11 Apr 2011

A cultural question

About a month and a half ago I had the chance, and the honour, to meet Tim Webb. It was luck, really. I had agreed with a friend to have lunch at Zlý Časy and there I ran into Evan Rail, who was waiting for other people to have lunch with at the same place.

Who is Tim Webb? Perhaps some of you are asking. He is the author of, among other books, The Good Beer Guide - Belgium. In other words, a guy who knows the Belgian beer landscape and industry like few others.

After the meal I had a chat with him. There were two things that I wanted to have confirmed about the Belgian beers and who better than Tim to look for an answer.

They are somehow related, one was something that I had long suspected: many, if not most, Belgian small brewers survive thanks to exports and/or beer tourism - which is basically the same; the other thing was something I had once heard: 80% of the beer sold in Belgium is of the Jupiler and Stella kind. Both were confirmed.

Many times I have read and heard that Belgium (and the Belgians) are the paramount of beer culture and yet, the average Belgian drinker isn't too different to the average drinker from Czech, Spain, Slovakia, Argentina, Canada, Australia, Denmark and pretty much every other country, in the sense that they all drink essentially the same thing, brands of mass produced (usually) pale lager.

This made me muse a bit on the very concept of "Beer Culture". What or who defines the beer culture of a given country? Is it the average consumer or that one with more "sophisticated", open-minded or whatever tastes, who is actually part of a minority?

To me, it's the former, the average consumer, and the beer culture of each country is defined mostly by the way in which the beverage is consumed. The tastes or the "counterculture" of that minority might penetrate the mainstream to some extent or another, but they become more than a fringe (and that is why I don't quite get all this "craft beer revolution" thing, but that's another topic).

So, if a beer culture is defined not so much by what is drunk, but by how (and where) it is drunk, this can be changing as well.

In many countries, beer consumption has been in decline for several years. Some try to associate this to the growth of alternative (or if you want, "craft") breweries. I believe that these two things are hardly related. People aren't drinking less but better, they are drinking less, period.

For example, here in the Czech Republic for the first time in history sales of bottled beer have surpassed the sales of draught beer. This is due to several factors, some are economic, others are demographic (I believe it is the latter that carry the more weight, at least in the long term), but whatever they are, the reality is that habits are changing. Does this mean that Czech beer culture (and other countries') is changing, too? To find an answer to that I'm afraid we will have to wait a few years. In the meantime, I'll go to the fridge for a bottle of Svijany, I would love to go to a hospoda for pivo, but there isn't any where I live.

Na Zdraví!

Choose your preferred Prague hotels and get free transport.

8 comments:

  1. Agree, People are getting Lazy. So cheap in Supermarkets. Do not get me wrong, a drink in, as its Merits. Say, Football, or a Bank Holiday. Love the Buzz though of Being in a Bar, with good conversation.

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  2. Max-
    I think beer culture would be defined like or aspects of culture (food, family, religion,sport) The decline in alcohol consumption (overall) in the wealthiest nations might just be related to the overall increase in age; as the "baby-boom" generation decreases their alochol intake? Love you book by the way. Cheers!-GeauxT

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  3. GeauxT, You are right on the first part, but I'm not so sure on the second part. I think the overall decline in alcohol consumption is due to factors more complex than the aging of the population. Take CZ as an example. Many peolpe have moved to the outskirts, to sprawls where they don't have a pub nearby, on top of it, now they drive to work and if you drive here you can't drink, and if that wasn't enough, most large companies have moved their head offices to business centres in the periphery of the major cities and in many cases those people who don't drive to work don't have anywhere to go for a pint after office hours. This all means that people have been almost forced to drink at home, at least during the week and few will ever drink as much at home as the would do at a pub. And to all this you should add the economy and the fact that many people have adopted what they believe is healthier lifestyles.

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  4. I will lodge a mild dissent. "Culture" indicates something public--to me, anyway. It arises out of a shared sense of things. So, if you're talking about the beer culture of a place, I think you have to be looking at the public expression, not what happens inside people's houses. (Lots happens in houses that does not became a part of the culture.)

    So, if you go to a city and walk in a pub--or ten--what do you see? Is the average person drinking Stella or Cantillon? I make the distinction because in the US, there are cities where, if you walked into any pub--even in a suburban setting--you'd find that at least half the taps are the non-Stella type (or Bud in our case). Looking around, you might see a large minority or even a majority not drinking the macro lager. Even in the city, perhaps 80% or more of the sales are that beer, but in the pubs, in the public spaces, not so.

    Conversely, in other towns, you might find the opposite--trying to track down anything BUT the macro would be a tough job.

    Two different kinds of "cultures," and yet perhaps not a huge deviation in sales.

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  5. Jeff, good point on the two different cultures. Perhaps saying that there is an "American" beer culture is the mistake here, but you will know about that better than me.

    Where I don't agree with you in the first point you make. I believe that what happens in people's houses, specially when it comes to food and drink, is part of a culture. So, if more and more people are deciding, for whatever reason, to stop going to pubs, bars, etc and drink beer at home, their relationship with the drink will change and, if enough people adopt these new habits, it will end up affecting the public side of things. So, one way or another, you will end up having a change in beer culture.

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  6. Wow, good point I hadn't thought of about the sattelites and cars. It does actually seem to be the main reason people won't have a beer (they're driving) or another beer (need to catch a train), and people driving to work spreads that to centre-dwellers too. I do think too though that another part of it is foreign mores of western responsibility are creeping in :) i.e., it's no longer really acceptable for a man to go from work right to the pub and come home plastered in the wee hours of the morning every single day. Let's hope it stays acceptable for an every now and then thing a little while longer...

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  7. Pivni,

    I think we have roughly the same sense of things but are emphasizing it in different ways.

    I hope to travel to the Czech Republic this year and have a look for myself. Plus, I gotta see how that whole pen-stealing thing pans out.

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  8. Jeff, hope you can make it, too. And if you do want to have a really good look at how things are here, there is a really nice book you could get :)

    The pen, the pen. Reminded me quite a bit to what many people do at pubs with the branded glasses :)

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