinking.

In Europe, Denmark outpaces most of its neighbours in excessive drunkenness.  Off the continent, UK is a big binger.  And unsurprisingly, Russia’s infamous drinking problem also lands it on the list.

Russian’s vodka obsession is tightly linked to its culture, its relative poverty, and its frigid cold.

To understand the grip vodka has on Russian culture, one need only to look at its name: vodka is a diminutive form of the word voda — Russian for water. The average Russian drinks 4.75 gal. (18 L) of pure alcohol a year, mostly in the form of vodka. Distilled from grains or potatoes, it has no real taste. It is not sipped; it is not savored. In fact, there’s no real reason to drink it except to get drunk. With an alcohol content of between 40% and 55% (80-110 proof), vodka is consumed as a shot, usually in the afternoon or evening, followed by a salty snack: fish, pickles, jellied meat or sauerkraut. After the food comes another shot. Then more food. Shot, food, shot, food — and so on until the Russian winter seems a little less cold.

Having one of the lowest levels of consumption in Europe for much of the 20th century, Britain’s turn towards binge drinking is less clear. A closer look at its consumption habits shows the numbers creeping up in recent decades, and could be faulted on the breakdown of previous socio-economic structures, as well as policy changes affecting cost and access, versus any intrinsic cultural tendencies towards binging.

In 1576, the poet and courtly aspirant George Gascoigne,who had fought in the Netherlands,wrote a pamphlet describing drunkenness as ‘a monstrous plant, lately crept into the pleasant orchards of England’. For Gascoigne, drunkenness was not an indigenous trait but the result of recent contact with heavy drinking north Europeans.

The old idea of convivial beer-drinking – not anarchic public drunkenness – as the defining feature of British drinking culture was central to the brewers’ promotional strategy in the 1930s.

In 1961, a century after Gladstone’s attempt to bring wine to the people, the law was changed allowing grocers to sell alcohol all day. A key consequence of this was that the new supermarkets were able to retail alcoholic drinks in the same manner as other consumable commodities.

The Nordic case, however, is something else.  Episodic drunkenness seems embedded in the Nordic culture, so much so that most Scandinavian states have outrageously high alcohol taxes to discourage binge-drinking.  In a country where alcohol is the most common cause of death among working-aged adults, Finland raised its alcohol taxes twice in the 2008-2009 period.

The Finnish have little cultural basis for moderation when it comes to drinking, so getting drunk becomes the end goal.

[W]hen Finns drink, they drink heavily. The important thing is that I believe that they are not only drinking away their cultural neurosis; they actually value the cathartic effect of Dionysian drinking. This leads to a situation where, as I have put it, you can’t single out the alcoholics at our parties because everyone is as dead-drunk as alcoholics. This leads to a cultural tradition where drunkenness is positively valued among rather large segments of the population. Therefore, there exists no cultural consensus regarding the positive effects of moderation.

Does it all go back to the tribal and expeditionary aspects of ancient Viking culture, where drinking and drunkenness accompanied tales of plunder and colonization?

They were bound together like brothers, and celebrated their ties in the great hall with fraternal drinking bouts. Women brought them [in] vessels made from polished cow horns. . . ale, mead, or rare wine imported from the south. These horns could not be set down, so they had to be drained dry or passed around, until everyone was intoxicated. Drunkenness was considered holy. It made the men feel brave and hearty. . . . [However] [T]hose who drank too much might boast outrageously. . . . It was all meant in sport, but . . . often led to blows.

Or does it have more to do the rigidity of social norms in most Scandinavian societies, where orderliness and structures are enforced and scrutinized in everyday life?  Perhaps the lack of spontaneity and social “repression” builds up, and find an outlet only during off-hours and weekend, through frequent bouts of binge drinking.Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

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