Topic of the Week

Topic of the Week #18

Alcohols in the EU

The European Union is the region of the world where alcohol consumption is highest. An adult over 15 drinks on average nearly three drinks per day! Surprised? This week, we will be discussing alcohol consumption in the EU, and although it is a priority issue in public health, we will rather focus on the cultural dimension of alcohol: who drinks what? What are some of the traditions across Europe? Read on to learn more!

Worth knowing

Who drinks what

Traditionally, it is said that Europe is divided into three so called belts of alcohol – countries that drink spirits (predominantly Central-Eastern Europe and Northern Europe), beer (Central Europe and partly Western) and wine (Southern and Western Europe). This is of course a stereotypical portrayal, as the real alcohol consumption can differ significantly.

While the French are said to be mostly wine drinkers, they are way behind the Italians in terms of wine consumption. Moreover, Germany (which is claimed to be the centre of beer) is way behind Poland and Spain in term of beer drinking. On top of that, beer is generally the most popular drink in Europe, followed by wine, champagne (and sparkling wines) and vodka.

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EU policies

Not surprisingly, the EU does not really regulate the alcohol production or consumption in Europe. It mostly focuses on features concerning the single market – exit duties, transport and sale. There are no limits on what private persons can buy and take with them when they travel between EU countries, as long as the products purchased are for personal use and not for resale. Some limits may be introduced by Member States and may apply while travelling with certain means of transport, i.e. airlines.

Alcohol raises attention at the EU level in relation to health protection. However, there is no comprehensive policy about the reduction in alcohol consumption at the EU level.

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Regional alcohols

  • Ouzo: Ouzo is an anise-flavored spirit produced in Greece and  Cyprus. It is usually consumed ice cold and mixed with water. Often people Ouzo is served together with meze (appetizers) such as cheese, cucumbers and olives. The origins of Ouzo are disputed, with some people claiming that its name derives from “uso massalia”, Italian for “to be used in Marseille”. This phrase is said to have been stamped on crates containing fine silkworm cocoons exported from Thessaly to France. Over time the two words became synonymous with superior quality so that one day, when a government official visited the area and sampled the locally produced (anise-flavored) alcohol, he exclaimed “This is uso Massalia!”. The rest is history. Ouzo is now recognized by the EU with a Protected Designation of Origin: only distilleries in Greece and Cyprus can lawfully call their products Ouzo.
  • Hungarian “Pálinka”: a traditional fruit spirit fermented exclusively from fruit, without additional ingredients, grown, distilled and bottled in Hungary with an alcohol by volume of at least 37.5%, not exceeding 86%. According to commonly recited interpretation of a historical legend, the origins of pálinka are traced to a 14th century medicinal spirit imbibed by Queen Erzsébet of the Kingdom of Hungary (however this apocryphal claim is mentioned in connection with Johannes Praevotius’ Opera medica [1656], which was published three centuries later). Arising from this legend, pálinka is traditionally imbibed in order to wish good health. Consequently, by custom, if one receives an invitation to a Hungarian home, the host is to offer the guest pálinka. Various variations of Hungarian Pálinka exist, depending on the type of fruit it is distilled from and the geographical location of origin. The European Union recognises the following pálinka varieties: Békési plum, Gönci peach, Kecskeméti peach, Szabolcsi apple and Szatmári plum pálinka. (as per Regulation (EC) No 110/2008). Pro tip: say “egészségedre” when drinking – it literally means “to your wholeness” – i.e to good health.
  • Nalewka – a special Polish type of vodka-based spirit that is present especially in the countryside. It is made by infusing various types of alcohols and herbs or fruits together. It is always very colourful and tasty, quite often can be sweet (if made with plums, berries or cherries). Its homemade nature is responsible for the variety – nalewka can be a body-killing moonshine or ane of the best spirits you will ever try. It can be as strong as 75%, however most of the time it will have around 40-45%.
  • German beer: Not surprisingly, Germany is quite fond of its wide selection of beers. However, what might strive one with surprise are the laws concerning the production of beer. In 1516, in Bavaria, the so-called “Reinheitsgebot” (German Beer Purity Law) was passed that heavily limited the ingredients to be used, resulting in wide selection of lager beers. Even to this very day many German beers have this label on their beer bottle.
  • A worth-knowing Austrian alcohol-tradition is the so-called “Pfiff”, that you can find at “Trzesniewski” in Vienna. It describes a very small beer – a size that is only rarely served – that is a necessary add-on to the delicious sandwiches. The reason why this tradition is so special is because the whole city meets here: be it after a business meeting, after school or during a shopping spree – you come here for a “Pfiff”.
  •  France is famous for its wine and champagne, but not so much for its spirits, yet it has some worth-trying ones! A good exemple is Calvados, an apple brandy produced in Normandy. It is involved in a Normand tradition called “le trou Normand”: it consists in drinking a small glass of Calvados between the dishes during a long and heavy meal to digest better and eat more!

Tell us about your tradition!

Speakers’ Corner

Which type of alcohol do you prefer?

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