The wine cultures of Spain and Italy are idealized. But much of the time, in real-life situations, their populations—whether it’s old men guzzling at midday or twentysomethings at night—actually favor beer.
Wine is still the thing to accompany a family dinner or elaborate restaurant meal in southern Europe, which is why their per-capita wine consumption remains higher than ours. But because Americans increasingly tend to order wine at bars, and Europeans generally don’t, this gap is closing rapidly. The US now beats Italy in total wine consumption.
In Italy, amongst young professionals, a far more popular nighttime endeavor than going to the sort of upmarket (or so-called “gastronomic”) restaurant where you’d order wine is getting a big group together at a pizzeria. And contrary to US stereotypes, the Italians actually almost never drink wine with pizza—it’s strictly beer (or Coca-Cola).
In most of Spain, it’s the cervecería—not the wine bar—that defines the nighttime casual-eating-with-groups culture, and there, draft beer (“caña,” typically poured in tiny glasses) is beautifully paired with what’s often eaten: raciones of fatty jamón iberico and sweet pan con tomate; marinated fish, garlicky shellfish, and vinegary vegetables; boiled octopus drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with paprika; or pinxtos/canapés (bites of food served on slices of baguette), which often come free with each round of drinks.
When Spanish or Italian beer comes fresh from the tap, its elegant taste profile can yield extraordinary pleasure. Mahou, Nastro Azzurro, Estrella Damm, Forst, and Cruzcampo may not be dissimilar from each other, but they’re all models of balance, clean, bright, and refreshingly bitter. They’re usually poured properly—allowing the head to collect into something creamy and dense—and, like dry Basque sidra, they’re well suited to the occasion, which is precisely what seems to have been lost in translation in America’s rapid adoption of wine as a cocktail.
Even at Spain’s expensive restaurants, beer is often offered as an apéritif—an alternative to dry Manzanilla or Oloroso sherry, before you start with the wine—something I’ve rarely seen elsewhere.
Because Spanish and Italian beer doesn’t have the sort of hopped-up, boozed-out complexity that caters to critics—it’s not trying to be Belgian or Oregonian—you won’t see them much at, say, New York’s beer bars, and there’s a popular misconception that these countries just don’t do beer well. (That misconception is backed up by the fact that when you order, say, Peroni by the bottle at a bar in the US, it almost always turns out to be something skunky and/or honeyed and legitimately disgusting. Don’t ever order Italian beer when it’s imported in bottles. But that’s an article for another day.)
Yes, the wine bar concept is spreading through southern Europe, and that might be applying a gentle upward pressure on wine consumption amongst the trendsters there.
But the wine bar is still really an American thing, and it hasn’t really yet permeated mainstream yuppie culture anywhere across the Atlantic. Generally speaking, in Europe, the words “wine bar” signal a New York fetish nightclub, or a restaurant with terrible pan-Asian cuisine and an overpriced list of Champagne magnums and Grey Goose bottle service. These places typically serve crappy imported beer, and often don’t even run a tap—the ultimate fuck you to the country’s authentic beer culture.
Why must hot bodies and a well-conceived drink program so rarely overlap?