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A Little Tipple

One of the major pleasures of going on vacation abroad is taking the opportunity to eat out in a foreign environment. However, if you’re not prepared in advance, this can sometimes be a stressful experience – especially in the minefield that is ordering from a wine list.

European attitudes to alcohol differ considerably from the way things are done in the States. That’s not to say that Europe is a continent of winos – they just do things a little differently. And, predictably, each European country does things a little differently itself.

Take the issue of ‘table wine’. In the US, table wine is defined as any normal strength wine (between around nine and fourteen percent alcohol by volume). The definition includes everything from cheap, vinegary four-bucks-a-bottle stuff through to the very finest vintages – basically anything that isn’t a fortified wine or brandy. In Europe, however, it means something completely different. In France, for example, a table wine (vin de table) is usually something cheap and drinkable but not in any way special – it’s labeled as table wine (or perhaps as vin de pays) to differentiate it from the establishment’s grander vintages. The exceptions to this rule are usually to be found in Italy, where vino di tavolo is usually understood to mean the best locally-produced wine in any given area.

What, how and where people drink also varies across the continent. In the southern and Latin countries, as well as large parts of south-eastern Europe, drinking alcohol is primarily associated with meals, and most is drunk in the form of wine. Although much more drinking tends to go on within the home and the rate of alcoholism is just as high as elsewhere, you’ll see very little public drunkenness is places like France and Spain. Wine, along with beer, is often drunk in cafés. It’s also much more common to drink at lunchtime – if you’re invited to lunch in France or Italy, there will almost certainly be a bottle of wine on the table.

In northern and Eastern Europe there is much more of a culture of drinking for the sake of it, and beer and spirits are much more popular. The UK, Holland, Germany, the Czech Republic, Poland and the Scandinavian countries are major beer consumers, although wine is also drunk. If you’re used to drinking beer in the States, it’s a good idea to remember that European beer can be much stronger: original Czech Budweiser, for example, often contains twice as much alcohol as the US equivalent. In most European languages there is one word for beer: bier, birra, cerveza and so on. Bear in mind that the UK has five: beer, lager, stout, bitter and ale. Bitters and ales are the traditional British dark beers that, contrary to myth, are not served warm, but rather at a little below room temperature. ‘Lager’ is the British name for all European and American light-colored beers which are served cool: Budweiser, whether Czech or American, is a lager to the Brits. Stout is dark black stuff such as Guinness that’s popular in Ireland, but also in Scotland and northern England. In the UK the word ‘beer’ traditionally only referred to ales and bitters (so you’ll sometimes see pubs advertising ‘premium beers and lagers’). These days, however, it applies to lagers and stouts too.

In the northern European countries beer is drunk on its own, for its own sake, often in large quantities – but, as elsewhere in Europe, it’s quite acceptable to drink beer with a meal in a restaurant. Going further east, into Eastern Europe and the countries of the former USSR, vodka is the drink of choice. The circumstances under which it’s drunk are a little like beer in more western countries: traditionally with a meal as part of a social gathering, or simply on its own in shot glasses.

One major difference is the age at which it’s OK to drink. In most European countries it’s legal to buy alcohol at age sixteen, and often legal to drink it at even younger ages if it has been bought by someone else and is being consumed with a meal. This varies in some jurisdictions – for example, you have to be eighteen in the UK, though 16-year-olds can drink with a meal in a pub, and it’s possible to drink at an even younger age in your own home. In general, this doesn’t cause massive problems with teen drunkenness on any greater scale than those experienced in the US – though European under-21s are often horrified to discover that they’re not allowed to drink in US bars.

Visiting Europe is a great chance to discover a totally different culture of eating and drinking. Doing a little research before you go is a great way to make sure that your enjoyment is guaranteed.

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