Cognitive taste, Fearless Critic, Food, Wine

Do you think the Spanish and Italians are drinking wine? They’re really drinking beer

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).

cruzcampoIn 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?


  1. Based on my time in Seville, I agree with most of what you said. A couple thoughts:

    * Cañas are small, but I don’t think I’d say they’re *tiny*. One nice thing they do at Spanish bars nearly 100% of the time is use the proper type of glass for the proper type of beer. Most american bars serve beers in standard pint glasses no matter what.

    * How can you mention popular tapas dishes, include the jamon, but forget the cheese! I don’t think we ever ordered a plate of jamon without a plate of awesome assorted cheeses on the side.

    Nits aside, eating tapas and drinking a cruzcampo at sunset along the Guadalquivir is one of the best culinary experiences of my life.

  2. Luis Ruano

    I think there’s something you are missed before making all your assumptions. First of all let me say I’m a wine lover, and a beer lover. I’m a 30 years old doctor, from Spain, and I’ve lived also in Portugal and Italy.
    It’s true what you say that the young urban bars and clubs in southern Europe always serve beer, and, until a few years ago, only a few served wine.
    But you forget that the older, blue-collar generation has it’s own meeting places, in the villages and suburban areas. Every evening they gather after work, in small places, only men. And guess what they drink? Wine.
    Not particularly good wine, but cheap and in very large quantities.
    Beer is a recent (50 years or so) introduction to the southern Europe drinking habits. It only managed to be popular when it started to be served on the tap, fresh, perfect for the hot weather.
    The bad and cheap wine served all over these small, old, dirty places gave drinking wine a real bad name. That and the cold beer turned one or two of the post-war generations pro-beer, instead of pro-wine. It’s them you see in restaurants, drinking cañas, eating tapas.
    But don’t fool yourself, there is a very strong wine culture in southern Europe, much stronger than the recent beer culture.
    And this culture is just making a come back with the young and trendy under-30 generation, who finally got to drink some real good (but still cheap) wine when going out at night, not in wine bars, but just everywhere.
    And we don’t want to go back to our really bad Spanish and Italian beers!
    I love to go tho Belgium and Czech Republic and drink really good small brewery made tap beer. It’s almost as good as wine can get. But I can’t really find it in my country! So, what should I drink? You know the answer 🙂

  3. On absolute terms the USA is drinking more and Europeans less, but how does comparison look on a per capita basis?

  4. Jaun Millalonco

    Excellent YouTube post ! thanks for sharing. I’ll be adding your blog to my reader.

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